TORONTO (AP) -- Cardinal Marc 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 him 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.
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: Marc Ouellet.
By many accounts, Ouellet (pronounced Wehl-EHT') is not beloved in Quebec, where friends say he struggled following his appointment as archbishop in 2002. His comments condemning abortion even in the case of rape were attacked by politicians and commentators -- sometimes viciously.
Some worry that the election of another conservative, intellectual pope known for his impenetrable speeches would further damage a church that is fighting losses in membership in Europe and North America due to growing secularism and sex abuse scandals. But the number of believers is growing in Africa, as well as Latin America.
Bookies give weight to Ouellet's accomplished resume when listing him among the top three likely future leaders of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
The 68-year-old Ouellet "knows a lot of people and a lot of people know him. And when I mean people, I mean those who count, the cardinals," said Anne Leahy, a former Canadian ambassador to the Holy See.
He is particularly well-regarded among cardinals from Latin America, a part of the world that is home to 40 percent of the world's Catholics. If the Latin American cardinals can't agree on one of their own, Ouellet's extensive experience there -- he spent more than 11 years in Colombia -- could work in his favor once the cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope.
Speculation that Ouellet could one day be pontiff started as early as 2003 when Pope John Paul II named him cardinal. His name came up after John Paul died in 2005, but he was considered a long shot because of his young age. Ouellet has since added to his resume.
Benedict XVI brought Ouellet to Rome to head the Vatican's office for bishops in 2010. It's an influential post that vets bishops' nominations worldwide. Ouellet also serves as president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, extending his influence over much of the Western Hemisphere.
"Cardinal Ouellet is a very powerful holy man," Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto told The Associated Press in an interview. "He has been in South America. He's fluent in Spanish, he's fluent in Italian, French, English and German. And he's experienced in two different congregations in the Holy See. He's been a bishop. He's a scholar of the first rank. You put it all together and he's just a wonderful man, so you can see when people think of a pope they think of Cardinal Ouellet."
Born in the small town of La Motte, Quebec, Ouellet got his vocation to enter the church during a time of reflection after he broke his leg playing hockey. He was ordained in 1968 and taught in seminaries in Canada, Rome and Colombia.
His many accomplishments include a license in Philosophy from the St. Thomas Aquinas Pontifical University and a doctorate in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, both in Rome.
Friends said his career stalled in 1994, when he went from being the rector of the prestigious Grand Seminaire de Montreal to the head of a seminary in Edmonton, Alberta.
Being a Quebecois who spoke poor English worked against him in Western Canada. But longtime friend Bishop Lionel Gendron, Ouellet's former superior who sent him there, said the experience was ultimately good for him because it improved his English.