An Italian cardinal close to Benedict XVI is emerging as the front-runner in early voting to elect a new Pope, Vatican observers say.
After a week of deliberations, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan, is coming to the fore and could win the support of as many as 40 out of the 77 needed to be elected Pope in the first round of voting in the conclave, which begins Tuesday.
For a number of years, Scola has been the bookies’ favorite, but in recent months other cardinals have usurped his pole position on lists of “papabili,” or leading contenders for the papacy. Now he appears to be making a late resurgence, backed by American cardinals and a wide number of Europeans.
So who is he, and what really are his chances? A man of humble roots – his father was a truck driver, his mother a homemaker – Angelo Scola was born in Malgrate, a village close to Milan, in 1941 and grew up in a small apartment on a farm on the edge of some woods. He has been a priest for more than 42 years, holds doctorates in theology and philosophy, and was actively involved in “Communion and Liberation” – a lay movement aimed at evangelization.
After teaching in various academic institutions, he was consecrated a bishop in 1991, then served as rector of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, and headed the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in 1995.
But most crucially, Scola went on to lead two major Sees in Italy, often seen as stepping stones to the papacy. In 2002, John Paul II appointed him Patriarch of Venice, where he also served as head of the bishops in the region. Nine years later, Benedict XVI appointed him Archbishop of Milan – Italy’s largest and arguably most prestigious archdiocese.
Benedict respects and admires Scola and the two have been close friends for many years: Both are of the same mind in terms of theology, and come out of the “Communio” theological school co-founded by Joseph Ratzinger soon after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Both admire the 20th century theologians Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar – proponents of Church reform but in continuity with tradition.
Scola’s influence in the previous pontificate was already felt: It was he, insiders say, who gave Benedict XVI the idea to create a new Vatican department geared toward the “New Evangelization” – an effort to re-evangelize once-Christian but increasingly secular Western societies. Moreover, Benedict has closely confided in Scola: The last conversation he had as Pope was reputedly a lengthy telephone call with the Italian cardinal shortly before he left the Vatican on Feb. 28.
On appointing him Archbishop of Milan, Benedict XVI soon after bestowed the pallium (an important vestment symbolizing the jurisdiction given to a bishop by the Holy See) on him at a separate private ceremony – a move some read as the “anointing of a successor.”
In 2005, the German pontiff had already shown his esteem for Scola by appointing him the head of synod on the Eucharist; such an appointment is often taken to mean that the Pope sees a particular cardinal as going places and, invariably, as a potential successor.
But will the other cardinals look upon him in a similar fashion? The Italian cardinal’s closeness to the Communion and Liberation (CL) movement may work against him. The group, which has a popular following in Italy and is well regarded for its educational outreach, has also been tarnished by associations with corrupt Italian politicians.
But Scola has sought to distance himself from the movement and was applauded for not bringing in friends from it to serve in Milan’s curia, instead filling positions also with members of Catholic Action, another Church movement — but one which has had public disputes with CL.
Indeed, the way he has handled management of the diocesan curia is proof he can govern, his supporters say – a key skill cardinals are said to be looking for in the next Pope. Also, being an Italian but outside the Roman Curia, Scola is believed to be in an ideal position to reform it of malpractice and corruption. However, apart from his Oasis initiative, many say his record in Venice was nondescript.
Scola has long been concerned with the nature and mission of the Church in the world. His world view comes across as more positive and optimistic than those of his predecessor: He is skeptical of descriptions of a “Church in crisis,” and he doesn’t like the expression “the crisis of the family.”
Rather, he believes there still is a big zest for family life and “we are just living through the period of big choices.” The problem, according to Scola, is not that today’s men and women don’t consider families important, but they don’t know how to preserve them.
Scola’s ability to remain in the top ranks of leading papal candidates is a testament to his suitability. But although he has the common touch and is generally good with the media, he is not the best communicator (his addresses can be long-winded and overly intellectual), his English is faltering, and at 71, he may be considered too old. It’s also said an insufficient number of Italian cardinals – the largest national block – are likely to rally around him.
If an alternative candidate emerges, offering a more dynamic possibility to that of continuity with the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, support for Scola is likely to fall.
At the moment, however, the Italian cardinal still leads the pack.
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