Cardinals attend the Consistory ceremony in Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican November 24, 2007. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

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.