College of Cardinals

I read that the Holy Father made several new cardinals. How did the position of Cardinal come about? How does one get to be a Cardinal?



While the position of cardinal is clearly a great honor, it is also a grave responsibility. In 1998, looking forward to the new millennium, the Holy Father exhorted the new cardinals and the whole college: “May the Paraclete [Holy Spirit] be able to dwell fully in each one of you, fill you with divine consolation, and thus make you, in turn, consolers of all those who are afflicted, especially the members of the Church who are most tried, of the communities which suffer the greatest tribulations because of the Gospel. …You are called to help the Pope to lead Peter’s boat toward this historic goal. I am counting on your support and your enlightened and expert counsel to guide the Church in the last phase of preparation for the Holy Year. Looking along with you beyond the threshold of 2000, I invoke from the Lord an abundance of gifts of the divine Spirit for the entire Church, so that the ‘springtime’ of Vatican Council II may find its ‘summer,’ that is, its mature development, in the new millennium. The mission to which God call us today requires attentive and constant discernment. For this reason, I exhort you to be more and more men of God, who listen deeply to His Word, capable of reflecting His light in the midst of the Christian people and among all men of goodwill.”

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)



Pope John Paul II formally named 30 new cardinals on Sept. 28 and will officially induct them into the “College of Cardinals” on Oct. 21. (Another cardinal — number 31 — was named “in pectore” (“in his heart”), meaning his name was kept secret.) The 30 new cardinals included seven who were officials in the Roman Curia (Vatican offices), 19 archbishops, and four priests whom the Holy Father acknowledged for their service to the Church. They were from 21 different countries, with Archbishop Justin Rigali of Philadelphia being from the U.S.

The evolution of the position of cardinal and its duties is reflected in its two possible word roots. On one hand, scholars think the title is derived from the Latin word cardo, meaning “hinge,” thereby referring to an individual entrusted with an important administrative ecclesiastical office. On the other hand, some scholars suggest that the title is derived from the Latin incardinare, a term found first in the Letters of Pope St. Gregory I (d. 604), which refers to the incardination of those clerics who serve a diocese other than the one for which they were actually ordained. Both meanings come to play in the history we have about this office.

The title of cardinal emerged following the barbarian invasions, about the year 500. During these years of turmoil, a bishop was transferred to serve another diocese if his own diocese had been overrun and the Church suppressed. In this situation, these bishops were incardinated into the new diocese and would remain there as “cardinal bishops” unless their own diocese revived.

About the 10th century in Rome, the senior clergy attached to the basilicas and the 27 “title” Churches of Rome — the original parishes — were called cardinals to indicate a certain prestige of their position. To some extent, this privilege extended to priests serving at several other major cathedral churches, such as Cologne, Trier, Magdeburg, and Santiago de Compostela. Nevertheless, in Rome, these cardinals became a privileged body and were more involved in the liturgical and administrative duties of the Church.

By the time of Pope Leo IX (d. 1054), the title cardinal was reserved to the pope’s principal counselors and assistants living in Rome. In 1059, Pope Nicholas II made them the papal electors as well. In 1084, not only were bishops and priests granted the title cardinal but also deacons; for instance, during the pontificate of Pope Urban II, seven cardinal deacons existed, the customary number of deacons who assisted the Pope. Also at this time, the title of cardinal and right to elect the Pope were conferred on bishops living outside of the vicinity of Rome and presiding over their own dioceses. Later, Pope Alexander III (d. 1181) reserved the selection of cardinals exclusively to the Pope in 1179.

Over the years, the number of cardinals has varied. Pope Sixtus V (d. 1590) set the number of cardinals at 70 in 1586, after the number of the 70 Elders of the Old Testament. Pope John XXIII (d. 1963) revoked this rule and increased the number of cardinals. In his apostolic letter “Ingravescentem Aetatem” (1970), Pope Paul VI placed certain age restrictions on cardinals: At age 75, a cardinal must submit his resignation as head of an administrative post in the Curia or his retirement as bishop, either of which may or may not be accepted. At age 80, he loses his right to vote for the next successor of St. Peter. With the induction of the new cardinals, the College now has 194 members (not including the one named in pectore) of whom 139 are eligible to vote. As an aside, the normal number of cardinals eligible to vote for the successor of St. Peter is 120; however, Pope John Paul II has exceeded that number, which he has also done in the past.

As mentioned, the Holy Father named one in pectore, meaning he reserved the man’s name in his heart. The purpose of keeping a cardinal’s identity secret is to protect him from harm because of the political or other circumstances in which he lives. Such a cardinal is not bound by the duties of cardinals and does not possess any of their rights or privileges; however, the situation reverses once the Holy Father reveals his name and his seniority is dated from his naming in pectore.

We must remember that the pope selects those men as cardinals who are “especially outstanding for their doctrine, morals, piety, and prudence in actions” (Code of Canon Law, Canon 351). Usually bishops — actually archbishops since they head very large dioceses — are appointed as cardinals. (If one is not a bishop, he must receive episcopal consecration. However, an exception was made when Father Avery Dulles was appointed as a cardinal; Father Dulles asked the Holy Father not to be ordained as a bishop because being already past the age of 80 he thought he could not fulfill the responsibilities expected of both a cardinal and a bishop.)

Especially since the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, the selection of cardinals has better reflected the whole Church throughout the world. With the naming of these 30 new cardinals who include Roman Curia officials, archbishops (including those from such countries as Vietnam and Sudan where the Church faces persecution), and priests acknowledged for their service to the Church, the Holy Father said, “All together, with the multiplicity of their services, they reflect the universality of the Church.”

Together the cardinals form a special “college” which has the responsibility to provide for the election of the pope. As the Holy Father stated in his address to the new cardinals appointed in 1998, “[They] constitute the senate of the Church, the first collaborators of the Pope in his universal pastoral service.” The head of the College of Cardinals is the dean who is elected by the other cardinals and approved by the pope. The cardinals assist the pope collegially when they gather in a consistory at his invitation to address questions of major importance. Individual cardinals also preside over an office of the Curia or serve on a papal commission. For example, Cardinal Ratzinger is Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

One last minor point is concerning why the cardinals wear red. The Holy Father stated at the last investiture: “Red is a sign of the dignity of the office of a cardinal, signifying that you are ready to act with fortitude, even to the point of spilling your blood for the increase of the Christian faith.”

Fr. William Saunders

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Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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