Archbishop Thomas Collins, head of the Archdiocese of Toronto, said he was humbled to be among 22 men named as cardinals by Pope Benedict XVI on Friday.
Collins, 64, will become the 16th Canadian cardinal in the church's history once he is formally elevated to the rank on Feb. 18 in Rome.
Collins said his appointment is a reflection on his heritage as much as on his own clerical career.
"It is an honour and a recognition of the archdiocese of Toronto and really of Canada," Collins said in an interview.
"A cardinal's role is in the whole church to advise the Holy Father. I think it's a recognition of the significance of the role of Canada."
Friday's elevation marks a new highpoint for Collins, who was born in Guelph, Ont., and began his career as a priest in 1973 in nearby Hamilton.
He served there for 24 years before moving to Alberta to become the Bishop of Saint Paul.
Promotion followed two years later when he was elevated to the rank of Archbishop of Edmonton, a title he held until 2007 when he assumed leadership in Toronto.
During his career, Collins said he has seen the influence of the Catholic Church wane under pressure from an increasingly secular society. He hopes to combat that in his new role as cardinal.
While Christians in Canada do not face threats of violence prevalent in other parts of the world, Collins said the faith is under more subtle forms of attack that he hopes to counter.
"The great issue in the world...is the persecution of the church," he said.
"You don't hear about that very much, but because we have people from many places around the world who have families here in Toronto, we experience it indirectly very, very powerfully. It gives me hope and courage in my own dealing with issues in this part of the world to just be inspired by my brothers and sisters in Christ."
Congratulations poured in for Collins from both sacred and secular quarters.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement saying the appointment was "a testament to Collins' hard work and faithful devotion to the church and spiritual life."
Jewish group B'nai Brith Canada called Collins a friend to the faith, while the Conference of Catholic Bishops praised him as an advocate for "the vulnerable and the young" in his community.
Cardinals are the pope's top advisers, the elite group of churchmen who will eventually elect his successor.
Of the 22 new appointees, 18 are under the age of 80 — raising to 125 the number of cardinals eligible to vote in the next papal conclave.
Cardinals aged 80 and over are not allowed to vote on the next pope.
Collins said the task of selecting the next pontiff is a tremendous responsibility, but said the task will be made easier by global support from fellow Catholics.
"Every time you have an election of a pope, all of us around the world pray for God's wisdom and blessing on the cardinals," he said. "All of us are supported by prayer, and that makes all the difference."
The list of new cardinals includes two Americans: Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and the former archbishop of Baltimore.
The 84-year-old pope named 16 Europeans as cardinals, including seven Italians.
He also named Joao Braz de Aviz, a Brazilian who heads the Vatican office for religious life; John Tong Hon, bishop of Hong Kong; and George Alencherry, archbishop of the Syro-Malabar church in India.
The 18 new cardinals under 80 are:
Santos Abril y Castello, (Spanish), Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major
George Alencherry, (Indian), Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church in India
Giuseppe Bertello, (Italian), President of the Government of the Vatican City State
Giuseppe Bettori, (Italian), Archbishop of Florence
João Braz de Aviz, (Brazil), Prefect of the Congregation for Religious
Domenico Calcagno, (Italian), President of the Apostolic Patrimony of the Holy See
Francesco Coccopalmerio, (Italian), President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts
Thomas Collins, (Canadian), Archbishop of Toronto
Timothy Dolan, (United States) Archbishop of New York
Dominik Duka, (Czech), Archbishop of Prague
Wim Eijk, (Dutch), Archbishop of Utrecht
Fernando Filoni, (Italian), Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples
Antonio Maria Veglio, (Italian), President of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees
Manuel Monteiro de Castro, (Portuguese), Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary
Edwin O'Brien, (United States), Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre
John Tong Hon, (Chinese), Bishop of Hong Kong
Giuseppe Versaldi, (Italian), President of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See
Thomas Woelki, (German), Archbishop of Berlin
The four new cardinals over 80 are:
Karl Becker (German), a priest and professor
Prosper Grech, (Maltese), a priest and professor
Lucian Muresan (Romania), an archbishop
Julien Ries, (Belgian), a monsignor and professor
— with files from The Associated Press