Frail Pope installs new body of cardinals

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The Independent Online

Looking exhausted after a week of ceremonies attended by hundreds of thousands, Pope John Paul II yesterday installed 30 new cardinals as "princes of the church", putting what many see as his final stamp on the body that will elect his successor.

Slumped in his throne in St Peter's Square, the Pope was present throughout but his participation was minimised. He initiated the consistory, as the ceremony is called, reading the prescribed Latin text in a slurred, faint voice, but he did not attempt to read out his homily. It was read in his place by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, substituting for Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

In a further indication of frailty, the Pope did not place the red skull caps of office on the new cardinals' heads, as is traditional, but in their hands.

Cardinals old and new have been arriving in Vatican City to participate in the celebrations of John Paul's 25 years as Pope and the beatification of Mother Teresa. Discussions behind the Vatican's closed doors are a tightly guarded secret. But as reported in The Independent last week, it is expected that some cardinals will questioned whether the Pope should resign.

The Pope himself has so far shown no interest in such suggestions, vowing that he will continue in office "to my last breath". Those around him insist he remains mentally competent, even though he has increasing problems in communicating. But one Vatican insider said he was sure there was a contingency plan approved by the Pope should he lose the ability to do his job.

The 30 cardinals installed yesterday morning come from 22 countries, "a reflection," according to the Pope's homily, "of the multiplicity of races and cultures that characterise the Christian people".

The church now has a total of 195 cardinals. Of that number, 135 are below the age of 80 and therefore entitled to vote in the conclave, the secret election of the next pope that will follow John Paul's death. Until John Paul's accession, the maximum number of cardinal-electors was set at 120.