Vatican City: Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday consecrated six non-European prelates as new members of the College of Cardinals in a development welcomed by critics concerned that the body which will elect the future pope is too Euro-centric.
The elite body “presents a variety of faces, because it expresses the face of the universal Church,” the 85-year-old pontiff said during the ceremony — called a consistory — in St Peter’s Basilica.
“In this consistory, I want to highlight … that the Church is the Church of all peoples,” he said.
The solemn ceremony saw the new “princes of the Church” receive gold rings and birettas — their scarlet colour signifying the blood of martyrs, or those willing to die for their faith — while kneeling before the pontiff.
The pope drew criticism in February, at the height of the “Vatileaks” scandal, when he created 22 new cardinals of whom 16 hailed from Europe.
Benedict, who was elected pope in 2005, is a respected theologian often seen as hewing closely to a traditionalist line who has championed Christianity’s European roots on countless occasions.
Saturday’s new cardinals come from Colombia, India, Lebanon, Nigeria, the Philippines and the United States and join the elite body that advises the pope and elects his successor upon his death.
They are American James Michael Harvey, Lebanon’s Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, India’s Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, John Onaiyekan of Nigeria, Colombian Ruben Salazar Gomez and Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines.
Announcing the names of the new cardinals last month, Benedict told bishops that he wanted to show that “the Church belongs to all peoples, speaks all languages.”
Saturday’s consistory, Benedict’s fifth, follows the death of several cardinals in recent months and will bring the number of those eligible to vote back up to the maximum of 120.
Cardinals must be under 80 years old to take part in a papal election although they can stay on as non-voting cardinals after they reach that threshold.
There are now 62 European cardinals eligible to vote compared with 67 in February, as well as 14 North Americans, 21 South Americans, 11 Africans and 11 Asians.
Harvey, 63, who hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been the prefect of the pontifical household since 1998. The best known of the new cardinals has been made the archpriest of the Basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls, one of Rome’s most prominent basilicas.
Another of the new cardinals, Manila Archbishop Tagle, at age 55 is viewed as a possible candidate to succeed Benedict.
The last to receive his biretta on Saturday, Tagle was visibly moved, wiping away tears after a long tete-a-tete with the pope, to applause from the congregants.
Rahi, 72, became the second Maronite cardinal alongside Monsignor Nasrallah Sfeir, also of Lebanon. Rahi has frequently warned over the rise of Islamism, and his elevation is seen as a gesture towards a multi-faith Lebanon at a time when the country is threatened by the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
Trivandrum Archbishop Thottunkal of India became the youngest member of the College of Cardinals at age 53. His elevation was seen as a bid to encourage India’s old but dynamic Church, little known in the West.
As for the 68-year-old Onaiyekan of Nigeria, archbishop of Abuja, he is another “papabile”, or potential pope, who has shown courage in the face of inter-faith hatred at a time when his country faces attacks against Christians by the Islamist sect Boko Haram.
Another man of peace is 70-year-old Gomez of Bogota, who has fought tirelessly for national reconciliation with Colombia’s FARC rebels.