VATICAN CITY Pope Benedict, increasing the chances the next pontiff will be a conservative European, on Friday named 22 new cardinals, the red-hatted "princes of the Church" who are his closest aides and will one day choose his successor.
Eighteen of the new cardinals will be eligible to enter a secret conclave to elect the next pope from among their own ranks, and of those, 12 are Europeans, bringing the number of "cardinal electors" from the continent to 67 out of 125.
The pope is a conservative on matters of faith and sexual morals such as birth control, homosexuality and the ban on women priests. Each time he names cardinals he puts his stamp on Roman Catholicism's future by choosing men who share his views.
Among the most prominent on the list of new cardinals are archbishops in key spots such as Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, John Tong Hon, archbishop of Hong Kong, and Rainer Maria Woelki, archbishop of Berlin in the pope's native Germany.
"Yes, I'm honored, humbled and grateful. But let's be frank. This is not about Timothy Dolan. This is an honor from the Holy Father to the archdiocese of New York," Dolan told a news conference at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Others are from Italy, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, India, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Romania, Belgium, and Malta.
They include the archbishops of Toronto, Prague, Utrecht, and Florence. The head of the Siro-Malabar Catholic rite in India will also become a cardinal.
Another new American cardinal is Edwin O'Brien, head of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, a group that is a major funder of the church in the Holy Land.
With the new appointments, Benedict, who was elected in a secret conclave in 2005, has now named more than half the cardinal electors who will be able some day to choose a new leader of the world's some 1.3 billion Roman Catholics. The other electors were all named by his predecessor John Paul.
Compared to 67 cardinal electors for Europe, Latin America now has 22, North America has 15, Africa has 11, Asia has 9 and Oceania has one.
POPE BENT RULES
Speaking to pilgrims and tourists in St Peter's Square, the 85-year-old pope said he hoped the new cardinals would always be able to show their love for the Church with courage and dedication.
The ceremony to install them, known as a consistory, will be held on Feb 18. It will be Benedict's fourth.
In making Friday's appointments, Benedict brought the number of cardinal electors to 125, bending Vatican rules that set a cap of 120 cardinal electors at any one time. But some older members of the college of cardinals will turn 80 in the course of the year.
Of the 18 cardinal electors, the oldest is 76 and the youngest is 56.
Seven of the 22 named on Friday were Italian -- six of them members of the Vatican's central administration and the other the archbishop of Florence.
Popes usually reign for life but in a book last year, Benedict said he would not hesitate to become the first pontiff to resign willingly in more than 700 years if he felt himself no longer able, "physically, psychologically and spiritually" to run the Catholic Church.
Several popes in recent history, including the late Pope John Paul, considered resigning for health reasons instead of ruling for life.
The last pope to resign willingly was Celestine V in 1294 after reigning for only five months. Gregory XII reluctantly abdicated in 1415 to end a dispute with a rival claimant to the Holy See.
The Vatican says the pope's health is good but he needs to conserve his strength. Last October he started using a mobile platform which aides use to wheel him up the central aisle of St Peter's Basilica.
With Friday's announcement the total number of members of the college stands at 214, with nearly 90 of them retired or semi-retired.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Edited by Sophie Hares)