Seizing one of his last chances to shape the body that will pick his successor, Pope John Paul II on Sunday named 37 new cardinals--an unusually high number--including three from the United States and one from the former Soviet Union.
The new "princes of the church" will expand the College of Cardinals, the elite body that advises popes, to an all-time high of 178 members. They will include a record 128 cardinal-electors--those who are under age 80 and thus eligible to meet in secret when the time comes to choose a new pontiff.
John Paul, now in his 23rd year as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, has named 118 of those electors--men who share his conservative views on Catholic doctrine.
And because for centuries only cardinals have become popes, it is likely that he has already promoted his own successor--this time or in one of his seven earlier consistories, the formal name for the creation of new cardinals.
The 80-year-old pope, enfeebled for years by symptoms of Parkinson's disease, read Sunday's announcement in a weak voice from the window of his study overlooking St. Peter's Square. He tried to dampen speculation that his death or retirement is near.
After listing appointees from five continents who "reflect the universality of the church," he remarked wistfully that other prelates "who are dear to me" deserve the rank of cardinal and said he hoped to elevate them on a future occasion.
But that opportunity, Vatican watchers say, might not come for two or three more years. The extraordinary number of appointments Sunday, they suggested, looked like a farewell bestowal of coveted jobs by a patron unsure of his longevity--and a way to guarantee a full house of like-minded electors when he's gone.
"He realizes time is running out," said Father Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. "But the big thing is that there's so many people he wanted to make cardinals and he didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings."
The pope last appointed cardinals three years ago and had been working for months on a new list, as old age and death steadily diminished the number of cardinal-electors to 95--well below the limit of 120 set in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.
John Paul acknowledged Sunday that his new batch will put the number of cardinal-electors eight over the limit but offered no justification for the breach. Lacking enough slots for the men he wanted to elevate, he simply opened up more.
Of the 37 new cardinals, 18 are from Europe, three from the United States, 10 from Latin America, two from Africa and four from Asia. They are to assume their new rank--and receive their distinctive red hats and sashes--at a Feb. 21 ceremony here in St. Peter's Basilica.
The new American cardinals will include Edward Egan, 68, and Theodore E. McCarrick, 70, both elevated because of their recent appointments as archbishops, respectively, of New York and Washington, D.C.
Archbishops or patriarchs in 20 European, Latin American, African and Asian cities--most of them traditionally entitled to become cardinals--also were elevated, as were 12 men who head departments in the Vatican bureaucracy, or Curia.
Audrys Juozas Backis, 63, a French-schooled Lithuanian exile who returned to his country as archbishop of Vilnius when Communist rule collapsed there in 1991, became the first prelate serving in the former Soviet Union to be named a cardinal.
Four of the appointees are over 80, including Stephanos II Ghattas, patriarch of Alexandria and leader of the 200,000 Catholic Copts in Egypt.
Father Avery Dulles, 82, of Fordham University in New York, became the first American appointed cardinal on the strength of theological work alone. The Jesuit scholar and son of President Eisenhower's secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was honored for his staunch defense of John Paul against liberal critics in his field.
Since his election in 1978, John Paul has used consistories to impose his conservative stamp on the church's upper ranks. The pope's elevation Sunday of Desmond Connell, the 74-year-old archbishop of Dublin, Ireland, was viewed by some here as a slight to Connell's more liberal counterpart in Armagh, Sean Brady, who was passed over.
The most powerful Vatican official to be elevated was Giovanni Battista Re, 66, a career diplomat who last autumn was put in charge of the office that selects bishops. As a cardinal, he will become a key figure in the quiet jockeying already underway to identify potential successors to John Paul.
Two other Italians were rewarded for assisting in papal achievements. Cresenzio Sepe, 57, managed the Vatican's just-ended Holy Year, which drew nearly 25 million pilgrims to Rome. Father Roberto Tucci, 79, who heads Vatican Radio, has been the pope's globe-trotting advance man on foreign trips for nearly two decades.
John Paul has used appointments to the Curia and College of Cardinals, as well as his 92 foreign trips, to broaden the Vatican's influence beyond Europe.
But the new appointments slightly bolstered Europe's predominance in the church hierarchy. Europeans will constitute 61 of the 128 cardinal-electors.
Italians, with 24 cardinal-electors, will remain the largest single nationality--an asset in their openly expressed aspiration to reclaim the papacy after John Paul, the first non-Italian pope in more than four centuries.
Latin America, home to half the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics, will have 27 cardinals. The United States will have 11.