VATICAN CITY — An Italian cardinal close to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is emerging as the front-runner, as the Church’s cardinal electors gather to elect a successor, Vatican observers say.
After a week of preparatory deliberations, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, 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 that begins tomorrow.
For a number of years, Cardinal Scola has been the oddsmakers’ favorite, but, in recent months, other cardinals have overtaken his leading position on papabile lists. Now, he appears to be making a late resurgence, backed by U.S. 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 1941 in Malgrate, a village close to Milan. He grew up in a 375-square-foot apartment on a farm on the edge of some woods. He has been a priest for more than 42 years and holds doctorates in theology and philosophy and was actively involved in Communion and Liberation, an Italy-based lay movement founded in 1954 aimed at evangelization.
After teaching in various academic institutions, he was consecrated bishop in 1991 and then served as rector of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, before heading the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in 1995.
But, most crucially, Cardinal 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, after Rome itself, arguably its most prestigious diocese.
Benedict respects and admires the Italian cardinal, 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 Father Joseph Ratzinger soon after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Both admire the 20th-century theologians Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar and are proponents of Church reform, but in continuity with Tradition.
Linked to New Evangelization
Cardinal Scola’s influence during Benedict XVI’s pontificate was already felt: It was he, insiders say, who gave Benedict the idea to create a new Vatican department geared towards the “New Evangelization.” Moreover, Benedict has closely confided in Cardinal Scola. The last conversation he had as pope was reputedly a lengthy telephone call with the Italian cardinal, shortly before he left the Vatican Feb. 28.
On appointing him archbishop of Milan, Benedict soon after bestowed on him the pallium (symbolizing the jurisdiction given to a bishop by the Holy See) at a separate private ceremony — a move some read as the “anointing of a successor.”
In 2005, Pope Benedict had already shown his esteem for Cardinal Scola by appointing him the head of the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist; such an appointment has tended to be viewed as a positive sign that the sitting 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? One potential asset is a reputation for capable governance. The way he has handled management of the diocesan Curia in Milan is proof he can govern, his supporters say — a key skill cardinal electors are said to be looking for in the next pope. Also, being an Italian, but outside the Vatican’s Roman Curia, Cardinal Scola is believed to be in an ideal position to reform it of the careerism and corruption that some have charged is rampant there.
Cardinal Scola has long been concerned with the nature and mission of the Church in the world. Some also see his worldview as more positive and optimistic than that of Benedict: 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 Cardinal Scola, is not that today’s men and women don’t consider families important, but that they don’t know how to preserve them.
Cardinal Scola’s ability to remain in the top ranks of papabile is a testament to his suitability.
But although he has the common touch and is generally good with the media, 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 Cardinal Scola is likely to fall.
At the moment, however, the Italian cardinal leads the pack going into the conclave.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.