TOLEDO, Brazil (AP) — Bakery owner Geni Lazzari served strong coffee to her patrons in Cardinal Odilio Scherer's hometown on Wednesday as they chomped on cheese bread snacks and followed the television news for signs the clergyman could be named pope.
No nation has more Roman Catholics than Brazil and few have a papal contender stronger than Scherer, who was raised in this small southern town. Still, hopes for his selection remained guarded.
"For us it would be an immense source of pride if he became pope, but I think the chances of that are small," said Lazzari, adding that she thought Scherer's reputation for strong obedience to church doctrine would be a handicap as many Catholics call for reform. "I think this time, the consensus is they want change and Scherer doesn't represent change."
But Lazzari couldn't help hedging her bets. She said had known the big Scherer family "forever — and they're wonderful people. He would be a great pope and just what the church needs now, so let's just hope the conclave recognizes that."
Scherer, 63, archbishop of the massive Sao Paulo diocese with 5 million faithful, is seen by many Vatican watchers as a favorite candidate of cardinals who don't want a pope shaking up the powerful church bureaucracy amid calls for reform after years of sex abuse scandals, accusations of corruption, and dwindling numbers of faithful.
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 then returned 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 Sao Paulo archbishop in 2007 and was named a cardinal later the same year.
Scherer's relatives in Toledo were elated, but overwhelmed, as reporters descended on the town.
Flavio Scherer, one of Odilo's brothers, said that "if he's elected pope, the emotion will be enormous, explosive even!"
Another brother, Bruno, added: "He's a very prepared person and I imagine that he's feeling all right and thinking of us from time to time."
Aldino Benatti, a 66-year-old retired Toledo resident, said he was "positive" Scherer would be chosen as pope.
"I don't know why, but I have this feeling in my stomach," he said. "The whole town shares this certainty."
Odilo Scherer was the seventh of 13 children born into a humble, hardworking and well-liked family descended from German immigrants.
"He has always been someone who was highly respected here. People speak very highly of him, both as a person and as a man of the church," Benatti said.
He added that one of the defining traits of Scherer is that he's "very firm" in his opinions. "He's very, very conservative and he never changes his mind."
At the Se Cathedral in Sao Paulo, headquarters of Scherer's Sao Paulo diocese, 69-year-old housewife Maria Hilda Correia de Campos said from a pew that "I would raise my arms and shout 'Hallelujah' if Dom Odilo becomes our next pope. He deserves it, we all deserve it."
"I have been praying for his election since Pope Benedict resigned because I knew he would be a top contender, and there would be nothing better for us Brazilians than to have a Brazilian pope," she said.
In Rio de Janeiro, Clayton Barbosa, 36, sipped orange juice at a snack stand near Botafogo beach as joggers sped by and beachgoers in barely-there swimwear caught the sun's morning rays on the sand.
"If the next pope is Brazilian, it's not going to change our social ways, Brazilians won't change how they live for anything," Barbosa said, referring to the nation's carefree attitude. "Politically, however, the church will grow in power, and it's hard to say how that might impact the power structure."
Religion runs in the Scherer family; one of Odilo's first cousins is Irineu Scherer, bishop of the Joinville diocese in Brazil's southern state of Santa Catarina.
Irineu Scherer told The Associated Press by telephone that the idea Odilo could become pope has made him somewhat anxious, but he trusts in his cousin's abilities.
"He's a wise theologian, well prepared, trained in administration and has a balanced disposition," said the bishop. "He's a born leader."
Associated Press reporters Bradley Brooks in Rio de Janeiro and Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.