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Top contenders to be the next pope

Sunday - 3/10/2013, 7:18pm  ET

In this photo taken May 18, 2012 photo Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan, gestures during a press conference in Milan, Italy. Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, is seen as Italy's best chance at reclaiming the papacy, following back-to-back popes from outside the country that had a lock on the job for centuries. The powerful cardinal displays not only an ease with youth but also a desire to make himself understood _ a vital quality for a church that is bleeding membership. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

The Associated Press

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Cardinals from around the world gather this week in a conclave to elect a new pope following the stunning resignation of Benedict XVI. 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. Yet several names have come up repeatedly as strong contenders. Here is a look at who they are:

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CARDINAL ANGELO SCOLA: Scola is seen as Italy's best chance at reclaiming the papacy, following back-to-back pontiffs from outside the country that had a lock on the job for centuries. He's also one of the top names among all of the papal contenders. Scola, 71, has commanded both the pulpits of Milan's Duomo as archbishop and Venice's St. Mark's Cathedral as patriarch, two extremely prestigious church positions that together gave the world five popes during the 20th century. Scola was widely viewed as a papal contender when Benedict was elected eight years ago. His promotion to Milan, Italy's largest and most influential diocese, has been seen as a tipping point in making him one of the leading papal candidates. He is known as a doctrinal conservative who is also at ease quoting Jack Kerouac and Cormac McCarthy.

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CARDINAL ODILO SCHERER: Scherer is known for prolific tweeting, appearances on Brazil's most popular late-night talk show and squeezing into the subway for morning commutes. Brazil's best hope to supply the next pontiff is increasingly being touted as one of the top overall contenders. 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 and hardline positions on social issues such as rejection of same-sex marriage. 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!" Scherer became the Sao Paulo archbishop in 2007 and was named a cardinal later the same year.

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CARDINAL MARC OUELLET: Canada's Ouellet once said that being pope "would be a nightmare." He would know, having enjoyed the confidence of two popes as a top-ranked Vatican insider. His high-profile position as head of the Vatican's office for bishops, his conservative leanings, his years in Latin America and his work in Rome as president of a key commission for Latin America all make him a favorite to become the first pontiff from the Americas. But the qualities that make the 68-year-old popular in Latin America -- home to the world's biggest Catholic population -- and among the cardinals who elect the pope have contributed to his poor image in his native Quebec, where ironically he was perceived during his tenure as archbishop as an outsider parachuted in from Rome to reorder his liberal province along conservative lines.

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CARDINAL PETER ERDO: Erdo is the son of a deeply religious couple who defied communist repression in Hungary to practice their faith. And if elected pope, the 60-year-old would be the second pontiff to come from eastern Europe -- following in the footsteps of the late John Paul II, a Pole who left a great legacy helping to topple communism. A cardinal since 2003, Erdo is an expert on canon law and distinguished university theologian who has also striven to forge close ties to the parish faithful. He is increasingly seen as a compromise candidate if cardinals are unable to rally around some of the more high-profile figures like Scola or Scherer.

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CARDINAL GIANFRANCO RAVASI: Ravasi, the Vatican's culture minister, is an erudite scholar with a modern touch -- just the combination some faithful see as ideal for reviving a church beset by scandal and a shrinking flock. The 70-year-old is also one of the favorites among Catholics who long to see a return to the tradition of Italian popes. The polyglot biblical scholar peppers speeches with references ranging from Aristotle to late British diva Amy Winehouse. Ravasi's foreign language prowess is reminiscent of that of the late globetrotting John Paul II: He tweets in English, chats in Italian and has impressed his audiences by switching to Hebrew and Arabic in some of his speeches.

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CARDINAL PETER TURKSON: Often cast as the social conscience of the church, Ghana's Turkson is viewed by many as the top African contender for pope. The 64-year-old head of the Vatican's peace and justice office was widely credited with helping to avert violence following contested Ghanaian elections. He has aggressively fought African poverty, while disappointing many by hewing to the church's conservative line on condom use amid Africa's AIDS epidemic. Turkson's reputation as a man of peace took a hit recently when he showed a virulently anti-Islamic video, a move now seen as hurting his papal prospects. Observers say those prospects sank further when he broke a taboo against public jockeying for the papacy -- saying the day after Benedict's resignation announcement that he's up for the job "if it's the will of God."

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