A Canadian cardinal is being mentioned as a possible contender to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, who surprised his followers when he announced his resignation Monday.

Papal observers and oddsmakers believe Cardinal Marc Ouellet is one of the frontrunners to become the next leader of the Catholic Church when cardinals elect a new pope at a conclave in March.

Ouellet could be seen as a frontrunner because of his influence at the Vatican, said Neil MacCarthy, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Toronto.

“Cardinal Marc Ouellet is literally one of the closest advisors of the current pope, so any cardinal travelling to the Vatican would spend a lot of time with him and would know him very well,” MacCarthy told CP24 on Monday. “That’s probably in addition to his skills and certain abilities, one of the reasons that his name would certainly rise to the top in terms of prominent frontrunners.”

Cardinal Thomas Collins, the archbishop of Toronto, offered little speculation, but had positive things to say about Ouellet.

"Cardinal Ouellet is a wonderful man. He’s an excellent man. I’ve known him for years," Collins said at a news conference in Toronto.

Ouellet, 68, became a cardinal in 2003 and is the Canadian head of the Vatican's office for bishops. He is the former archbishop of Quebec and primate of Canada.

In an interview with the Catholic news organization Salt + Light TV published online last April, Ouellet was asked whether he had hopes of becoming pope.

"I don't see myself at this level, not at all... because I see how much it entails (in terms of) responsibility," he said. "On the other hand, I say I believe that the Holy Spirit will help the cardinals do a good choice for the leadership of the church, the Catholic Church, in the future."

Ouellet finds himself in somewhat of a similar position as Benedict, who became the church’s leader after the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Benedict was considered a frontrunner because he was a close advisor to Pope John Paul II and was well-known by cardinals from around the globe.

“We believe first and foremost that this is a selection that’s inspired by God but practically speaking we have seen most recently with Pope Benedict someone who was well-known on the global stage, he was a close advisor to Pope John Paul II, he was very high-profile in the funeral period with John Paul II and the meetings that took place before the beginning of the conclave,” MacCarthy said.

Being known by cardinals worldwide may play into Ouellet’s favour, compared with a cardinal who is known regionally.

“Because you have 120 cardinals from around the world they don’t necessarily spend a lot of time together,” MacCarthy said. “If you’re a cardinal in Africa or a cardinal in North America you may see each other in passing at meetings here and there but very little time spent together, so because of that there tends to be a little bit more notability from those cardinals that are involved at the Vatican.”

MacCarthy was one of many who were caught off guard by Benedict’s announcement.

“It’s certainly an historic day and one that is a little bit surprising for all of us but understandable when we consider that Pope Benedict is going to be 86 years old in just a couple of months and when you consider the very high public profile,” MacCarthy said.

In addition to Ouellet, other contenders include Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, and Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the archbishop of Vienna.

William Hill, a U.K. sportsbook, places Ouellet as a seven-to-two favourite to replace Benedict.

With files from The Associated Press

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