VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI is bringing 22 new Catholic churchmen into the elite club of cardinals who will elect his successor, amid signs the 84-year-old pontiff is slowing down.
Benedict presided over a ceremony Saturday in St. Peter's Basilica to formally create the 22 cardinals, who include the archbishops of New York, Prague, Hong Kong and Toronto as well as the heads of several Vatican offices.
The ceremony has been clouded by embarrassing leaks of internal documents alleging financial mismanagement in Vatican affairs, and reports in the Italian media of political jockeying among church officials who, sensing an increasingly weak pontiff, are already preparing for a conclave.
None of that was on display Saturday, however, amid the pomp of the consistory that will bring to 125 the number of cardinals under age 80 who are thus eligible to vote in a papal election. In all, the College of Cardinals now numbers 213.
Benedict was wheeled into St. Peter's Basilica aboard the moving platform he has been using for several months to spare him the long walk down the center aisle. Benedict, who turns 85 in April, spoke in a strong voice as he told the cardinals they will be called upon to advise him on the problems facing the church.
In remarks at the start of the service, Benedict recalled that the red color of the three-pointed hat, or biretta, and the scarlet cassock that cardinals wear symbolizes the blood that cardinals must be willing to shed to remain faithful to the church.
"The new cardinals are entrusted with the service of love: love for God, love for his church, an absolute and unconditional love for his brothers and sisters even unto shedding their blood, if necessary," Benedict said.
Benedict has been slowing down recently. His upcoming trip to Mexico and Cuba, for example, is very light on public appearances, with no political speeches or meetings with civil society planned, as has been the norm to date. Even Saturday's consistory was trimmed back to a slimmer version of the service used in 1969.
At the end of his remarks, Benedict said: "And pray for me, that I may continually offer to the people of God the witness of sound doctrine and guide holy church with a firm and humble hand."
Of the 22 new cardinals, seven are Italian, adding to the eight voting-age Italian cardinals named at the last consistory in November 2010. As of Saturday, Italy will have 30 cardinals out of the 125 under age 80.
That boosts Italy's chances of taking back the papacy for one of its own following decades under a Polish and a German pope, or at least playing the kingmaker role if an Italian papabile, or papal candidate, doesn't emerge.
Only the United States comes close, with 12 cardinals under 80, including New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Cardinal-designate Edwin O'Brien, the former archbishop of Baltimore who is now grand master of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, which raises money for the church in the Holy Land.
The consistory class of 2012 is heavily European, reinforcing Europe's dominance of the College of Cardinals, even though two-thirds of the world's Catholics are in the southern hemisphere. All but three of the new under-80 cardinals come from the West, along with a Brazilian, an Indian and a Chinese.