Jesuit priest James Martin describes why cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, is a contendor to be the next pope. (Sandi Moynihan/The Washington Post)

Angelo Scola has been here before.

In 2005, the Italian cardinal, then the patriarch of Venice, one of the Roman Catholic Church’s more prolific pope-producing cities, appeared on many shortlists to succeed Pope John Paul II. The job, of course, went to Scola’s good friend, theological mentor and career patron, Joseph Ratzinger, who took the name Benedict XVI. As the new pope began his reign, papal pundits determined that Scola, then 65, had perhaps been too young .

He no longer has that problem.

In the months, weeks and days leading up to the conclave that will choose the 266th pope, Scola, 71, has emerged as a front-runner. His Sunday Mass at his titular church in Rome drew a large crowd to see the son of a socialist Milan truck driver and a practicing Catholic housewife, who grew up in a small apartment in Malgrate, a little town near Lake Como, which he once swam across in the middle of winter. (His younger brother became mayor but later died in a traffic accident.)

A conservative theologian, Scola once edited the magazine that offered a conservative interpretation on the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and was co-founded by a young Ratzinger. He went on to run a major pontifical university and is unerringly orthodox and conservative on social issues. In 1997, for example, he told reporters that “the church does not have the power to modify the practice, uninterrupted for 2,000 years, of calling only men” to the priesthood.

But Scola has also spearheaded dialogue efforts with the Muslim world and, since June 2011, has been the archbishop of Milan, the most prestigious and complicated diocese in Italy.

It is that strong pastoral experience, including a decade in Venice, that has attracted many cardinals looking to dislodge the stranglehold on power held by the cardinals in the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the Catholic Church. And who better to replace the Italian insiders than an Italian outsider?

But Scola’s candidacy, to the extent it can be called that, goes beyond political calibration. A polyglot fluent in French, English and Spanish, he is familiar with the modern media. For decades now, he has been a star in the church, an intellectual heavyweight with a perhaps obscure writing style but light pastoral touch.

His early connection to Ratzinger’s theological journal, Communio, was profound, as was his membership in the lay group, Communion and Liberation. It was through that group that he reportedly met and tutored Silvio Berlusconi, then a real estate magnate and later a scandal-tainted prime minister, on ethics in the 1970s, though it appeared not everything stuck. But as Scola has ascended the ranks of the church, the politically ambitious order’s orbit also expanded, and he recently distanced himself from the group after it became associated with Italian political scandals.

Theologically, Scola represents continuity with the popes of the last 34 years. Nationally, his elevation would resume the lineage of Italian popes, who ruled for more than 450 uninterrupted years before John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But Scola has said that is not important to him.

“Moreover, as the election of the last two popes clearly showed, there no longer exists the problem of the automatic choice of an Italian pope,” he told the magazine, Inside the Vatican, in 2011.

It may not be automatic, but Scola makes it an eminently plausible possibility.

Fleshy faced, with white hair and wire-framed glasses, Scola is an advocate for social justice and the poor and a critic of secularism and consumerism.

“The lifestyle of the West tends toward the obscene,” he once told the Italian newsweekly Panorama. He recently talked to students about faith by making comparisons to Jack Kerouac’s, “On the Road.” (The church thinks in centuries.)

The Italian has spoken of the African, Asian and Latin American churches as “beacons of hope,” and he has used his Oasis program to advocate for greater inter-religious dialogue, especially with Islam, as well as to meet many Eastern cardinal electors. But in the 2011 interview with Inside the Vatican, he asserted: “An effective dialogue requires that I engage my faith in a dynamic way. It implies an identity.”

Scola’s identity is now as the safe pick. He offers theological continuity with Benedict, but his pastoral experience and distance from Rome also make him attractive to the reformist, or outsider, wing that has been horrified by mismanagement in the Curia. Many Vatican officials believe that only an Italian, steeped in the ways of Italian politics, could navigate and reform the church government.