Pope Benedict XVI named Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington as one of 24 new cardinals on Wednesday, one of two Americans to be elevated to the elite group that will elect his successor.
The new cardinals include prelates from key posts in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa as well as Archbishop Raymond Burke, an American who leads the Vatican's supreme court and has been sharply critical of the Democratic Party for its support of abortion rights. Cardinals are close advisers to a pope, but their key job is to elect the pontiff.
Archbishop Wuerl, who turns 70 next month, celebrated Mass on Wednesday morning at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in downtown Washington, where President Kennedy's funeral was held in 1963. He asked for prayers from about 50 people who gathered, and many applauded at the end of the service.
After Mass, the cleric said he was filled with "great excitement" and "great joy."
"I'm humbled, and I'm grateful," he said. "It's really a recognition of the significance of the church here in the nation's capital."
The collection of new cardinals includes ten Italians, raising their numbers among voting members. Four of the 24 cardinals are over 80 and thus ineligible to vote in the next conclave to elect a new pope.
Benedict XVI, elected five years ago, has now appointed more than half of the voting cardinals who would be called upon to select his successor.
Archbishop Wuerl, who has a reputation in Catholic Church circles as a pragmatic conservative, is the fifth archbishop of Washington to have received the honor. He became the leader of the Archdiocese of Washington in 2006, after serving as bishop of Pittsburgh, where he was born, for 18 years.
The archbishop, who is said to be popular in the Vatican and with Pope Benedict, has long been rumored to be in line for the cardinal's hat. The way might have been cleared for him when his predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, recently turned 80 and thus lost his vote in any future papal conclave.
The Washington archdiocese is smaller than Pittsburgh but is a highly symbolic leadership post because it includes the nation's capital along with five Maryland counties. Appointment as archbishop of Washington traditionally has been seen as a prelude to being named a cardinal.
Archbishop Wuerl's ties to the capital date to the 1960s when he studied at the Catholic University of America's Theological College.
In April 2008, he hosted Pope Benedict's visit to Washington, which included a Mass at Nationals Park filled with multicultural music.
In the past year, Archbishop Wuerl has drawn national attention for challenging the District of Columbia's new same-sex marriage law by ending spousal health benefits for employees of Catholic Charities. He said the church had no choice if it wanted to avoid recognizing same-sex couples as married.
He also is known for refusing to deny communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, as some conservative American bishops have proposed. In 2009, Archbishop Wuerl delivered a prayer at a service for President Obama's inauguration.
During Mass on Wednesday, the cardinal-designate said his nephew once asked him: "What happens when you become a cardinal?"
"You get a new hat," he replied.
The red hats worn by cardinals signify a special connection with the Vatican, he said.
On Wednesday morning, Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said she was receiving congratulatory e-mails from all over the country and that Archbishop Wuerl has been fielding phone calls from well-wishers.
Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik told reporters that he spoke by phone with Archbishop Wuerl on Wednesday and that the archbishop's "incredible gifts are well known."
"Everywhere he has served, the Church has benefited enormously by his presence," Bishop Zubik said.
The new cardinals will be formally elevated at a ceremony in Rome on Nov. 20.