By Sarah Delaney
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 5:46 PM
ROME - Rain poured down on the colonnaded square outside, but inside St. Peter's Basilica, solemnity and good cheer reigned as Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl and 23 other men were called to join the College of Cardinals, the most powerful arm of the Catholic Church after the papacy.
Under the imposing gold and bronze Baroque high altar of the basilica, Pope Benedict XVI placed the three-cornered red cardinal's hat on the heads of the new "princes of the church" while they pledged their faith to God and church.
The pope reminded them of their new responsibility, symbolized by the red of their birettas, or hats, and their vestments: to "act with fortitude, even to the point of spilling your blood for the increase of the Christian faith."
Saturday's ceremony, called a consistory, marked the third time Benedict has named new cardinals to the body that is called on to advise the pope, and more importantly, to choose the next one when the time comes.
The creation of the 24 new cardinals brings the total number to 203 - 121 of whom are under age 80 - making them eligible to participate in a conclave to elect a new pope.
Pope Benedict told his newly elevated advisers that they were like the disciples of Jesus Christ, and so should offer their "total obedience to God."
The increased responsibility, he said, "requires an ever greater effort to assume the style of the son of God."
Inside the basilica, the more than 400 members of Wuerl's entourage - family, friends and ordinary Catholics who traveled here to support him - cheered as he walked up, bare-headed, to the altar and knelt before the pope. He was given a red zucchetto, or skullcap, by a papal aide before Benedict placed the biretta on his head.
The just-elevated Cardinal Wuerl smiled slightly as he stood and bowed before the pope. When the last of the new cardinals had been called, they greeted and congratulated one another. An evidently joyous Wuerl offered greetings to his new colleagues, including Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, prefect of the Vatican's highest court and the only other American elevated in this consistory.
Both Wuerl and Burke, like the others elevated Saturday, share the pope's devotion to the church's traditional teachings on a range of social issues.
After the ceremony, Wuerl told reporters that making his way up to the pope had been "an exciting moment." The placing of the biretta on each cardinal's head, he said, is the visible sign of "the very special bond" between him and the pope.
He added that the presence of so many people from around the world who had come to support their new cardinals was a sign of the church's universality.
Wuerl had been expected to be named a cardinal since he came to Washington from Pittsburgh in 2006. He organized Benedict's 2008 visit to Washington and was credited with its perceived success. His selection seemed virtually assured once Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick turned 80, disqualifying him from voting in papal elections. Usually only one voting cardinal is allowed per diocese.
Each cardinal is assigned a titular church in Rome. Wuerl's will be the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains), a popular tourist destination because of its marble statue of Moses by Michelangelo.
Earlier Saturday, pilgrims from Washington began gathering in St. Peter's Square before the rain began.
One group arrived at 7:45 a.m., thinking to beat the crowds and get a good place in line to the basilica. But others had the same idea, said Karin Quiroga, 45, of Washington; by the time she got there, the line already circled most of the square, hugging the massive four-deep columns that surround it.
Quiroga was one of five altar servers from St. Matthew's Cathedral who had come to see their archbishop receive the cardinal's hat. "We are so pleased. It's a real honor for the archdiocese," she said, adding that Wuerl will be an asset to the College of Cardinals because he is "very diplomatic, a real mediator."
Kathleen Asdorian, 67, of Silver Spring said of Wuerl as she waited in line, "For us, he is the ultimate archbishop, and this will bring even more stature to the archdiocese. He is a phenomenal catechist, and very bright, a real intellectual."
The enormous basilica did not have enough room for all who wished to enter, even some with tickets. Several hundred people stood in the square with their umbrellas watching the ceremony on large screens.
Some pilgrims said the new cardinal spent his last evening before taking on his new role talking with them at a Rome restaurant. Michael Nugent of Arlington, who sits on the diocesan Child Protection Board, said that seminarians from the North American College in Rome had composed and performed an amusing song to the tune of "Volare" with anecdotes about the cardinal.
Pilgrims will return to St. Peter's on Sunday to watch the pope give the cardinals their new rings during a Mass.
Saturday's ceremony came amid a number of events within and outside the church that underscored the crucial role that the cardinals play in advising the pope and bringing up the most pressing issues for discussion.
The church's response to the clerical sex abuse scandal; a recent challenge from the Chinese church, which ordained a bishop not chosen by the pope; the massacre of Christians in Iraq; and the creation of a new body to welcome disaffected Anglicans into the Catholic Church in Britain were all on the agenda in a pre-consistory meeting that the pope held Friday with the 150 cardinals who had traveled to Rome this weekend.
A Vatican statement said, among other things, that a set of guidelines was being prepared to address the church's response to the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
In an interview earlier this week, Wuerl said the idea of joining the elite group of cardinals was "exciting [and] humbling, as well."
The three most important challenges facing the church, he said, are increasing secularism, materialism and individualism, and that he would work to limit those withby emphasizing the "new evangelization" that Benedict has been promoting. to "help people reconnect with their faith."
After Saturday's ceremony, several thousand people crowded the entrances to the two designated locations where the new cardinals could greet well-wishers in relative calm.
Wuerl, wearing his new scarlet cassock and a pectoral cross on a rope, received visitors in the Paul VI audience hall, the cavernous modern structure where the pope holds audiences when bad weather prohibits an open affair in St. Peter's Square.
Across the square, supporters and perhaps the curious jockeyed to gain entrance to the receptions in the sumptuous Apostolic Palace, where the pope lives on the upper floors. Cardinals from the Roman Curia, including Burke, greeted the visitors after their long waits.
Delaney is a special correspondent.