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Cardinal Angelo Scola, of Italy, celebrates a mass in Rome's Santi Apostoli church, Sunday March 10, 2013. / AP Photo/Andrew Medichini
If an Italian is to reclaim the papacy after a 35-year drought, it may take a man with a penchant for invoking iconic American authors.
Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, is believed to be favored by cardinals hoping to shake up the powerful Vatican bureaucracy. A reform-minded intellectual, Scola is known as a deft administrator and a charismatic theologian who has displayed an ability to reach the youth.
And he's not afraid to go off scripture.
Last month, while leading a discussion about faith among a throng of Milan university students, he quoted a passage from Jack Kerouac's iconic novel "On the Road," asking his audience to think about whether they "were going to get somewhere, or just going." In the same discussion, Scola urged the audience to consider themes from Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic tale "The Road."
"The destination is a happy life, an accomplished life that doesn't end with death but with eternal life," he said.
Scola's progressive teaching style is perhaps no surprise given his complex reputation in the Church. He's Italian, but not from the Italian-centric Vatican bureaucracy called the Curia. As such, he has gained support by those who want to overhaul the establishment of the church that has been criticized for its politics, unresponsiveness and inefficiency.
"With him ... the Pope would return to be Italian, but outside the poisons of the Curia," writes Milan-based journalist Maria Antonietta Calabro, who named Scola the favorite among all papal contenders.
However, some Vatican observers believe Scola's heritage may still undercut his distance from the Curia. A majority of cardinals are not Italian, and there may be a strong sentiment for not picking yet another Italian pope, said Kean University historian Christopher Bellitto.
"Many think: We've tried it this way for lots of years and it's not going very well," Bellitto said.
If Scola is to be elected pope, it will be largely on the merits of his resume. The 71-year-old has presided over the pulpits of Milan's Duomo (Italy's most influential diocese) as archbishop and Venice's St. Mark's Cathedral as patriarch. Those two prominent church positions produced five popes during the 20th century.
Starting in the 1970s, Scola attended Europe's most prestigious Catholic universities. It was during this time that he forged his intellectual ties with Benedict - studying at a theological school co-founded by Joseph Ratzinger. It was Benedict who would later appoint Scola to his Milan post - and Scola is often seen as Benedict's "crowned prince," according to Rev. Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo, a CBS News consultant.
However, that close connection could ultimately hinder Scola, according to The National Cathedral Reporter's John Allen.
"Since Scola is a dedicated Ratzingerian in terms of intellectual outlook, those who believe the next pope ought to take a somewhat different approach, or at least have a somewhat different sense of priorities, might see him as a bit too much continuity," Allen writes.
Furthermore, Scola's connection to the conservative Italian movement Communion and Liberation has drawn scrutiny. He joined the group as a theology student and in the 70s, he is said to have instructed former premier Silvio Berlusconi in the movement. However, Scola has since tried to distance himself from Communion and Liberation, especially after several officials linked to the movement have been embroiled in corruption scandals.
Still, amid the shroud of secrecy that defines the papal conclave, Scola is widely regarded as a favorite, if not the front-runner to be the next pope. Among eight experts surveyed at the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera, three named Scola as the No. 1 papal contender. As of last week, oddsmakers had Scola as the favorite. And John Allen notes that Scola's supporters believe his prolonged time in the spotlight might push him over the top.
"The fact that he hasn't wilted under the attention proves he's got the right stuff to be pope," Allen writes.