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July 11, 2011

The appointment of Cardinal Angela Scola, patriarch of Venice for the past nine years, as the archbishop of Milan, Europe's largest diocese, has entrenched his name as the top Italian candidate when a new pope is chosen. Many observers see Scola as worthy in his own right. But the fact that three 20th century popes had previously served as patriarch of Venice and two as archbishop of Milan only heightens the likelihood that Scola will be seen as a serious candidate.

In appointing Scola to Milan, Pope Benedict made it clear that the cardinals would have his approval should they make Scola the next pope. This is not to say that Scola has Pope Benedict's endorsement. The pope is also a long-time collaborator of Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet and only a year ago raised Ouellet's profile by giving him the weighty task of overseeing the appointments of the world's bishops.

Scola, Ouellet and Joseph Ratzinger have all drawn great inspiration from the theology of the late Hans Urs von Balthasar and, with Balthasar, they helped to launch the Communio theological journal after the Second Vatican Council.

Balthasar may well stand as the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century, an unusual occurrence in that his influence had only begun to spread at the time of his death in 1988. He never earned a doctorate in theology, never taught in a theological school and was not invited to Vatican II as a theological expert.

Nevertheless, he may have been the most cultured man in the world of his time. He had a doctorate in German literature, was a highly accomplished pianist and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of philosophy and the fathers of the Church. At one point, he gave away his stereo and record collection as he had memorized the complete works of Mozart.

Balthasar developed an original theology that was far from easy to summarize or categorize. Still, the influence of his "theological aesthetics" can be seen in Pope Benedict's famous statement, "There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ." Balthasar emphasized beauty, drama and the uniqueness of every person.

He is sometimes seen as conservative, but was rabidly opposed to the theology that dominated pre-Vatican II seminaries. The story is often told of him wearing earplugs in class in the seminary so he could read St. Augustine in peace.

That Balthasar's theology should now be so influential in the Church hierarchy testifies both to the strange turns that history can take and to the fact that one's life can bear fruit long after death. Balthasar was a preacher of Christian hope; his life also provides hope to all who labour in the Lord's vineyard with little apparent success or encouragement.