SAO PAOLO, Brazil — A workaholic who reportedly only sleeps four hours a night and quietly insists his priests use their clerical collars, Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer has something of an austere reputation among his typically informal compatriots.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Brazilian Catholic Church was headed by charismatic men who helped lead the fight against the country’s military dictatorship, becoming national figures as they rallied millions to the cause of democracy. But at this stable moment in his country’s history, the man known simply as "Dom Odilo" is an altogether more self-contained figure.
The owner of a piercing gaze, Scherer disdains rhetorical flourishes when preaching from the pulpit of Sao Paulo’s metropolitan cathedral, his congregants say. He has criticized some of his more exuberant priests for aping the emotional preaching style of their increasingly numerous Pentecostal rivals who have tempted millions of Brazilians away from Rome in recent decades.
Nevertheless, his position as archbishop to the 6 million Catholics living in the biggest diocese in the world’s most populous Catholic country, means Scherer, 63, has been considered a contender to become the next leader of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world since Pope Benedict’s shock resignation.
It was Benedict who appointed him Sao Paulo’s archbishop in March 2007 and then made him a cardinal eight months later. The retired pope had gotten to observe Scherer closely when he spent the seven years to 2001 in the Vatican’s Curia working in the Congregation for Bishops, the powerful body that advises the pope on appointing bishops.
There he would have noted not only an able administrator but also a doctrinally competent and conservative theologian, a vocal advocate of Brazil’s poor uncontaminated by Liberation Theology, the doctrine that Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger so feared had infected the Latin American churches with Marxist impurities.
Scherer came from a family of conservative German Catholic immigrants who had settled in southern Brazil, and speaks his parents’ native tongue fluently along with Portuguese and Italian. Relatives say since early childhood he talked of taking holy orders and was ordained at the age of 27, spending most of his early church career in academia.
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After his stint in Rome under Cardinal Ratzinger’s gaze, Scherer was sent back to Brazil and quickly made a bishop and has been seen ever since by many Brazilian clerics as a man of the Curia, not necessarily a popular role to occupy in any of the national churches.
This became clear when, in 2007, he was a candidate to become president of the National Conference of Bishops in Brazil, perhaps the most important position within the Brazilian church. In a secret vote his opponent defeated him with 92 percent of the vote. At the time Scherer was only settling into his role as archbishop of the country’s largest dioceses and was not yet a national figure. But by 2011 he again missed out on the conference’s presidency, unable to garner the support of more than a third of his colleagues.
These two defeats hint that while Scherer’s candidacy for the papacy has gained vocal support from sections of the Brazilian media and from other members of the Brazilian hierarchy, it is very possible he does not have the backing of a majority of Brazilian bishops.
In part his reputation among his colleagues has suffered because he is viewed as an agent of the Vatican, albeit an extraordinarily efficient one. Those who have worked with him speak of his enormous appetite for work that few others can match, but one whose natural instinct is toward the centralization responsibility to the inevitable benefit of Rome at the expense of local bishops.
This first became apparent when after his turn serving the Congregation for Bishops he returned to Brazil in 2002 as an auxiliary bishop in Sao Paulo. During the Vatican’s wait for the city’s top job to become available, Scherer also served as secretary general of the Brazilian bishops’ conference. The job is less powerful than the presidency he later twice missed out on but the position nevertheless gave him the opportunity to involve himself in church affairs on a national level.
His micro-management reportedly drove bishops across the huge country to distraction and his 2007 elevation to the diocese of Sao Paulo — forcing him to resign as the conference’s secretary general — was reportedly greeted with sighs of relief in cathedrals across Brazil.
Now the conclave must decide if this reserved but hard-driving manager is the man to set to rights a church battered by years of scandal.