A cardinal is a senior ecclesiastical official in the Roman Catholic Church. Cardinals are appointed by the pope and constitute the “Senate” of the church. They serve as chief officials of the Roman Curia, as bishops of major dioceses, and often as papal advisors and envoys. The College of Cardinals is responsible for electing a new pope when the papal see becomes vacant.
Origins and History
The office of cardinal dates back to the early centuries of the church. The term comes from the Latin cardo meaning “hinge,” suggesting the cardinal’s role as an assistant or counselor to the pope. By the 11th century, the College of Cardinals had emerged as an advisory council to the pope. The first records of cardinals wearing red robes come from the 12th century. In the Middle Ages, cardinals were given supervision of various ecclesiastical and diplomatic tasks in Rome and abroad. They served as papal administrators and governed territories ruled directly by the Holy See.
Over time, the College of Cardinals became more defined and consolidated under church law. At the Third Lateran Council in 1179, Pope Alexander III decreed that the election of the pope would be reserved exclusively to the cardinals. This role was reinforced in 1274 at the Second Council of Lyon and later at the Council of Constance in 1417. Only cardinals have the authority to elect a new pope upon the death or abdication of the current pontiff.
Qualifications and Selection
In order to become a cardinal, an individual must first be ordained as a priest. Cardinals are required to be bishops, although exceptions have been made for priests over the age of 80. Candidates for the cardinalate should be distinguished clergy who are committed to their faith and have demonstrated wisdom and holiness in their lives.
Cardinals are handpicked by the reigning pope. There is no specific process or election involved. Appointments are announced at public consistory ceremonies where new cardinals receive their red biretta hat and gold ring of office. All cardinals must be appointed by the pope himself in order to exercise cardinalatial duties.
There is no fixed number of cardinals. Popes can appoint as many cardinals as they wish. As of 2023, there are approximately 200 cardinals from 69 nations. Cardinals typically come from influential archdioceses and Roman Curia positions. Italy currently has the largest share of cardinals, followed by the United States.
Vestments and Symbolism
Cardinals wear distinctive red vestments and headgear to signify their willingess to defend the faith even to the point of shedding blood. Red zucchettos, cassocks, and birettas are usually worn by cardinals. The color symbolizes the blood of the martyrs. When cardinal-deacons participate in papal masses, they wear dalmatics with purple trim.
Each cardinal is assigned a titular church in Rome. This linkage highlights their role in advising and assisting the pope. Cardinals often have coats of arms that include a galero, a feathered wide-brimmed hat with tassels suspended on either side. After death, cardinals’ galeros are traditionally hung from the ceiling of their funerary church.
The cardinal’s ring of office bears the arms of the pope who conferred it. Cardinals kiss the ring as a sign of loyalty and respect to the current pontiff. When a pope dies, cardinals’ rings are destroyed. New rings bearing the arms of the next elected pope are distributed after the conclave.
Types and Ranks
There are three main orders or types of cardinals in the Roman Catholic hierarchy:
Cardinal Bishops – The most senior order of cardinals. There are only six cardinal bishops, assigned to the seven suburbicarian sees surrounding Rome. They oversee major basilicas and administer the pope’s diocese of Rome. The Dean of the College of Cardinals is elected from among this order.
Cardinal Priests – The largest group, consisting of rank-and-file cardinals connected to various churches in Rome. Most cardinal priests are diocesan archbishops appointed to large metropolitan archdioceses around the world.
Cardinal Deacons – The lowest rank of cardinal. Deacons historically supervised administrative works and charitable causes in Rome. Today cardinal deacons tend to be Vatican diplomats posted abroad as papal nuncios and ambassadors.
Within each order of cardinals, members are further ranked based on seniority and date of elevation by the pope. More recently inducted cardinals hold lower positions in the hierarchy. Seniority and precedence are important factors in protocol and ceremony.
Duties and Functions
Cardinals fulfill several important roles and duties in the Roman Catholic Church:
– They serve as official papal advisers and envoys for the pope. Cardinals assist the pope in administering church affairs and relations with secular governments.
– They administer departments of the Roman Curia. Cardinals oversee major Vatican offices, councils, tribunals, academies, commissions, and institutes.
– They act as ambassadors and diplomatic representatives of the Holy See to nations across the world. Cardinals engage in diplomacy to promote the church’s interests and mission globally.
– As diocesan bishops, they govern and oversee archdioceses and dioceses around the world. Cardinal archbishops are usually given larger, more significant sees to reflect their status.
– Upon a pope’s death, cardinals serve as electors of the next pontiff during a secret conclave held in the Sistine Chapel. They take a vow of secrecy and are sequestered until the next pope’s election.
– Cardinals participate in consistories, councils, synods, and other major church gatherings convened by the pope. They serve as chief spokespersons at these events.
– They formally advise the pope through consistories held at the Vatican. Cardinals may be polled by the pope for input on doctrinal, disciplinary, or governance issues facing the church.
– They act as legates and papal representatives for beatifications, canonizations, Jubilee celebrations, and other major ceremonies called by the pope.
– They serve in dicasteries or departments of the Roman Curia that oversee church administration. Some head or serve on Vatican congregations and councils that implement church policy.
– They act as protectors and spokespersons for nations, societies, religious orders, and causes important to the Holy See. For example, some cardinals are assigned to represent Eastern Catholic churches.
– They officiate at liturgical ceremonies and functions in their titular churches and cathedrals around Rome. Cardinals often celebrate masses and conduct rites on behalf of the pontiff.
– As “princes” of the church, cardinals outrank all other prelates except the pope. They are regarded as the most eminent churchmen and carry the rank of cardinal for life.
Voting in Papal Conclaves
One of the most vital roles of the College of Cardinals involves electing a new pope after the death or resignation of the current pontiff. This takes place during a papal conclave through a confidential voting process. All cardinals under age 80 when the papacy becomes vacant are eligible to enter the conclave and cast ballots for the next pope.
Here are some key facts about the cardinal’s involvement in papal elections:
– Only members of the College of Cardinals may participate in papal conclaves. Cardinal electors enter seclusion in the Sistine Chapel until a candidate receives a two-thirds supermajority.
– If a pope dies, cardinals must begin conclave proceedings within 15-20 days. All secular business and church obligations are suspended during this time.
– Cardinal electors take an oath of secrecy not to discuss any aspect of the election. Violators can face excommunication. Voting is conducted under strict confidentiality.
– Two ballots are held each morning and evening. Black smoke from burned ballots signals an inconclusive vote. White smoke announces a newly elected pope.
– Cardinals agree not to discuss deals or negotiate over papal candidates beforehand. However, lobbying and factionalism may still occur behind the scenes.
– Cardinals are arranged by seniority along the chapel’s benches. They approach the altar one by one to swear their oaths before voting begins.
– Each cardinal writes his selection on a paper ballot which is folded twice and placed in an urn. Scrutineers count each vote; ballots are burned after each round.
– Cardinals may select any baptized male Catholic to be elected pope. However, since 1378 all those chosen have been members of the College of Cardinals itself.
– A pope is elected when he obtains a two-thirds majority plus one additional vote. The new pontiff is asked if he accepts before being announced to the public.
Titles and Forms of Address
Cardinals have various titles and forms of address in diplomatic and ecclesial protocol reflecting their station as “princes” of the Roman Catholic Church.
– They are referred to as “Your Eminence” in spoken or written communication. The Italian is “Eminenza” or “Eminentissimo.”
– They may be addressed in writing at the head of a letter as “His Eminence, Cardinal [First and Last Name].”
– In Italian, “Cardinale” is used as a title before the name: “Sua Eminenza il Cardinale [Name].”
– In formal documents in Latin, their title is “Eminentissimus ac Reverendissimus Dominus, Dominus [Name], Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalis [Deaconry or Title]”
– Cardinal priests are styled as “His Eminence, Cardinal Priest of the Holy Roman Church of the Title of [Church Name].”
– Cardinal bishops have the title “His Eminence, Cardinal Bishop of the Holy Roman Church of the Suburbicarian See of [Diocese Name].”
– Cardinal deacons’ title is “His Eminence, Cardinal Deacon of the Holy Roman Church of [Deaconry Name].”
– As diocesan archbishops, cardinals may also use the style “His Eminence, Archbishop of [Archdiocese].”
– Dean of the College of Cardinals is formally styled as “His Eminence, [Name], Cardinal Bishop of [See], Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals.”
– While not a formal title itself, the Italian “porporato” and the Latin “purpuratus” are commonly used to refer to a cardinal for his red vestments.
Privileges and Restrictions
Cardinals enjoy certain privileges and are subject to restrictions due to their eminent role:
– They rank above archbishops and bishops outside of Rome and also above patriarchs of Eastern Catholic churches.
– Papal legates automatically receive the title of cardinal (sometimes temporarily) when dispatched abroad on diplomatic missions.
– While they do not have governing authority over other bishops, their views and advice carry more weight in church circles due to their status.
– They are required to reside in Rome and provide counsel to the pope unless granted explicit permission to reside elsewhere.
– Positions in the Roman Curia and Vatican administration are generally reserved for cardinals. Other clergy can fill diplomatic and managerial roles.
– Cardinals participate in consistories and conclaves even after age 80, but cease to be electors after their 80th birthday.
– They dress in choir dress of red cassock, rochet, mozzetta during liturgical services. A cardinal’s galero is depicted on his personal coat of arms.
– Cardinals’ funerals involve lying in state in the basilica of the Holy Apostles and a final mass celebrated by the pope himself.
– They benefit from the revenues of their various titles as assigned by the pope to fund their ecclesiastical activities.
– Cardinals generally serve 10-15 years in their titular churches before promotion to new assignements. The titular churches carry more prestige than actual authority.
– The pope may impose additional restrictions on cardinals at his discretion. For example, voting in conclaves was once limited only to cardinals appointed by the previous two popes.
Cardinals stand as senior officials of the Catholic Church ranked second only to the pope himself. Appointed by pontiffs, the cardinals act as key papal advisers, diplomats, administrators, and electors of each successive pope. Their red vestments denote willingness to shed blood for the faith if necessary. While all cardinals are ordained clergy, only those under 80 may enter papal conclaves to choose the Holy See’s new spiritual leader. Through his cardinals, the Roman Pontiff governs the world’s over 1 billion Catholics spread across all nations on earth.