By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis is set to make the most important decisions of his young papacy in the next few weeks by naming new cardinals - the "princes of the Church" who will help him set its future course and one day elect his successor from their number.
A pope's choice of cardinals is one of the clearest signals of the direction in which he wants the 1.2 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church to go, and what type of man he wants to succeed him.
Francis immediately set about changing the Vatican's image with his simple style after his election last March, so his choice of clerics to elevate on February 22 is more eagerly awaited than usual.
He is expected to reveal his choices before the end of January so that preparations for the ceremonial "consistory" can be made, but so far there have been few if any whispers of likely names.
In the past, it was a fairly safe bet that archbishops of big dioceses or those heading Vatican departments traditionally headed by cardinals would get the three-peaked "biretta", the red ceremonial hat that cardinals wear.
But Francis, who renounced the spacious papal suite for a modest apartment in a Vatican guest house, and is driven around in a simple Ford Focus instead of a bulletproof Mercedes limousine, has shown little regard for precedent or tradition.
"He will feel very free to choose the people he thinks should be in those positions, regardless of what was done before," said Father Antonio Spadaro, the editor of the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica who interviewed the pope last summer.
"Certainly it will help us further understand where he wants the Church to go."
BENDING THE RULES
There are currently 14 vacancies in the College of Cardinals for "cardinal electors": those who would be allowed to enter a conclave to elect a pope.
Church rules in theory limit the number of "cardinal electors" to 120. But Francis can decide to bend or even abolish the rule.
In any case, 10 cardinals who are now electors will turn 80 during 2014, so Francis could appoint as many as 24 new cardinal electors and still have their number back to 120 by the end of the year.
Apart from potentially shifting the liberal-conservative balance of the College, and elevating men whose personal abilities he values, Francis could also alter its geographical distribution.
In the conclave that elected Francis last March, 60 cardinals were from Europe, even though the Church on the continent has been hardest hit by falling membership. Italy alone had 28.
By comparison, there were only 19 cardinals from all of Latin America, a region with the largest Catholic populations, and 11 and 10 respectively from Africa and Asia, where the Church is growing fast.
Francis, previously archbishop of Buenos Aires, is the first Latin American pope in history and the first non-European in 1,600 years.
Apart from naming new cardinal electors under 80, Francis is also expected to give the honorific title to a number of elderly churchmen in gratitude for decades of service. They are usually theologians or academics, and would not be eligible to enter a conclave.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Kevin Liffey)