Pope Benedict XVI creates 22 new cardinals

Pope Benedict XVI places a biretta on new Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the US at the consistory in Rome on 18 February 2012 The new cardinals each pledged a traditional oath of loyalty to the church

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Pope Benedict XVI has created 22 new cardinals - his closest aides - at a ceremony in Rome's St Peter's Basilica.

The new "princes of the church" were presented with red hats called birettas and gold rings at the "consistory".

The archbishops of New York and Hong Kong are among those joining the prestigious group that will one day choose the pontiff's successor.

Pope Benedict, who is nearly 85, is visibly slowing down, says the BBC's David Willey in Rome.

He entered St Peter's Basilica for Saturday's consistory on a rolling platform to spare him the long walk down the centre aisle.

Wearing red and gold vestments, he called on the new cardinals "to serve the Church with love and vigour" before handing them their birettas and rings.

Eighteen of the 22 newcomers are under the age of 80, meaning they can join the group of 125 cardinals who are eligible to take part in the conclave that will meet to elect a new pope once Benedict dies.

Disquiet

Seven Italians - many of them holding influential positions inside Church government - are among the new cardinals, our correspondent says.

Analysis

Pope Benedict XVI's appointment of 22 new cardinals takes place amid an atmosphere of scandal-mongering, rumour and media leaks from inside the Vatican.

The leaks concern alleged internal divisions and even malpractice among the senior bishops and cardinals at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Pope himself appeared to refer to the poisonous atmosphere prevailing inside the frescoed halls of the Vatican this winter, when he told local Rome seminarians training to become priests: "There is a lot of talk about the Church, a lot of things being said. Let us hope there is also talk about our faith!"

This will boost the European presence among the 125 "cardinal electors" and increase the possibility that the next Pope could once again be an Italian - a situation that has drawn accusations of bias when the regions of Africa and Latin America have seen greater growths in Catholic congregations than Europe.

Among the new cardinals is 62-year-old New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, a popular former rector of the North American College in Rome which trains future priests in the US.

He told a closed-door meeting of cardinals old and new on Friday that a "creative strategy" was needed to bring back faith in increasingly secular countries.

Giving the keynote speech at the meeting, he said the Church should accentuate its positive side, and would accomplish what it terms the "new evangelisation" with "a smile, not a frown".

Other new cardinals include Hong Kong Archbishop John Tong Hon and Berlin Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki.

The consistory is taking place against a background of disquiet inside the Vatican, our correspondent adds.

Confidential internal memos alleging corruption among top clerics and some laymen who advise the Pope have been leaked to the media.

The Vatican spokesman said - using a colourful metaphor - that "wolves were on the prowl in the frescoed palace of the popes".

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