Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday brought 22 Catholic churchmen into the elite club of cardinals who will elect his successor, cementing the Italian majority in a future conclave but also giving New York's garrulous archbishop a position of prominence.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan emerged as something of the star of the consistory, delivering a highly praised speech on spreading the faith and mentioned in some Italian media as an improbable "papabile," or having the qualities of a future pope.
Traditionally Americans are ruled out as papal contenders, with the argument that the world doesn't need a superpower pope. But Dolan's joyful demeanor seemed to have struck a chord in a Vatican that has been anything but joyful over a rash of news reports about political infighting and financial mismanagement.
"He certainly is going to be given many responsibilities as a cardinal," said the other American who got a red hat Saturday, Cardinal Edwin O'Brien, the outgoing archbishop of Baltimore. Asked if he thought Dolan had the stuff to be pope, O'Brien deadpanned: "His mother thinks so."
Dolan artfully dodged the question when asked about the speculation Saturday by a gaggle of reporters who traveled from the U.S. for the ceremony: "Io non parlo inglese," he said. ("I don't speak English.")
In all, 22 churchmen got their red hats Saturday, including the archbishops of Prague, Toronto, Florence, Utrecht and Hong Kong as well as the heads of several Vatican offices.
Seven of the 22 were 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 and thus eligible to vote in a future conclave.
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 candidate doesn't emerge.
Only the U.S. comes close, with 12 cardinals under 80.
In remarks at the start of the service, Benedict recalled that the red color of the three-pointed hat, or biretta, and the scarlet cassock that cardinals wear, symbolizes 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.
It was a similar theme Dolan touched on in his keynote speech to cardinals and the pope on Friday, which was peppered with jokes, references to books, films and his own experiences as archbishop in New York, Milwaukee and as rector of the U.S. seminary in Rome.
"Holy Father, can you omit the 'shedding of your blood' when you present me with the biretta?" Dolan asked the pope. "Of course not! We are but 'scarlet audio-visual aids' for all of our brothers and sisters also called to be ready to suffer and die for Jesus."
The Vatican said the pope had given Dolan a papal thumbs up, terming his speech "enthusiastic, joyful and profound." Dolan said Benedict referred to the speech again on Saturday during the few moments they shared privately when Benedict gave him his skullcap, biretta and ring.
"He thanked me again for yesterday, which meant a lot," Dolan told reporters at a reception after the ceremony. "He did have a little trouble getting the ring on the finger, which was a little embarrassing."
Preparations for the ceremony were clouded by leaks of internal documents alleging financial mismanagement in Vatican affairs, and reports in the Italian media of political jockeying among church officials who, sensing an increasingly weak and aging pontiff, are already preparing for a conclave.
None of that was on display Saturday, however, amid the pomp of the consistory that brought to 213 the overall size of the College of Cardinals, including the four over-80 cardinals who were honored in recognition of their long service the church.
Among them was Maltese Cardinal Prosper Grech, 86, the first Maltese cardinal in 168 years. One of his claims to fame is that he heard Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini's confession hours before he was elected Pope Paul VI.
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 in April, 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 as has been the norm to date.
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 simultaneously rather than one after another. A reading was cut out, as was a responsorial psalm.
And 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."
All of which has led to even more speculation that a conclave is very much on the minds of cardinals new and old.
"It's one of the major responsibilities, and one hopes it doesn't happen too soon," O'Brien said.
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. Only three of the new under-80 cardinals — a Brazilian, an Indian and a Chinese — come from developing countries.
Hong Kong Archbishop John Tong Hon spoke Friday about the plight of the Catholic Church in China, where priests and bishops of the underground church loyal to the pope are frequently harassed by government authorities.
Dolan, who has been embroiled in the battle with the Obama administration over health care coverage and contraception, said he got a lesson in what violations of religious freedom really means in the real world.
"I'm just sitting there thinking 'Wow, with all the problems we've got at home, and with even the difficulties we have in talking about the freedom of religion, it's nothing compared to what my brother cardinals throughout the world" are dealing with, Dolan said.
"They know what this red means."