VATICAN CITY, Feb. 16 (RNS) -- An aged and ailing Pope John Paul II will elevate 44prelates to the College of Cardinals next week in a ceremony that willalmost certainly have a strong influence on the choice of his eventualsuccessor.

The 80-year-old pontiff will place a biretta, a square red capdenoting the rank of cardinal, on the head of each man Wednesday during a four-hour Consistory and Mass in St. Peter's Square. OnThursday, the church Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the pope willconcelebrate Mass with the new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica andgive each a cardinal's ring.

The ceremonies are important to the future of the Roman CatholicChurch because it is members of the College of Cardinals who elect thepope, and Canon (church) Law requires the cardinals to chose the popefrom their own numbers.

The Consistory is the eighth formal meeting of cardinals that JohnPaul has called to create new princes of the church during the 22 yearsof his pontificate. It will raise membership in the College of Cardinalsto 184.

Of the 135 cardinals under the age of 80 and thus eligible to votein the Conclave that will elect the next pope, 125 were chosen by JohnPaul, 10 by Pope Paul VI.

But this does not mean that the next leader of the world's 1 billionCatholics automatically will be a priest in the image of the doctrinallyconservative, Polish-born prelate, who was himself a surprise choice.

Vatican observers believe an overriding concern of the cardinals whoserve as residential bishops of sees throughout the world and are amajority in the College of Cardinals is to curtail the growing power ofthe Roman Curia, the church's central administrative body, over diocesanaffairs.

Because John Paul's papacy is among the longest in church history,it also is possible that the cardinals will want the next pope to be anolder prelate to ensure a shorter reign. They recall that following the20-year papacy of Pius XII, the cardinals elected John XXIII, who was 77at the time and reigned for little more than five years.

John Paul, elected at the age of 58, was the youngest andlongest-serving pope chosen in the 20th century. At the age of 80, hesuffers the debilitating effects of a neurological disease but hasmaintained a demanding schedule.

The pope had been expected to announce a Consistory shortly afterthe Jubilee Holy Year 2000 ended on Jan. 6, but both the way he made theannouncement and the large number of new cardinals came as a surprise. Speaking from his study balcony overlooking St. Peter's Squareduring the Sunday Angelus prayer on Jan. 21, John Paul disclosed thenames of 37 new cardinals. Then, in what is believed to be a moveunprecedented in church history, he added seven more names the nextSunday, Jan. 28.

The pope far exceeded Paul VI's limit of 120 cardinals of voting ageby nominating 40 new cardinals under the age of 80. The total of 44 newcardinals is believed to be a record.

Of the new cardinals, 23 came from Europe, three from North America,11 from Latin America, two from Africa, three from Asia and two from theMiddle East. They include seven Italians, the largest national group,and five from the former Soviet bloc countries of Ukraine, Latvia,Lithuania and Poland.

The pope had chosen two of the Eastern Europeans -- Ukrainian LatinRite Archbishop Marian Jaworski, 74, of Lviv and Latvian ArchbishopJanis Pujats of Riga, 70 -- for his last Consistory in 1998 but kepttheir names "in pectore" (in the heart) without disclosing them for fearof endangering their ministries. They will enter the College ofCardinals with the seniority of 1998 members.

Twelve of the new cardinals are officials of the Roman Curia, 29 areresident in dioceses around the world, two are oriental patriarches,three are theologians and 13 are members of religious orders, includingArchbishop Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Lima, Peru, the first Opus Deiprelate to become a cardinal.

The new U.S. cardinals are Archbishops Edward M. Egan, 68, of NewYork and Theodore E. McCarrick, 70, of Washington and the Rev. AveryDulles, 82, an eminent Jesuit theologian, who held the McGinley Chair atFordham University in New York.

Both Egan and McCarrick were only recently appointed to their sees. Egan, installed June 19, had served previously as a judge of theSacred Roman Rota and bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., and McCarrick,installed Jan. 4, was bishop of Newark, N.J.

Dulles is the son of John Foster Dulles, secretary of state in theEisenhower administration and nephew of Allen Dulles, who was head ofthe Central Intelligence Agency. Born into a Presbyterian family, AveryDulles became a Roman Catholic while attending Harvard College in theearly 1940s.

Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, of Westminster in London, anothernew appointee who will become a cardinal, will introduce an ecumenicalelement into the Consistory. He will bring to the ceremony as his gueststwo ranking Anglicans, Canon Richard Marsh, ecumenical secretary toArchbishop of Canterbury George Carey, and Bishop Mark Santer ofBirmingham.

Murphy-O'Connor and Santer served together until recently asco-chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission fordialogue between the two churches.

Other new cardinals include the archbishops of Abidjan, Ivory Coast;Durban, South Africa; Bombay and Ernakulam-Angamaly of theSyro-Malabars, India; Quito, Ecuador; Sao Paulo and Sao Salvador daBahia, Brazil; Bogota, Colombia; Santiago, Chile; Tegucigalpa, Honduras;Caracas, Venezuela; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Santa Cruz de la Sierra,Bolivia; Dublin, Ireland; Vilnius, Lithuania; Lyon, France; Toledo,Spain; Lisbon, Portugal; Turin, Italy; Lviv, Ukraine; and Paderborn andMainz, Germany.