VARESE, Italy -- To illustrate that life is a journey, one of the Italian cardinals touted as a favorite to be the next pope doesn't just turn to the Scriptures -- but also to Jack Kerouac and Cormac McCarthy.
Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, is seen as Italy's best chance at reclaiming the papacy, following back-to-back popes from outside the country that had a lock on the job for centuries.
For one night last month, during the historic week that saw the shock resignation announcement of Pope Benedict XVI, Scola came across as a simple pastor leading a flock of 20-somethings in a discussion about faith. The powerful cardinal displayed not only an ease with youth but also a desire to make himself understood, a vital quality for a church that is bleeding membership. It was a sharp contrast with Benedict, who was almost painfully shy in public.
Quoting from Kerouac's iconic Beat Generation novel `'On the Road," Scola invited his audience of students to reflect on whether they `'were going to get somewhere, or just going." And he cited McCarthy's post-apocalyptic father-son journey in `'The Road," urging youths to consider the meaning of "destination" -- a key theme in McCarthy's work.
`'The destination is a happy life, an accomplished life that doesn't end with death but with eternal life," the archbishop said.
Scola, 71, has commanded both the pulpits of Milan's Duomo as archbishop and Venice's St. Mark's Cathedral as patriarch, two extremely prestigious church positions that together gave the world five popes during the 20th century.
Scola was widely viewed as a papal contender when Benedict was elected eight years ago. His promotion to Milan, Italy's largest and most influential diocese, has been seen as a tipping point in making him a hot favorite for the papacy. But while Italy has the most cardinals -- 28 -- participating in the conclave, the Italian contingent is also said to be fractured among those inside the Roman Curia -- the Vatican's bureaucracy -- and those outside, where Scola enjoys more support.
Crucially, the Milan and Venice posts have allowed Scola to polish his pastoral credentials, adding human outreach to his already considerable intellectual achievements.
Vatican analyst John Thavis, who recently published `'The Vatican Diaries" about the inner workings of the Holy See, recalls visiting Scola in Venice, where he generated `'a great deal of enthusiasm" among parishioners, despite sometimes delivering a dense message.
`'He is very dynamic, but he has a hard time speaking in simple language. I will be honest with you. There are times when Cardinal Scola can get rolling and you find yourself sort of in the clouds," Thavis said. `'So it would be interesting if he is elected pope to see how he comes out and talks to the people."
Scola spent two decades after being ordained in 1970 studying in Europe's renowned Catholic universities and theological training grounds. His ties with Benedict, who named him to Milan, date from that academic period, when he began writing contributions for the Communio magazine co-founded by the future pope.
While Venice's cardinal, he founded a think tank -- Oasis -- which seeks dialogue with Islam, reflecting the lagoon city's historic position as a gateway between the East and the West. As Oasis has developed into a platform for dialogue, Scola has traveled frequently, making him one of the few Italian cardinals known abroad.
`'Scola is one of the personalities that presents diverse talents and certain gifts that are to his advantage," said Sandro Magister, a Vatican analyst who closely monitors the institution's behind-the-scenes maneuvering. `'He is certainly a solid theologian, formed along the same lines as (Benedict). ... This is already something to his advantage."
Scola is recognized as a conservative in the Church, rejecting the idea of women priests and denouncing consumerism. His association with the conservative Italian movement Communion and Liberation has raised eyebrows.
Scola was a theology student when he was invited to join the group, which blends political activism with faith-based fervor as it seeks to influence Italy's decision-making. Many prominent Italian politicians have been associated with the movement; in the 1970s Scola is said to have instructed former premier Silvio Berlusconi, then a real estate developer, in philosophy.
Scola more recently has sought to distance himself from the movement, especially as a number of officials linked to it have been swept into scandal. The Vatican's official biography of Scola says he stopped active participation in 1991, when John Paul II appointed him bishop of Grossetto in Tuscany.
The son of a truck driver and a homemaker, Scola is proud of his humble origins. He grew up in a small apartment in the town of Malgrate, on Lake Como; he is remembered by former neighbors and townspeople as having a terrific memory and showing an early dedication to religious activities. Both Scola and his younger brother were accomplished: Scola became a priest at 29, while his brother became the town's mayor. The brother, Pietro, died three decades ago in a traffic accident.
"He has maintained his relationships with many local citizens, with his friends, with his relatives," said Malgrate Mayor Giovanni Codega. `'So much so that in this town he is called Don Angelo, instead of Cardinal or Patriarch of Venice."
That relaxed parish figure emerged during the recent hour-long gathering with some 1,000 Milan university students. Balancing a clipboard on his lap, he jotted notes as the youths poured out their dilemmas. He addressed students by name and weaved in ideas from previous responses and questions. He urged young people to be themselves and not to hide behind words that obscure meaning, acknowledging that sometimes terms in the Christian vocabulary are `'a little cold."
The cardinal engaged all of the tools of technology to reach his youthful audience. The meeting was streamed on the diocesan web page and broadcast on local Catholic TV and radio stations. He fielded questions not only from participants but also those submitted via email and Twitter.
Yet Scola's own Twitter account disappeared this month in the days leading up to the cardinals meetings ahead of the conclave -- leaving one former follower to quip that he'd soon be using (at)Pontifex, the handle that had been used by Benedict during his papacy.
The university meeting was Scola's second encounter, in a period of just over a year, with students from the Milan diocese. Martino Frigerio, 22, said this time around, the cardinal appeared `'looser."
Still grappling with Scola's proposals, which some characterized as `'challenging," the students were loath to consider his chances at the papacy.
`'We in Milan are possessive of him. We've had him such a short time," Frigerio said. `'He has a way of communicating with young people in a way that is different."