ROME -- The red, or rather scarlet, carpet will be rolled in St. Peter's Basilica on Saturday for the elevation of six cardinals. The new so-called "princes of the church" will receive their ring, scarlet skullcap and the traditional biretta, a four-cornered hat, in a solemn ceremony presided by Pope Benedict XVI.
The ceremony won't only be a rare insight into one of the oldest and most colorful traditions in the Catholic Church, which with 1.1 billion adherents worldwide, represents more than half of the world's Christian population. It will also redefine the balance of power in the Catholic Church, and further increase the United States' influence in the election of the next pope.
Among the six cardinal-elects is James Harvey, an archbishop from Milwaukee who will become the 11th cardinal elector from the U.S., strengthening the country's position as the Vatican's second-largest voting bloc after Italy. Cardinal electors are the members of the College of Cardinals who have not reached their 80th birthdays on the day the pope dies and are thus able to vote for the new prelate.
But as American author and John Paul II biographer George Weigel explains, the fact that American cardinals will represent almost 10 percent of worldwide electors in the next Conclave (the election of the pope), does not necessarily mean one of them will become the next Holy Father.
"The prominence of American cardinals in the current college reflects the vitality of the Catholic Church in the United States," Weigel told NBC News. "But I don't think it likely that any American will be elected pope for as long as the United States remains the world's pre-eminent power."
What the selection of an American to be one of the new cardinal electors might show however, is that Pope Benedict XVI is acutely aware that the Catholic Church is swiftly ceasing to be predominately European religion. After all, with 134 million followers, Brazil alone has more Catholics than Italy, France and Spain combined, according to a major study released in 2011. Even the United States, with 75 million or 24 percent of the world's Catholics, is far ahead of any European country.
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