A gathering in Venice

Cardinal Angelo Scola (CNS photo/Todd Plitt)

Cardinal Angelo Scola (CNS photo/Todd Plitt)

VENICE, Italy — I was pleasantly surprised the other day to find that Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice was following me on Twitter. I began using Twitter a year and a half ago, mainly to stay in touch with friends and family, so I’m hoping the cardinal won’t be disappointed to discover more about what I’m cooking for dinner than what’s happening at the Vatican. (I sent him the link to our more newsy CNS Twitter account, http://twitter.com/CatholicNewsSvc.)

My surprise was also at the fact that Cardinal Scola was Twittering at all. In many ways, he strikes me as one of the least likely Twitterers in the Catholic hierarchy. He has a speaking and writing style that seems more suited to scholarly treatises than Tweets. For him, 140 characters is barely a running start.

I profiled Cardinal Scola in 2005, and made several trips to Venice to see him in action. He combines a direct pastoral style with intellectual vigor, and that’s made him popular in his own patriarchate. At that time, he had just founded Oasis, a foundation and a magazine aimed at exploring religious and cultural issues — especially in places where Christians and Muslims interact.

Oasis hosted a two-day conference this week, and I made the trip to Venice after I saw the line-up of speakers and participants: some of the world’s top scholars on Islam and Christianity, along with several bishops who work on the front lines of Christian-Muslim relations.

The encounter focused on how “tradition” has emerged as a crucial concept in interreligious relations, in particular the balancing of the traditions of the religious majority and religious minorities. To understand the relevance of the topic, one only has to look at today’s newspaper and read about French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s rejection of the burka and the face veil as a sign of women’s subservience, and not a sign of religion.

Of course, these kinds of gatherings are great places to get soundings on other issues. I found participants in Venice fairly eager to talk about President Barack Obama’s recent speech in Cairo, which they viewed cautiously but positively.

They were less eager to talk about Iran. There was strong sentiment in support of those working for change in Iran, at least among the Catholic prelates I spoke with. But even those who have lived and worked in Iran were hesitant to make on-the-record statements, lest the church be seen as a political actor in the current crisis. One thing most agreed on was that the public opposition to the ruling clerics was unprecedented, and that this was a good thing.

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