Pope Benedict XVI named 15 new cardinals Wednesday, including John Paul II's longtime private secretary and prelates from Boston and Hong Kong, adding his first installment to the elite group of churchmen who will elect his successor.

Benedict read aloud the names during his weekly general audience and said they would be elevated during a March 24 ceremony at the Vatican.

Those chosen to receive the "red hats" that the so-called princes of the church wear include the archbishops of Caracas, Venezuela; Seoul, South Korea; Bordeaux, France; Toledo, Spain; and Manila, Philippines.

Benedict's successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop William Levada, also will be made a cardinal, the second American among the new names.

Twelve of the 15 men are younger than 80 and thus eligible to vote in a conclave to select Benedict's successor.

One of the key new cardinals is Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen. Benedict has been reaching out to China and the elevation of Zen, who has been outspoken in the need for religious rights of Roman Catholics in China, was an indication that religious freedom is important to the pontiff.

Benedict also tapped John Paul's longtime private secretary, Krakow Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, for a red hat. In addition, he named the archbishop of Boston, Sean O'Malley, who was brought in by John Paul to clean up the archdiocese following the sex abuse scandal that forced the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law.

Benedict said the new cardinals "reflect the universality of the church: In fact, they come from various parts of the world and carry out different tasks in the service of the people of God."

The new cardinals come from 11 different countries from North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

Seoul Archbishop Nicolas Cheong Jin-suk said his nomination resulted from the support of Korean Catholics and the government.

"I will do my best to meet your expectations," he said at Myeongdong Cathedral in central Seoul.

Prior to Wednesday's announcement, there were 178 cardinals, 110 of whom are younger than 80 and thus eligible to participate in a conclave to elect a new pope. However, two of those 110 will turn 80 in the next month.

In 1973, Pope Paul VI established that the maximum number of cardinal electors be set at 120. While John Paul frequently went over that ceiling, Benedict said that by naming 12 cardinal electors Wednesday, he intended to bring the total number of electors to Paul VI's limit.

Under John Paul, the College of Cardinals became more international and less Italian, although Europe as a whole still is the largest bloc, followed by the Latin Americans.

By naming three Asians on Wednesday and two Americans, Benedict gave Asia the same number of cardinals as North America: 20.

During his 26-year pontificate, John Paul presided over nine consistories, creating a total of 231 cardinals.

Cardinals have been the sole electors of the pontiff for nearly 1,000 years and it remains their most important job. For centuries, they have chosen the pope from their own ranks, locked away in a secret conclave like the April 18-19 one that resulted in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's election as pope.