VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis appointed his first batch of cardinals on Saturday, February 22, as his predecessor Benedict XVI made a surprise rare appearance at the ceremony naming the new "princes of the Church."
The new cardinals were presented with scarlet-red birettas and gold rings at a grandiose ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica that Vatican observers say should help correct a perceived bias towards European cardinals.
Former pope Benedict XVI, who last year became the first pontiff to retire since the Middle Ages, joined the cardinals in the front row of the basilica. (READ: Ex-pope Benedict in rare public appearance at cardinals ceremony)
The 86-year-old seemed cheerful as he sat cloaked in his white papal garments in the midst of the red-robed cardinals. He and Francis hugged at the start of the ceremony and shook hands warmly at the end.
Sixteen of the 19 cardinals are under the age of 80 and can therefore take part in the secretive conclave that elects new popes from among their ranks.
In an indication of the importance of the developing world for the Argentine pope – a fierce critic of economic inequality – half are non-Europeans, including 5 cardinals from South America, two Africans and two Asians.
Francis, in a cream mantle embroidered with gold, called on the new cardinals to be "peacemakers, building peace by our hopes and our prayers."
'The Church needs your courage'
"I will tell you what the Church needs: she needs you, your cooperation and even more your communion. The Church needs your courage," he said.
The 77-year-old called on the new cardinals to show "compassion, especially at this time of pain and suffering for so many countries throughout the world."
Francis is keen to nourish faith in developing countries, to combat the decline of practicing believers in Europe, the Church's traditional power base.
The first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years bestowed the honor of the red cap on the archbishops of Buenos Aires in Argentina, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Santiago in Chile, Managua in Nicaragua and Les Cayes in Haiti.
Aurelio Poli, 66, took over the post of Buenos Aires archbishop from Francis, who was a regular visitor to the city's slums before he became pope almost a year ago.
Chibly Langlois, 55, is the Church's first cardinal from Haiti, one of the poorest countries of the world.
According to Vatican watcher John Allen, Francis is taking the idea of privileging the periphery even further, by choosing Haiti over the region's 3 Catholic powerhouses – Cuba, Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.
For Africa, the new electors were the archbishops of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and Abidjan in Ivory Coast, while Asia was represented by the archbishops of Cotabato in the Philippines and Seoul in South Korea. (READ: New cardinal: 'Spokesman' from the poorest islands)
The pope's choices echo his desire to emphasis the pastoral side of the Church –choosing for the most part leaders engaged with the problems affecting their local communities rather than favouring administrative heads.
Only 4 are members of the Curia – the Vatican's government – including Italian Pietro Parolin, 58, the new secretary of state, as well as German Gerhard Mueller, 66, who heads the Vatican's doctrinal congregation.
Among the most prominent in the group is Britain's Vincent Nichols, the 68-year-old Archbishop of Westminster, who has been likened to Francis for his determination to speak out for the marginalised.
Just a week before the Vatican ceremony, he waded into British politics to condemn welfare cuts and is best known for winding up the Church's conservative arm in 2010 by defending London masses for gay and transgender Catholics.
Nichols was joined by Gerald Lacroix, the lord archbishop of Quebec in Canada and one of the youngest electors to be chosen at the age of 56.
The oldest "new prince" is Loris Francesco Capovilla, the 98-year-old former secretary to pope John XXIII, who did not attend because of his reduced mobility but is likely to receive his red cap at home. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com