Pope to shape College of Cardinals at consistory
The Vatican will be a flurry of red over the next three days as the Pope gathers his principal advisers and welcomes a select few to join their number.
In the third consistory of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI will elevate 24 new members to the College of Cardinals.
The consistory will bring the total number of "red hats" to 203, from 69 countries. Their jobs vary, from advising the Pope as and when requested, to running a department of the Vatican or a regional diocese.
But for the 121 cardinals, including 20 of the new batch, under the age of 80, arguably the most important role is choosing the Pope's successor - in the event of his abdication or death - at a conclave.
While reports may focus on topics discussed at the consistory, Pope Benedict's choice of cardinals itself says much about his priorities for the Church.
More than half of the new cardinals are from Europe, bringing the total number of Europeans eligible to vote for the Pope's successor to 62, 25 of whom hail from Italy.
With 121 cardinal-electors in total - including 21 from Latin America, 15 from the US and Canada, 10 from Asia, 12 from Africa and one from Australasia - Europeans will comprise a majority of voters in a potential conclave. Demographically, only a quarter of the world's Catholics come from Europe.
By significantly boosting the number of Europeans in the college, the Pope seems to be responding to the challenges posed in a continent that houses the Church's headquarters, but which he considers awash in non-religious secularism. This was a key message during his recent visits to the UK and Spain.
"Since being elected Pope in April 2005, Pope Benedict XVI has given a disproportionate number of Europeans top positions," said Robert Mickens, Rome correspondent for The Tablet.
"Although the universal Church is clearly no longer European, he has taken deliberate steps to ensure that hierarchs from the old continent will continue governing it for years to come."
In comparison, only two of the new cardinals are from Latin America, even though the continent is home to more than 40% of the world's Catholics - suggesting the Pope does not follow geographical quotas when he makes his cardinal selections. There are now only five cardinal-electors in Brazil, the world's largest Catholic country.
The latest appointments extend a demographic imbalance between the hierarchy of the Church and the faithful, said the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen.
"Two-thirds of the 1.2bn Catholics in the world today live in the global south, but two-thirds of the cardinals are from the north," he said.
Meanwhile, two Americans are among those given their red hats this weekend, meaning the US now has 13 cardinals, even though American Catholics make up little more than 5% of the global total.
Divergence of opinions
Among the southern hemisphere picks, the elevation of such archbishops as Medardo Joseph Mazombwe of Lusaka and Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa shows that Africa is finally getting its due, said Rocco Palmo, Vatican expert and editor of the Whispers in the Loggia blog.
"With the elevation of four Africans and one Asian elector, Benedict XVI has significantly increased the number of voters in Catholicism's most prolific growth zones," he said.
Meanwhile, the choice of the Egyptian Antonius Naguib, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, suggests the Pope is keen to give a voice to Christians in areas where they are marginalised.
The latest crop of cardinals is divided between traditionalists and pragmatists, as evidenced by the US appointments of uncompromising Archbishop Raymond Burke and the centrist Archbishop Donald Wuerl.
Rather than picking candidates of a certain mould, Mr Palmo argues, the Pope appears to value a divergence of opinions among the princes of the Church.
However, 13 of the new cardinal-electors currently work or have worked in the Roman Curia - the Vatican's bureaucracy - and Curial officials now make up nearly a third of all cardinal-electors, prompting speculation the next Pope is likely to be a "Roman", if not an Italian.
In the 1960s, Pope Paul VI established guidelines recommending there should be no more than 120 cardinal electors in the college. While the last pope, John Paul II, exceeded that number by as many as 15, Pope Benedict has adhered closely to the limit.
As dean of the college after the 2005 death of John Paul II, then-Cardinal Ratzinger heard complaints from his fellow electors that they did not know each other particularly well.
Once elected Pope, Benedict XVI introduced discussion sessions at consistories to allow the whole college to air their concerns and priorities.
Hence this consistory will include a day's debate on issues the Pope deems most pressing for the Church's future. These include clerical sex abuse, Catholic liturgy, challenges to religious freedom and the outreach project for Anglicans seeking to convert to Catholicism.
Members of the college will be watching to see who impresses during these "open mic" sessions - thereby improving their credentials as papabile - or papal contenders.
Although he has been Pope for less than six years, Benedict XVI has named about two-fifths of cardinal-electors.
By 2012, the German Pope is expected to have chosen two-thirds of the men who would pick his successor - the majority required to elect a pope.
In that way perhaps more than any other, he will have left an indelible mark on the future of the papacy.