Jesuit priest James Martin describes why cardinal Marc Ouellet, the current prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and former archbishop of Quebec, is considered a top prospects to be elected the new pope. (Sandi Moynihan/The Washington Post)

Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet is considered a strong contender to become history’s first North American pope, wrenching the papacy from Europe for the first time in centuries and expanding a declining church’s horizons to a hemisphere that it sees as its future frontier.

Ouellet (pronounced whuh-LETTE), who once said the prospect of serving as pope “would be a nightmare,” has a reputation for holiness, fluency in six languages and deep experience in the Church’s Roman government.

But the 68-year-old is also a pastor with global experience, having taught in Latin America and led for a decade the Archdiocese of Quebec, a position that put him on the front lines of the struggle against secularism and in the eye of a child sexual abuse storm that he once called “a source of great shame and enormous scandal” and an “authentic experience of death for the innocent victims.”

An upholder of church orthodoxy, who enraged many Canadians by opposing abortion in the case of rape, (“There’s already a victim. Should we be making another one?” he once asked) Ouellet followed in Benedict XVI’s theological footsteps, but also echoes his predecessor’s personality. An intellectual, bookish and quiet prelate, the Francophone Canadian speaks French, English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German. But he does not provide the immediate infusion of charisma and magnetism that many of the world’s Catholics have hoped.

Instead, it is Ouellet’s resume, including his nationality, that distinguishes him. He spent a decade in Colombia as a teacher and professor, then in 2010 ascended to the top of the Congregation for Bishops, which makes recommendations to the pope for the creation of new bishops and acts as a liaison between the Vatican and Catholic dioceses in the world.

The position afforded Ouellet vast exposure to the electing cardinals, but also the challenges that are familiar to them. Some critics have questioned whether his focus on secularism precluded more attention to the existential threats facing the developing world, where persecution is a primary concern.

The high-profile job also opened him up to criticism for not doing enough to impose accountability on bishops who hid the sexual abuse that he himself called a “crime.”

Despite his reputation in the Vatican as a reformer on the issue of sex abuse, many Canadians considered him unacceptably silent. In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. last week, he said he hoped the church’s response could be a model for more secular parts of society.

“It is not a Catholic problem; it is a human problem,” he said. “Most of the abuse occurred in families in very general in society, and my hope is what was done by the Catholic Church, which is not yet perfect, but could be also of example for others in society.”

And some have wondered whether his focus on the challenge of secularism was effective during his own pastoral tenure, as archbishop of Quebec from 2002 to 2010. Gay marriage passed despite his opposition, and the church underwent a rapid decline. In Quebec, once considered Canada’s most devout province, the ranks of the faithful — including in Ouellet’s own family — thinned, and the secularism that he hoped to stem surged unabated.