Pope John Paul II may name as many as 17 new cardinals this year, including several Americans, to replenish the shrinking number eligible to vote in papal elections and to promote archbishops in Vatican positions normally held by cardinals, according to a Jesuit expert on Catholic church governance.

Archbishop Roger Mahony of Los Angeles heads the list of likely American candidates the pope may name cardinals, possibly as early as February, the Rev. Thomas J. Reese writes in an article to be published in the Jan. 26 issue of America magazine, an influential Jesuit weekly commentary on religion and culture.

Only cardinals can vote for a pope, and 17 new cardinals would increase the number eligible to vote to 120, the most allowed under rules established by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

"The pope, in effect, names his own successor, a fact which could have an impact on the church well into the 21st century," Reese said when asked in an interview with the Religious News Service to amplify the article's comments on the significance of new cardinals.

Reese, a political scientist, is a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center, a Jesuit think tank based at Georgetown University.

In his article, he said other U.S. bishops likely to be named cardinals are St. Louis Archbishop John L. May, 68, the former head of the U.S. bishops' conference; Philadelphia Archbishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua, 67; and Detroit Archbishop Adam J. Maida, 60.

Long shots include San Antonio Archbishop Patrick F. Flores, 61, and Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler, 59, Reese said. Naming Flores a cardinal would acknowledge "the growing importance of Hispanics in the U.S. church and the increasing number of Catholics in the Sun Belt," he wrote.

Of nine current American cardinals, retired archbishops John J. Krol of Philadelphia and John J. Carberry of St. Louis are over 80 and ineligible to vote in papal elections.

While commenting on who and how many U.S. cardinals might be named is informed speculation, Reese said, there is no doubt about their clout.

"Anybody who wears a red hat stands out in a crowd, even in a church. Cardinals play a prominent role in the church just because of what they are," he said. "We are a church that defers to hierarchy and people in high positions."

And cardinals are people who "have to be listened to," he said, noting that the media seek them out first when they are in need of an official or informed insider's opinion on church matters.

"Even in the bishops' conference, when a cardinal gets up to speak, the other bishops listen," said Reese, the author of "Archbishop -- Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church."

The pope, said Reese in his America article, also is likely to take advantage of the opportunity to name cardinals in the newly open societies of the former Eastern European bloc.

Pope John Paul II, the former archbishop of Krakow, Poland, is keenly attuned to the political and religious situation in Eastern Europe and wants to strengthen the church there, Reese said in the interview.

"With this pope, we have seen an increase in the percentage of curial cardinals and cardinals in Europe, partly because of his interest in appointing cardinals," said Reese.

But the pope "is especially sensitive to conflicts between church and state anywhere in the world, and tends to appoint cardinals to give them more stature and credibility in dealing with local governments."

Among Vatican officials most likely to be given the traditional red hat that papal advisers and electors have worn for the last 900 years is Archbishop Angelo Sodano, the newly appointed replacement for retired Cardinal Agostino Casaroli as the Vatican secretary of state.

Archbishop Pio Laghi, the former apostolic pro-nuncio to the United States now serving as the pro-prefect of the Vatican Congregation of Education, is another likely candidate, Reese said.

In the last 100 years, revisions of canon law have eliminated laymen or priests from consideration for the office. In 1962, Pope John XXIII required cardinals to be bishops. The last lay cardinal was Giacomo Antonelli, the Vatican secretary of state who died in 1876.

The seven active American cardinals are Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago; John J. O'Connor of New York; William W. Baum, head of a Vatican office; Bernard F. Law of Boston; James A. Hickey of Washington; Edmund C. Szoka, head of economic affairs for the Vatican; and Myroslav Lubachivsky, archbishop of Lwow in the Ukraine, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Rome.