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Cardinal Scherer, strong pope candidate, embraces modern methods on traditional message

Cardinal Odilo Scherer is known for prolific tweeting, appearances on Brazil's most popular late-night talk show and squeezing into the subway for morning commutes — just like most of the 5 million faithful in his diocese.

Scherer is Brazil's best hope to be the next pope — and one of the top papal contenders from the developing world.

At the relatively young age of 63, he enthusiastically embraces all new methods for reaching believers, while staying true to a conservative line of Roman Catholic doctrine.

Scherer joined Twitter in 2011 and in his second tweet said: "If Jesus preached the gospel today, he would also use print media, radio, TV, the Internet and Twitter. Give Him a chance!"

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EDITOR'S NOTE: As the Roman Catholic Church prepares to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, The Associated Press is profiling key cardinals seen as "papabili" — contenders to the throne. In the secretive world of the Vatican, there is no way to know who is in the running, and history has yielded plenty of surprises. But these are the names that have come up time and again in speculation. Today: Odilo Scherer.

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"He's someone who is known for being willing to dialogue, be it with other faiths or about politics," said Virgilio Arraes, a contemporary history professor at the University of Brasilia who specializes in the Vatican. "But on social issues, I can't see him straying far from the current pope's position."

Scherer is a slim man with an energetic step. The blue eyes that peer intently behind steel-framed glasses betray his strong European roots; he was the seventh of 13 children in a family that descended from German immigrants, born and raised in southern Brazil.

"That region has produced many of the best leaders of the Brazilian church over the past 30 or 40 years. It is one of the most dynamic areas in terms of producing priestly vocations, nuns and other religious personnel," said Kenneth Serbin, chair of the University of San Diego history department whose research has focused on the church in Brazil.

"It is an area where the institutional church is the strongest and where there is a very strong European kind of devotion with a lot of emphasis on church hierarchy, respect for the clergy and for bishops."

Scherer, who speaks Italian, German and Portuguese fluently and is proficient in English, French and Spanish, was ordained at age 27 and holds a doctorate in theology from Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University. He held numerous pastoral and teaching positions across Brazil before being appointed in 1994 to the Vatican's powerful Congregation for Bishops, where he stayed until 2001.

He was then sent back to Brazil, where he became the auxiliary bishop of Sao Paulo and served for five years as the secretary general of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops. He became the Sao Paulo archbishop in 2007 and was named a cardinal later the same year.

Church watchers say Scherer is highly respected by Benedict; he was one of just two Latin Americans named to the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization that the pope created in 2010 as part of an effort to battle against secularism in Europe and the loss of the faithful to increasingly popular Pentecostal churches in Latin America, especially in Brazil.

"One of the church's most important goals is the promotion of our new evangelization, and nobody has injected more energy into the pastoral community than Dom Odilo," said Jose Arnaldo Juliano dos Santos, a Sao Paulo priest and church historian. "He's working to make the church a more active part of society."

Scherer hasn't backed down from what some see as harder-line positions, such as strongly and publicly rejecting same sex civil unions and a 2012 Brazilian Supreme Court ruling that allowed abortions in cases of fetuses with no brains. Abortion is illegal in Brazil except when a pregnancy threatens the life of the mother and in cases of rape.

Yet he's taken stands just as strong on issues favored by the left. Scherer has praised the advances that liberation theology — a movement that uses Jesus' teachings to fight social injustice — has brought to Brazil's poor, though criticized its perceived Marxist connections. He also criticized massive government infrastructure projects in the Amazon jungle that, he said, are planned "without taking due account of their social and environmental consequences."

Arraes, the history professor, said the sheer number of European cardinals who will vote in the conclave work against Scherer's papal prospects.

"But if he is elected, that perceived weakness in numbers could be turned into a strength, as it could mean that he will have to rely heavily on his ability to dialogue and build bridges, which is something that could help the church at this stage," Arraes said. "There's an awareness that the church remains too focused on Europe, so this could be an interesting juncture to choose a pope from the Americas."

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Associated Press writers Jenny Barchfield in Rio de Janeiro and Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.