VATICAN CITY -- Putting his personal stamp on the elite cadre that rules the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI named his first group of cardinals yesterday, including an outspoken prelate from China and the former archbishop of San Francisco.
Pope Benedict announced the elevation of 15 cardinals and said the new princes of the church, as they are known, will be installed March 24, when each is bestowed with a bright red hat signifying the blood they are willing to sacrifice for their faith.
The naming of cardinals is one of the most important tasks undertaken by a pope. His choices go a long way in shaping the future of the papacy because the cardinals will one day elect his successor.
And because this is Pope Benedict's first appointment of cardinals since his election 10 months ago, the choices also provide insight into the German prelate's thinking and agenda.
Of the 15 designated cardinals, three are from Asia, and one of those is Joseph Zen, the bishop of Hong Kong. It was a bold choice, interpreted as both an outreach to the powerful nation of 1.3 billion people and a willingness to demand religious freedom for Christian minorities.
Zen's elevation comes at a difficult moment in relations between the Vatican and Beijing. Both have sought to establish formal ties but have run up against long-standing disputes, including the Communist regime's desire to limit the Vatican's authority over the church in China.
The Shanghai-born Zen, 74, has been openly critical of his nation's human rights record, including the jailing of priests and oppression of Catholics, many of whom are compelled to worship underground.
Pope Benedict's designation "shows his priority for China," Zen told reporters after hearing of his elevation.
Signaling his interest in maintaining the global complexion of the College of Cardinals, a trend established by Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict added two other Asians to the elite grouping, including the archbishop of Seoul, Nicolas Cheong-Jin-Suk, as well as one cleric each from Africa and South America.
"The list well reflects the universal nature of the church," the pope said.
An especially sentimental appointment came in the figure of Stanislaw Dziwisz, the archbishop of Krakow, Poland, and longtime personal secretary and confidant to Pope John Paul.
Cardinals must be younger than 80 to participate in the secret session to choose a new pope. Three of the 15 appointees announced today are older than 80. Of the sitting cardinals, two will turn 80 before the installation ceremony March 24. Thus, come that day, the total number of cardinals eligible to elect a pope will be 120.
120 voting cardinals
In making his announcement yesterday, Pope Benedict said he wanted to keep the number at 120, a ceiling established by Pope Paul VI more than 30 years ago but sometimes broken by Pope Benedict's predecessor. Before he died in April, Pope John Paul had chosen 113 of the 115 cardinals who selected his replacement.
Pope Benedict read aloud the names of the new cardinals during his weekly general audience in a Vatican auditorium. The first name was that of William J. Levada, the former archbishop of San Francisco who succeeded the pope as head of the church department that enforces doctrine, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
That position made Levada the most influential American at the Vatican, and his promotion was widely expected because Curia departments are usually headed by cardinals.
The second American on the list was Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston whom Pope John Paul assigned the tricky duty of repairing the damage left by the priest sex abuse scandal that forced the resignation of his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law.
Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.