Benedict XVI has announced that a consistory will be held on 18 February 2012, reading out the names of 22 future cardinals in St Peter's Square following a Mass to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. It will be the fourth consistory of his pontificate.
"As is well known", he explained, "cardinals have the task of helping Peter's Successor carry out his mission to confirm people in the faith and to be the source and foundation of the Church's unity and communion". The new cardinals, he said, will "come from various parts of the world and perform various ministries in the service of the Holy See, in direct contact with the faithful as fathers and pastors of particular Churches."
Benedict's previous three consistories since the start of his pontificate in 2005 were in 2006, 2007 and 2010 when he created a total of 62 cardinals, 50 of whom were under 80 years and therefore eligible to vote at a future conclave to choose a new Pope. With the latest selections, for the first time, a majority of the cardinals will have been chosen by Benedict.
Among the new cardinals, 10 are currently serving in senior positions on the Roman Curia, while eight are archbishops of major metropolitan sees.
Age and deaths had reduced the number of eligible electors to well below the traditional level of 120 but following the formal elevation ceremony on 18 February, the number will increase to 125.
The latest list of names for red hats underlines one of the key themes of Benedict's papacy: his determination to revitalise the faith in lands where it is in decline, especially in Western Europe.
While Pope John Paul II added numerous cardinals from the Third World during his long papacy, Benedict has chosen many more Italians, including seven in the latest group, many of them holding positions in Vatican congregations. There will now be 30 electors from Italy while the USA is second with 12.
Overall, Benedict has kept his focus on the West, emphasising places where the Church's historic strength is eroding, and calling for a "new evangelisation" in the face of increasing secularism and relativism. In this regard, he has named the Archbishop of Prague, Dominik Duka, the Archbishop of Utrecht, Wim Eijk, the Archbishop of Berlin, Rainer Maria Woelki, and the Archbishop of Toronto, Thomas Collins, plus two Americans.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, an archdiocese which automatically carries with it a red hat, will be among the new cardinals, as will Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, the former Archbishop of Baltimore, who was named last year as Grand Master of the Knights of Malta.
Archbishop Dolan described himself, following the Pope's announcement, as "humbled, and grateful."
Other interesting names include John Tong Hon, Bishop of Hong Kong, a highly sensitive position given the ongoing tensions between China and the Holy See over Beijing's unauthorised episcopal appointments.
Cardinal-elect Tong succeeds the courageous Cardinal Zen, who repeatedly crossed swords with Beijing over the persecution of Christians, Falun Gong practitioners and others in China, and defended democracy in Hong Kong.
In his 2010 Christmas message, Cardinal-elect Tong called on the Chinese Government to free the Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo, activist Zhao Lianhai who exposed the tainted milk scandal, and all those who are in jail for promoting human rights.
He also urged Beijing to release all the clergymen from the underground Church who are behind bars for seeking to practise the faith in China.
In his message he expressed four aspirations he has for the future of his diocese, namely evangelisation, vocations, the Universal Church, and acting as a bridge with the mainland.
The Pope also named two leaders of the Eastern Catholic churches as cardinals: Major Archbishop George Alencherry of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the head of India's Syro-Malabar Church, and Major Archbishop Lucian Muresan of Fagaras and Alba Julia, the head of the Romanian Catholic Church.
The new members will strengthen the European character of the College of Cardinals and enhance the Italian presence. Of the 22 new cardinals, 16 will be European, including the seven Italians. Only one new cardinal is from Latin America, and none from Africa.
With its new members, the College of Cardinals will number 214, of whom 125 will be eligible electors. Benedict has exercised his authority to exceed the normal limit of 120 cardinal-electors. Among these, a slight majority - 64 of the 125 - will have been appointed by the present Pope since 2005.
Continuity of reforms
This number has particular significance as it increases the likelihood that Benedict's successor as Pope will continue with his reform policies, and might well be an Italian.
The Jesuits remain the religious order with the highest representation in the college, with eight cardinals, followed by the Salesians with six, including the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. There are seven Franciscan cardinals, divided between the Order of Friars Minor and the Capuchins, with the latter represented by Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston.
In his closing words in St Peter's Square on 6 January, Benedict invited the faithful to pray for the new cardinals, "asking the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, to intercede that they may always bear courageous and dedicated witness of their love for Christ and His Church".