Odilo Scherer: Brazil's top papal contender

As the Vatican prepares to elect a new pope, eyes have focused on Sao Paulo archbishop Odilo Scherer, a moderate conservative tipped as Latin America's top contender.

Next month, the world's 117 "cardinal electors" are to meet in secret in the Sistine Chapel in Rome to elect a successor to Benedict XVI, who is to step down February 28 due to old age.

Since his 2007 papal appointment, Scherer, 63, has led the largest archdiocese -- six million Catholics -- in the world's largest Catholic country.

Vatican watchers put him ahead of another top Latin American candidate, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, an Argentine of Italian extraction who works in the Vatican as prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.

"I would say that Scherer is the best bet," said American John Allen Jr, a respected Vatican expert and author of several books on the Catholic church.

"He has a good reputation and is admired here (in the Vatican)," the daily O Globo quoted Allen as saying recently.

One man who knows Scherer well is Father Jose Antonio Trasferetti, professor of moral theology at the Catholic Pontificate University in Campinas, in southern Sao Paulo state.

"He has all the qualities to be a great pope," Trasferetti said.

"He has an open mind, he is a good communicator and a good administrator. He is the right person to open a dialogue between the various factions within the church," Trasferetti said.

Trasferetti, who said he studied theology in Rome with Scherer from 1989 to 1991, described him as "a moderate conservative" on matters of doctrine and social issues.

Scherer, he added, is well acquainted with social problems in Sao Paulo, a cosmopolitan city of 11 million people where the archbishop oversees parishes facing high poverty rates, crime, youth unemployment and lack of basic services.

On his archdiocesan website and in newspapers, Scherer regularly offers Catholic-based commentary on key issues. He is also very active on Twitter, boasting 20,000 followers of his account @DomOdiloScherer.

The German-Brazilian prelate accompanied the pope for a major part of the latter's visit to Brazil in May 2007.

He once criticized so-called liberation theology -- a leftist movement within Catholicism -- for using "Marxism as a tool of analysis," but he backed its focus on tackling social injustice and poverty.

Scherer is very much a traditionalist, concerned about the growing strength of Evangelical churches at the expense of Catholics.

Evangelicals have seen their numbers jump in Brazil from 26.2 million (15 percent) in 2000 to 42.3 million (22 percent) in 2010, while the proportion of Catholics is down to 63 percent of the total population of 194 million from 73.6 percent in 2000.

Initially, the archbishop slammed attempts by pop star priest Marcelo Rossi to use some of the charismatic features of Evangelical churches to win back or retain the Catholic faithful.

"Priests aren't showmen," Scherer said in 2007. "The Mass is not to be transformed into a show."

Yet he later showed that he can be a pragmatist. When Rossi inaugurated a new mega-church capable of holding about 100,OOO people in Sao Paulo last November, Scherer showed up as a sign of support.

Earlier this month, the cardinal stressed that the Catholic church had faced challenges throughout its 2,000-year-old history but now needed to tackle the challenge of "post-modernity."

He also said nationality and age should not be key factors in choosing the next pope.

Much more important will be the candidate's capacity to lead the world's 1.1 billion Catholics "at a time of great challenges," said Scherer, who plans to be in Rome to bid farewell to Benedict XVI.

He was born on September 21, 1949 into an ethnic German family in Cerro Largo, a small town of 13,000 people located in southern Rio Grande do Sul state.

The town was founded in 1902 by German immigrants and known as Colonia Serro Azul.

Ordained to the priesthood in 1976, Scherer obtained a doctorate in sacred theology in Rome in 1991.

He served as an official of the Congregation for Bishops in the Roman Curia (Papal Court) from 1994 to 2001 and was secretary general of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops from 2003 to 2007.