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Cardinal Ravasi’s shout-out to a rapper illustrates the Pope’s growing Jewish problem…

ROME – If, as the saying goes, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, the converse is also true: Sometimes it’s worse to be unlucky than mischievous. At least when you know you’re playing with fire, it’s no big surprise if you get burned. When you don’t even know a flame is lit, the pain can be all the more intense.

The thought comes to mind in light of a minor contretemps this week involving a Vatican cardinal, and Italian rapper, and Pope Francis’s growing Jewish problem.

The cardinal in question is 81-year-old Gianfranco Ravasi, former president of the Vatican’s erstwhile Pontifical Council for Culture, and for more than two decades now one of the most active minds within the College of Cardinals. A Biblical scholar by training and the former prefect of the Ambrosian Library in Milan, Ravasi is legendary for the breadth of his intellectual interests, ranging from the classics of antiquity to the popular fiction of today.

Thus it was that last Sunday night, Ravasi, in tandem with most of the rest of Italy, was glued to his television watching the finale of Sanremo, the country’s largest annual music festival. Near midnight, he tweeted out a few lines from the song that an Italian-born rapper of Tunisian origins named Ghali had performed, which was good enough to earn fourth place in the competition.

The lyrics quoted by Ravasi were: “We’re all zombies with phones in our hands/dreams that are lost at sea … But what’s your house? What’s my house? From heaven it’s the same, I swear.”

It’s a reflection on how post-modern technologies often put people to sleep, especially youth, dulling them to the fact that we all share a common home – on the face of it, a seemingly sweet sentiment to which a Catholic pastor might well be attracted.

What Ravasi may not have realized in the moment, however, is that after the 30-year-old rapper finished his performance and was still standing on stage, he used the spotlight to deliver a brief but explosive political statement: “Stop the genocide,” he said, referring to the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Those three words stirred an immediate controversy, with the Israeli Ambassador to Italy, Alon Bar, lodging an immediate protest to the effect that the stage at Sanremo had been used to “spread hate and provocations in a superficial and irresponsible way.”

Moments later, the director of the Italian national broadcaster RAI told the host of the network’s main Sunday night talk show, Domenica In, to read a statement from him live expressing his “deeply felt and convinced solidarity with the People of Israel and the Jewish community.”

In that context, the discovery Monday morning by the Italian media that Ravasi had given Ghali a shout-out, without distancing himself from the controversy over the rapper’s sloganeering, was spun as an indirect endorsement.

That may well not have been at all what Ravasi had in mind, though he arguably should have been more sensitive to the optics – especially since he got in hot water in November when he said in an TV interview that Israel’s policy in Gaza reflected the “eye for an eye” logic of the Old Testament, citing Lamech, a descendant of Cain, who boasted of taking revenge “seventy-seven times.”

Understandably, many Jewish commentators objected that Ravasi was recycling old stereotypes about Judaism as harsh and unforgiving, while Christianity is merciful and kind. Moreover, Ravasi’s now had 48 hours to distance himself from Ghali’s politics, and so far he hasn’t spoken up.

Though admittedly minor, the Ravasi/Ghali kerfuffle is unfolding at a moment in which signs of a crisis in Jewish/Catholic relations are mounting.

Yesterday on the margins of a ceremony marking the 95th anniversary of the Lateran Pacts, which regularized the relationship between the Holy See and the new Republic of Italy in 1929, Cardinal Pietro Parolin flatly told reporters that it’s time for Israel to change course in Gaza.

Requests for Israel to stop the bloodshed, Parolin said, have become “a general voice, that it can’t go on like this and other paths have to be found to resolve the problem of Gaza, the problem of Palestine.”

Parolin repeated the Vatican’s “sharp and unqualified condemnation” of the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, as well as every form of anti-Semitism, but nonetheless doubled down on his criticism of Israeli policy.

“Israel’s right of self-defense, which has been invoked to justify this operation, must be proportional, and with 30,000 dead it certainly isn’t,” he said, citing the unconfirmed statistics provided by the Gaza Health Ministry.

Such sentiments, which were echoed Tuesday by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, brought another rebuke from Bar, who said that right now is “when we see who’s on our side, who’s truly committed to the security of Israel, beyond simply using slogans when things are calm.”

Recent days have also brought a Feb. 9 essay in the prestigious journal Communio from Gregor Maria Hoff, a liberal German theologian who teaches at the University of Salzburg in Austria. A supporter both of Germany’s “synodal path” and Francis’s own Synod of Bishops on Synodality, under virtually any other circumstance Hoff would profile as a reliable defender of the pope.

Hoff is also, however, deeply committed to the Jewish-Catholic relationship, and he was bitterly critical of Francis’s approach, especially the pope’s recent Feb. 3 letter to the Jews of Israel. In it, Hoff charged, the pontiff failed to “call a spade a spade,” clearly distinguishing between Hamas terrorism and Israeli self-defense.

Hoff openly questioned the sincerity of Francis’s commitment to a “special relationship” with Judaism, saying that if it doesn’t mean “trustworthy loyalty in an emergency” than it’s just empty rhetoric. Instead of an almost 1,000-word letter, Hoff suggested, what Jews really wanted to hear could be expressed in one brief sentence: “Whoever attacks Jews, also attacks us!”

The bottom line is that among Israelis and Jews, as well as Catholics most invested in relations with Judaism, there’s a growing perception that when the chips are down, Pope Francis and his Vatican team simply don’t have their backs. Whether that impression is fair isn’t the point – it’s real, and it’s getting worse.

In such a context, even an innocent reference to a pop song can metastasize into something cancerous – and, once that’s happened, the disease can spread awfully quickly.

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Peace : a lesson from greek mythology.