VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict on Saturday brought 22 Catholic churchmen, including Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins, into the elite club of cardinals who will elect his successor.
The new cardinals also include the archbishops of New York, Prague and Hong Kong as well as the heads of several Vatican offices.
Collins, 65, is the 16th Canadian to be elevated to the position of cardinal. Only two other Canadian cardinals are alive — Marc Ouellet, 67, of Quebec City and Jean-Claude Turcotte, 76, of Montreal.
Saturday's elevation brought to 125 the number of cardinals under age 80 who are thus eligible to vote in a papal election.
Collins spent his childhood in the southern Ontario town of Guelph before earning a string of degrees at universities in Canada and Europe, including a doctorate of theology from Rome's Gregorian University.
Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who led an official delegation to the ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica, said it was quite an honour for Canada.
"It's poignant actually to see Cardinal Collins move up into an important role in the global church," Flaherty told CTV News from Rome.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, meanwhile, issued a statement congratulating Collins on his elevation to the College of Cardinals.
"On the occasion of this great honour for Catholics throughout Canada, I wish our country's newest cardinal all the best in his continued ministry," Harper said.
"The cardinals are usually the principal advisers to and ministers of the Pope, either assisting in the administration of the affairs of the Holy See or serving as archbishops of major cities throughout the world. That a native son of Guelph, Ont., has been made a cardinal is a source of pride for all Canadians."
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.
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.
Preparations for the ceremony have been clouded by embarrassing 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 pontiff, are already preparing for a conclave.
None of that was on display Saturday.
That said, each of the new cardinals did make a solemn pledge to keep church secrets upon accepting their new title, ring and three-pointed red hat, or biretta, from the Pope.
Reciting the cardinals' traditional oath of loyalty, each one pledged to remain faithful to the church and to "not to make known to anyone matters entrusted to me in confidence, the disclosure of which could bring damage or dishonour to Holy Church."
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 centre aisle. Benedict, who turns 85 in April, spoke in a strong voice as he told the cardinals they will be called upon to advise him on the problems facing the church.
In remarks at the start of the service, Benedict recalled that the 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.
Benedict 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. A reading was cut out, as was a responsorial psalm.
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."
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.
_ With files from The Canadian Press.