Pope Francis injects new blood into cardinals club

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Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis on Wednesday created five new cardinals in a colourful ritual ceremony at the Vatican that blended centuries of tradition with the Argentine pontiff's vision of a remodelled Church for the 21st century.

Four of the five new cardinals come from countries that have never had a cardinal before: El Salvador, Laos, Mali and Sweden. The fifth is from Spain.

In a hard-hitting homily, Francis told them they should regard themselves as servants of the most vulnerable and not be misled by the traditional description of cardinals as 'Princes of the Church'.

The world they have to deal with, Francis said, is "the innocent who suffer and die as victims of war and terrorism; the forms of enslavement that continue to violate human dignity even in the age of human rights; the refugee camps which at times seem more like a hell than a purgatory; the systematic discarding of all that is no longer useful, people included."

Experts say Francis's latest choice of cardinals reflects his desire to reach out to the peripheries of the global Catholic community, a recurring theme of his papacy.

Three of the new appointments are from countries with only small minority Catholic congregations.

As well as expanding its global footprint, the appointments increase the size of the electoral college that will select the next pope to 121 members, 49 of whom have been appointed since he became pope in March 2013.

The total number of cardinals is much larger, 225 including the new inductees, but only those under the age of 80 are eligible to join the conclave which will elect the pope's successor.

- Blood spilled -

"I think it reflects what Francis is about for him to create cardinals from Laos, Mali and Sweden," said one of the new appointments, Sweden's Anders Arborelius.

The Bishop of Stockholm told AFP he had been shocked to learn of his impending elevation.

"A priest showed me the announcement on the internet - at first I thought it was a joke," Arborelius, 67, said.

His new colleague Juan Omella, the 78-year-old bishop of Barcelona, concurred.

"The pope has a very universal vision. He wants to strengthen the areas on the margins where the Church is growing," he said in an interview ahead of Wednesday's consistory, as the formal swearing-in is known.

After vowing obedience to the Church and the pope, each of the five knelt before Francis to receive their cardinal's hat, a ring and a title linking them to a church in Rome.

As he placed the four-peaked "birettas" on their heads, Francis reminded the new cardinals, in Latin, that the hats' scarlet colour was a symbol of the blood they must be prepared to spill for their faith.

Then, as other popes have done since cardinals were first appointed nearly 1,000 years ago, Francis handed over the Papal Bull, or decree, that formalises the creation of new members.

- Church for the poor -

The latest appointments continue a recent trend towards increasing the representation of Asia, Africa and Latin America within the college of cardinals at the expense of European and North American clerics.

But those latter areas remain hugely influential, making up 56 percent of the college. Italy alone has almost a fifth (24) of cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave that elects popes.

El Salvador's first cardinal, Gregorio Rosa Chavez, 74, was a close friend of Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop slain by a death squad as he gave mass in 1980, during the Central American state's brutal civil war.

Often portrayed as an advocate of liberation theology, Romero shared Francis's belief that the Church should be at the service of the poor.

"He should be here in my place," Rosa Chavez told AFP. "He is a cardinal by martyr's blood."

Mali's Jean Zerbo and Laotian bishop Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun, 73, are the other new appointments.

One, Scottish former archbishop Keith O'Brien, renounced his voting rights in 2015 after being forced to step down over predatory sexual conduct with student priests.

Zerbo's appointment as Mali's first cardinal was clouded by reports he was one of three Church officials in the mostly-Muslim African state to have access to 12 million euros held in several accounts at a private bank in Switzerland.

The Church in Mali has denied any wrongdoing. Zerbo had been due to speak at Wednesday's ceremony but was belatedly replaced by Omella - because ill health had created doubts over his attendance, according to the Vatican.

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