VATICAN CITY -- Amid concerns about his frail health, Pope John Paul II appointed 31 cardinals Sunday, acting months earlier than expected and strengthening his influence on the group that will chose his successor.
The new "princes" of the church include senior Vatican officials and diocesan leaders from 20 countries. They will receive their red hats at a ceremony known as a consistory on Oct. 21 -- a date chosen to coincide with the weeklong celebrations marking John Paul's 25th anniversary as pope.
The only American on the list, Justin Rigali, is the archbishop-elect of Philadelphia.
Rigali, 68, is a Los Angeles native who was previously archbishop of St. Louis. He is a conservative and has championed two of the pope's favorite causes -- publicly condemning abortion and the death penalty.
"The rumors were out, but the news came very quickly. It's a great honor to be part of the Pope's council," Rigali said as he entered the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City, Mo., where he was attending a Mass.
St. Louis Archdiocese Vicar General Monsignor Richard Stika described Rigali's reaction as "humble excitement."
"It's kind of a bittersweet moment for us. He's been our spiritual father for nine and a half years," Stika said Sunday shortly after speaking with Rigali.
The College of Cardinals is already mainly made up of like-minded conservatives and the new batch will further cement the pope's influence on the choice of his successor.
Prior to Sunday's announcement, the College of Cardinals had 164 members -- 109 of them under age 80 and thus eligible to vote in a conclave to elect a new pope. Of the eligible voters, all but five were named by John Paul.
Birthdays and overall old age mean the number of College of Cardinal members is constantly in flux, but the traditional maximum is 120 voters. John Paul has had no qualms about surpassing that number -- doing so at the last two consistories in 2001 and 1998.
The latest appointments bring to at least 135 the number of cardinals under 80.
Vatican officials had said no consistory was expected before the end of the year; February 2004 had been mentioned as a possible date, because the previous two consistories were held in that month.
No explanation was given for why the pope acted sooner. But Vatican officials said privately that with the College of Cardinals and heads of national bishops conferences already coming to Rome for the anniversary celebrations -- as well as the pope's declining health -- an October consistory seemed opportune.
John Paul, who is 83 and suffers from Parkinson's disease, announced the new cardinals from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square. He read out the list with great difficulty, stopping to catch his breath several times before finishing each man's title.
One of the 31 on the list was unidentified, perhaps because he works in a country where the church is oppressed.
The new cardinals include archbishops from Nigeria, France, Sudan, Spain, Scotland, Brazil, Ghana, India, Australia, Croatia, Vietnam, Guatemala, Hungary, Canada, Italy as well as Rigali.
Among the appointments was George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney, Austraila, who has been the focus of controversy in the past. He was cleared of sex abuse allegations last year, but has drawn anger for saying abortion was worse than sex abuse by priests -- a comment he said was taken out of context -- and refusing to give communion to gays.
"I think it further shows the church to be representing many elements that I think are not doing the church very much good at the moment," Canberra Bishop Pat Power told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
John Paul also named some top Vatican officials, including the French-born foreign minister Jean-Louis Tauran and prelates from Spain, Mexico, Japan and Italy who run other Vatican offices or commissions that traditionally come with a red hat.
By naming cardinals for Vietnam, Sudan and Nigeria, the pope appeared to be trying to strengthen the position of his leaders in countries where the Roman Catholic Church often has difficulties with government officials or there are Muslim-Christian conflicts.
The Oct. 21 consistory will cap a busy week for the pope, who will preside over an evening Mass on Oct. 16 -- the anniversary of his election -- as well as the beatification of Mother Teresa three days later. In between, he will have other public appearances and speeches, and now will preside over the lengthy consistory.