The red hat symbolises the blood that cardinals must be willing to shed to remain faithful to the church [AFP]

Pope Benedict XVI has brought 22 new Catholic officials into the elite club of cardinals who will elect his successor, in a greatly simplified ceremony that took into account that the 84-year-old pontiff is slowing down.

Benedict presided over the ceremony in St Peter's Basilica on Saturday 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.

Preparations for the ceremony have been clouded by embarrassing leaks of internal documents alleging financial mismanagement in Vatican affairs. The Italian media has reported political jockeying among church officials who, sensing an increasingly weak pontiff, are already preparing for a conclave to name the next pope.

None of that was on display on Saturday, however, amid the ceremonies that brought to 125 the number of cardinals under age 80 who are eligible to vote in a papal election.

Loyalty oath

Each of the new cardinals made a solemn pledge to keep church secrets upon accepting their new title, ring and three-pointed red hat, or biretta, from the pope.

Reciting the cardinals' traditional oath of loyalty, each pledged to remain faithful to the church and "not to make known to anyone matters entrusted to me in confidence, the disclosure of which could bring damage or dishonor to Holy Church".

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 years old 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 biretta, and the scarlet cassock that cardinals wear symbolises 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.

Slowing down

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.

Even Saturday's consistory was greatly trimmed back to a slimmer version of the service used in 1969. Only one of the cardinals actually read his oath of loyalty aloud, while the others read it silently to themselves. A reading was cut out, as was a psalm.

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 the 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 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.

Source: Agencies