VATICAN CITY — If the cardinal electors were to choose a pope from the developing world, one of the strongest candidates is Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer.
As archbishop of São Paolo, one of the most complex and challenging dioceses in the world, with more than 20 million souls, Cardinal Scherer appears, on paper at least, to have all the main qualities needed to be the next pope.
Faithful to tradition but pragmatic, Cardinal Scherer is robustly pro-life, reputed to be a firm decision-maker, and, as a Brazilian with German ancestry, he bridges the gap between Europe and the developing world. At 63, many believe he is the ideal age to become pope.
Born on Sept. 21, 1949 — the seventh of 13 siblings — Odilo Scherer was ordained a priest in 1976 and holds a doctorate in theology and a master's in philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. He has served as a rector and professor at three Brazilian seminaries and also as a parochial vicar and parish priest.
After seven years in Rome as a Vatican official in the 1990s, he was consecrated a bishop in 2002. In 2007, he was appointed archbishop of São Paulo and elevated to cardinal the same year.
As with many Churchmen in Brazil, the archbishop has a particular focus on social justice and has been involved in developing programs to fight poverty and violence. He also has concerns for safeguarding the environment and is able to identify well with young people.
Together with his ability to speak Italian, German and Portuguese fluently and a proficiency in English, French and Spanish, one of Cardinal Scherer’s most prominent strengths is his ability to communicate effectively.
And he has the personal warmth typical of South Americans — something that is particularly appealing to Italians, who wield considerable influence in the conclave.
“He is frank, warm, shows visible signs of emotion,” said the Italian daily Il Messaggero, noting the cardinal’s manner when he celebrated at his titular church in Rome on Sunday. “He spoke perfect Italian without an accent.”
Cardinal Scherer’s common touch is also apparent in his actions. He has a keen interest in using effective means to evangelize and embrace new media. He has appeared on a Brazilian talk show, is a prolific tweeter and prefers to take the São Paolo subway rather than his official car.
But, most significantly, the Brazilian appeals to those in the Curia — a factor that could also work against him. He worked in the influential Congregation for Bishops from 1994 to 2001. His tenure wasn’t noted for being remarkable, but then he was not a senior official in a position to exert considerable influence.
Benedict XVI is said to respect and admire him, and he chose the cardinal to be one of the first members (and one of only two Latin Americans) of his Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. As a non-Italian who can clearly govern, he could be the ideal candidate for reforming the Roman Curia; although having allegedly attracted the sympathies of some senior Curial cardinals associated with recent internal divisions, some cardinal electors keen on reform may think twice before giving him their vote.
Cardinal Scherer has also been on a committee of cardinals overseeing the Institute for Works of Religion, commonly known as the Vatican Bank, as well as being a member of the Prefecture for Economic Affairs, which coordinates the finances of the Holy See. He also is on the board of a number of other Vatican offices, including the one for clergy. So he is likely to be aware of any corruption, especially of a financial nature, within the Vatican.
In his homily on Sunday, a reflection on the Prodigal Son, some believed Cardinal Scherer was addressing this challenge. “We have to find peace, reconciliation and forgiveness; otherwise, we will always remain focused on the past. But God is not always thinking about our past sins; he really forgives us,” he said.
And by emphasizing the need to leave sins behind, some felt he was pointing to the future renewal of the Church after recent scandals. “Only when there is genuine reconciliation between peoples, between cultures and religions, will we live in a world of peace and brotherhood,” he said.
Others argue that, though personable, he lacks charisma and passion, has the aura of a civil servant more than a leader and remains too much of an unknown quantity. He also does not appear to have great support from his own bishops.
Also, the cardinal electors may well view the cardinal as more needed in Brazil, the world’s largest Catholic nation. Although 75% of Brazilians remain in the Church, the faith faces a double threat there from increasing secularism and growing Pentecostal sects.
But if Cardinal Scherer is elected, the cardinals would be rewarding orthodoxy and pragmatism — someone with a useful knowledge of the Curia. Moreover, whatever his personal charisma, choosing a pope from a developing country would be an historic and revolutionary move bound to have a major impact on the Church’s future.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.