VATICAN- Pope Benedict elevated six non-European prelates to the high rank of Roman Catholic cardinal on Saturday (November 24), chipping away at the old continent's domination of the elite group that will one day elect his successor.
Crowds of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square to celebrate the occasion and many were pleased that non-Italians were being honoured.
"I think it's about time that we have a diverse and more colourful bunch of cardinals, instead of just Italians and U.S., you know, all over the countries are Catholic so if you want to bring all the Catholics together you need to have a diverse group of cardinals," said visitor Leslie Ryan.
"We have come here to honour (our new cardinal). This is a great honour for the Middle East and us Catholics and for the whole world, because we all live together," said a Lebanese Bishop.
The new cardinals, ranging in age from 53 to 72, are from the United States, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, Lebanon and Colombia, and the decision to choose no Italians or Europeans looked like an attempt to counter criticism that he has in the past neglected the needs of the developing world.
Elevating the new "princes" in a solemn ceremony known as a consistory in St Peter's Basilica, Benedict said his appointments reflected "that the Church is the Church of all peoples".
"It presents a variety of faces, because it expresses the face of the universal Church. In this Consistory, I want to highlight in particular the fact that the Church is the Church of all peoples, and so she speaks in the various cultures of the different continents, amid the polyphony of the various voices, she raises a single harmonious song to the living God," he said in his sermon.
The new cardinals are American Archbishop James Michael Harvey, Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, a major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara rite in India, Archbishop Ruben Salazar Gomez of Bogota, Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Beatitude Bechara Boutros Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon, and Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abuja.
All six are "cardinal electors," those under 80 years old and therefore eligible to enter a conclave that will one day choose Benedict's successor.
Benedict gave the new cardinals their ring and traditional red "biretta," or hat. He reminded them that they wear red vestments because they must be ready to defend the faith "even to the shedding of your blood".
The pope is a conservative on matters of faith and sexual morals such as birth control, homosexuality and the ban on women priests. Each time he names cardinals he chooses men who share his views and can shape the Church's future.
Cardinals are the pope's closest aides in the Vatican, where they run its key departments, and around the world, where they head dioceses to administer the 1.2 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church.
Benedict was criticised in some Church circles last February when, in choosing his previous batch of cardinals, he elevated many from the Vatican's central bureaucracy. He was accused of neglecting the needs of the developing world.
Significantly, this time there were no Europeans or Italians, groups who loomed large in past consistories.
With 62 cardinals electors, Europeans still have a slight majority of the 120-member group, but their numbers have shrunk to be about even with the rest of the world.
There are now 58 non-European electors and of them, 14 are from North America, 21 are from Latin America, Africa and Asia have 11 each and Australia has one.
Two of the new cardinals, Boutros Rai, 72, of Lebanon, and Onaiyekan, 68, of Nigeria, are from countries with significant Muslim populations.
The pope's decision to raise the two to the highest rank in the Church short of the papacy indicates his concern for relations between Christianity and Islam.
The pope visited predominantly Muslim Lebanon last September and called on members of both faiths to work together to build peace in the Middle East and beyond.
In Nigeria, which is about 50 percent Muslim, the Islamist sect Boko Haram has killed hundreds of people in attacks since launching an uprising in 2009. Many of the attacks have been on Christians and churches.
Thottunkal, 53, the Indian, is on the front line of inter-religious dialogue with Hinduism.
The other two, Gomez, 70, of Bogota, Colombia, and Tagle, 55, of Manila, come from predominantly Catholic countries.
Harvey, the 63-year-old American, was the prefect of the Pontifical Household. He arranged the pope's schedule, including private and public audiences, and looked after world leaders visiting the Vatican.
He is now becoming the archpriest of the Basilica of St Paul's Outside the Walls in Rome.
In his previous post Harvey was the boss of the pope's former butler Paolo Gabriele, who was convicted last month of stealing papal documents and leaking them to the media.
When the names of the new cardinals were announced last month, a spokesman denied that the promotion of Harvey was a means of removing him because of the scandal.
Benedict has now named 67, or more than half, of the cardinals who will elect his successor from among their own ranks. The other 53 were named by Pope John Paul.