Jesuit priest James Martin discusses why one of the youngest cardinals, Peter Erdo of Hungary, is on the short list to be the next pope. (The Washington Post)

His faith was forged under communism, as a Catholic enduring persecution in officially atheist Hungary. Now Cardinal Peter Erdo is a contender to become the leader of global Catholicism, with memories of the Pope John Paul II, a fellow Eastern European, still fresh.

The fast-rising Erdo was the youngest cardinal to participate in the 2005 conclave that selected Pope Benedict XVI. Now, at 60, the canon lawyer is seen by many Vatican insiders as the top non-Italian, European papal candidate.

As the head of the Hungarian church since 2002, Erdo has labored to bring Catholics back to pews, exhorting the laity to pound the pavement in a door-knocking campaign that has boosted Sunday Mass attendance but also wouldn’t look out of place in an American election campaign. And he has forged close ties to the Orthodox Church — an important priority within the Catholic hierarchy — and to Jewish leaders and African Catholics.

The African connection could be an important factor in a year in which the odds are better than ever that a non-European pope could be elected. If the College of Cardinals decides to pick a European, Erdo could be considered a compromise choice, having started a biannual conference of cardinals that alternates locations between Europe and Africa, where Catholicism is growing fastest.

For a church that has at times struggled with its outreach efforts, Erdo has also pushed efforts online. His Sunday sermons are loaded onto a church Web site shortly after he delivers them. Although he doesn’t use Twitter, he has spoken of the importance of direct communication to Catholics via social media — especially, he told bishops last year, since he believes traditional news outlets distort religion.

Erdo is seen as a solid conservative on religious matters, which could be attractive to a conclave comprised exclusively of cardinals appointed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both doctrinal conservatives.

He said last month that the most important qualities for a pope are not geographic origin but “what the candidate represents in the life of the church,” Hungary’s MTI news agency reported.

Erdo was born in 1952 in Budapest, the first of six children. To punish his parents for practicing their faith, the communist government barred his father, a lawyer, from the courtroom.

Erdo studied theology in Hungary, then at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He also spent a year at the University of California at Berkeley. He ran Hungary’s main Catholic university between 1998 and 2003.

He has a reputation for being more contemplative than charismatic. But he also is known as an alliance-builder, having been twice elected president of the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe, an influential oversight body on the continent.

“Erdo is seen as a capable administrator, someone tough enough to get things done,” John L. Allen Jr. wrote in the National Catholic Reporter. But he is also “a broker of compromise and consensus, with the capacity to hold a highly disparate body of European bishops together.”