VARESE, Italy (AP) -- 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.
EDITOR'S NOTE: As the Roman Catholic Church prepares to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, The Associated Press is profiling key cardinals seen as "papabili" -- contenders to the throne. In the secretive world of the Vatican, there is no way to know who is in the running, and history has yielded plenty of surprises. But these are the names that have come up time and again in speculation. Today: Angelo Scola.
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.
He speaks fluent English, French and German beyond his native Italian -- along with the Lecco dialect from the corner of Lake Como where he grew up. He also understands Spanish.
"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.