VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI installed his first group of cardinals Friday, crowning 15 new princes of the Roman Catholic Church with scarlet hats symbolizing their willingness to shed blood in defense of the faith.
Nearly a year after he became leader of the world's most powerful religious institution, Benedict used a solemn, regal ceremony in St. Peter's Square to urge his followers to proclaim a message of love "far and wide" that will unite and bolster Christians everywhere.
The new cardinals, who join an elite club that will one day choose Benedict's successor, included Hong Kong's Joseph Zen, an outspoken critic of China's human rights record and repression of Christians. During Friday's ceremony, a prayer was read in Chinese honoring "all those who still suffer for their Christian faith."
The group also included William J. Levada, a Californian who was previously selected by the incoming pope as head of the Vatican body that enforces doctrine and thus became the most powerful American at the Holy See; and Sean Patrick O'Malley, a white-bearded Franciscan who as archbishop of Boston has had the job of repairing damage in sex-abuse scandals that forced the resignation of his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law.
Selecting cardinals is one of the most important tasks for a pope, and the roster of new choices is always scrutinized for insight into the direction a pontiff plans to take the church, or for political or doctrinal messages. Because this is former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's first batch since succeeding the late Pope John Paul II, Friday's event, known as a consistory, attracted special attention.
Also significant was Benedict's decision to hold what one church official called a brainstorming session with all cardinals on the eve of the consistory. Several senior prelates have called for a more "collegial" church hierarchy that consults its members more regularly.
As church bells pealed under cloudy skies, the newly designated cardinals paraded into a crowded St. Peter's Square on Friday morning, smiling broadly and waving to supporters. They were bareheaded and each was dressed in a bright red cassock with a similarly hued mozzetta, or cape.
Benedict, wearing papal white and a fur-trimmed red and gold cape, called each man's name in Latin. One by one, they went before him, knelt and received Benedict's blessing. The pope then placed on each man's head the red biretta, a four-cornered satin hat symbolizing their new station.
Levada, a close ally of the pope, went first. He kissed Benedict's hand, and then the pope rose unexpectedly, placed his hands on each of Levada's shoulders and kissed each cheek.
Levada, who was born in Long Beach and served as archbishop of San Francisco, said earlier he faced the day "with a heart full of emotional gratitude and trepidation." On behalf of all the new cardinals, he pledged "total love and unconditional loyalty" to the pope.
Another poignant moment came when Stanislaw Dziwisz, the archbishop of Krakow, Poland, and longtime personal secretary to John Paul, received his hat. Both Benedict and Dziwisz were visibly moved as they embraced on a stage that the Polish prelate had shared for so many years with the late pontiff.
Invoking the "ancient roots" of the Catholic Church, Benedict sounded two key themes of his 11-month-old papacy: unity and the revival of Christianity in an increasingly secular world. He told the cardinals that he was counting on them to "hasten and secure" the path to full unity among Christians and to ensure that their concern for the poor and needy "challenges the world."
The last time this much church power was gathered in a single place was for John Paul's funeral, here in St. Peter's Square on April 8, and the installation of Ratzinger as pope 16 days later.
John Paul presided over nine consistories in his long papacy. The final one, on Oct. 21, 2003, had a much more somber mood than Friday's, largely because it was seen as possibly his last. Thirty cardinals were created that day, and it was clear to most participants then that they would be helping choose John Paul's successor in the not-so-distant future.
The air this year was of celebration. Later Friday, thousands of people -- priests, nuns and ordinary pilgrims -- thronged the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, waiting hours to shake hands with the cardinals in ornate salons decorated with frescoes, gilded mirrors and crystal chandeliers. The general public rarely gets this kind of firsthand glimpse of such hallowed halls.
The most provocative choice Benedict made in naming his first group of cardinals may have been the Shanghai-born Zen. As bishop of the former British colony of Hong Kong, Zen has championed the rights of Chinese Christians and Catholic priests, many of whom have been jailed or forced to worship clandestinely.
Zen said he hoped his appointment, despite his adversarial activity, would help improve relations and, above all, communication between the Vatican and Beijing.