WASHINGTON (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday named Archbishop of Washington Donald W. Wuerl as one of 24 new cardinals, one of two Americans to be elevated to the elite group that will elect the pope’s 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 formerly was La Crosse, Wis., bishop and now leads the Vatican’s supreme court. He has been sharply critical of the U.S. 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, 69, celebrated Mass on Wednesday morning at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in downtown Washington, where President John F. 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, Archbishop Wuerl 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.”
Archbishop Wuerl is the fifth leader of the Washington archdiocese to have received the honor. He was named head of the church in Washington in 2006 after serving as bishop of Pittsburgh, where he was born, for 18 years.
The Washington Archdiocese is smaller than the Pittsburgh Diocese but is a symbolic leadership post because it includes the nation’s capital, along with five Maryland counties. His ties to the capital date back to the 1960s, when Archbishop Wuerl studied at Catholic University of America’s Theological College.
In April 2008, Archbishop Wuerl hosted Benedict’s visit to Washington, which included a Mass at Nationals Park filled with multicultural music.
In the past year, Archbishop Wuerl drew 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.
In 2009, Archbishop Wuerl delivered a prayer at a service for President Obama’s inauguration.
During Mass on Wednesday, the archbishop said his nephew once asked him, “What happens when you become a cardinal?”
“You get a new hat,” Archbishop Wuerl replied.
The red hats worn by cardinals signify a special connection with the Vatican, he said.
On Wednesday morning, Susan Gibbs, the spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said that she was receiving congratulatory e-mails from all over the country and that the archbishop was fielding phone calls from well-wishers.
Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik told reporters he had spoken by phone with Archbishop Wuerl on Wednesday and that Archbishop Wuerl’s “incredible gifts are well known.”
“Everywhere he has served, the church has benefited enormously by his presence,” Bishop Zubik said.
Benedict, making the announcement of the new cardinals “with joy” at the end of his weekly public audience, said the new “princes of the church” will be elevated formally at a ceremony in Rome on Nov. 20.
Others prelates named to the College of Cardinals are from Warsaw; Munich; Kinshasa, Congo; Quito, Equador; Aparecida, Brazil; Lusaka, Zambia; and Colombo, Sri Lanka. Also named was the leader of the Catholic Coptic Church in Egypt.
Many of the new cardinals head Vatican offices, including Archbishop Kurt Koch, a Swiss in charge of the Vatican’s relations with other Christians and Jews.
With the installation of the new cardinals, Benedict in just five years has named nearly half of the 120 prelates under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave following the death of a pope.
Eight of the new cardinals under 80 are Italians, giving them a total of 25 — nearly half of the Europeans in the electing body of the College of Cardinals.
Italians held the papacy for 455 years until the election of Poland’s John Paul II in 1978, followed by the German-born Benedict in 2005.
“The preponderance of Italians would suggest the scale has tipped in favor of an Italian candidate for the next conclave,” said Gerard O’Connell, a veteran Irish Vatican correspondent.
With the church rocked by a global clerical sex abuse crisis, Benedict named as cardinal in Munich, his former diocese, Archbishop Reinhard Marx, who has been prominent in efforts to clean up the scandal in Germany. He was behind efforts to force out a bishop accused of physical abuse of children.
However, the pope passed up giving a cardinal’s red hat to Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has been the Irish church’s leading advocate for Catholic openness in its child-abuse scandals.
Victor L. Simpson reported from Vatican City.
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