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Cardinals And The College - The Inner Workings...


It often surprises people when they first set out to gain some knowledge of the inner workings of the catholic church that most cardinals are in fact bishops.

Cardinals generally have several duties, the most important of which is their role in electing a Pope should the post become vacant due to either death or resignation. The majority of cardinals oversee a diocese or archdiocese or manage a department of the Roman Curia. Cardinals are collectively referred to as a 'College of Cardinals' and they attend meetings and are always available both as a group or as individuals should the Pope request their counsel.

During the period known as 'sede vacante' (vacant seat) which is the time between a Pope's death and the election of his successor, the day to day running of the Church is primarily in the hands of the 'College of Cardinals'.

In theory, a Pope has the right to substitute another body of electors for the 'College of Cardinals' and the 'Synod of Bishops' was once suggested but the proposal was denied.

The right to enter the conclave of cardinals that elects the Pope is now limited to those under the age of eighty on the day of the Pope's death or abdication.

The election of the Pope was not always made by cardinals and the Pope was originally elected by the clergy and the people of the diocese of Rome and in medieval times when the Roman nobility had great influence the Holy Roman Emperors also played a part in choosing the pontiff.

In earlier times Cardinals often played a part in secular affairs and held powerful positions in governments and examples of this would be the likes of Thomas Wolsey who was Henry VIII's chief minister and Cardinal Richelieu who dominated the history of France from 1624 until his death in 1642 and who is considered to have been one of the greatest politicians in French history.

Pope Sixtus V limited the number of cardinals to seventy whose number was made up of six Cardinal Bishops, 50 Cardinal Priests and 14 Cardinal Deacons but Pope John XXIII exceeded the overall limit of 70 and the number continued to grow under his successors until in 1971 Pope Paul VI set the total number at 120 but set no limits as to how the group should be composed.

The term, "Cardinal Priest" is now understood to mean a Cardinal who is of the order of priests but it's original meaning was the opposite. The major priests of the important churches were recognized as cardinal priests and were chosen by the Pope to advise him in his duties as Bishop of Rome.

Cardo is the Latin word for hinge and it was used in much the same way as we use the word 'key' today and the name cardinal became widely accepted when referring to those entrusted with electing the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.

In 1630 it became the norm to refer to cardinals as his Eminence and in keeping with Latin tradition when they sign they place the word 'Card' after their first name so their signatures appear as John Card. XXX for example. The forgoing also applies to Popes who use Pp which is the abbreviation of 'Papa' and for Kings who use the word Rex. The order is normally reversed when English is used so we see Cardinal John XXX etc. employed instead.

Since most cardinals are also bishops, the title of 'Cardinal Bishop' simply means that he holds the title of one of the Suburbicarian Sees which includes the Dean of the College of Cardinals or that he is a patriarch of an Eastern Catholic church.

The 'Cardinal Bishops' are the only ones that have always been required to be bishops and in former times when a Cardinal of one of the lower orders became a 'Cardinal Bishop' (and therefore the head of a diocese) he was consecrated a bishop.

The head (as primus inter pares) of the College of Cardinals known as the Dean is elected by the Cardinal Bishops from among their own number but his nomination must be approved by the Pope.

Originally the privilege of papal election was not restricted to the cardinals and for centuries the Pope was usually a Roman priest and never a bishop from outside, and to preserve the apostolic succession the rite of consecrating the Pope as a bishop had to be performed by someone who was already a bishop.

If the person that is elected to be Pope is not yet a bishop he is consecrated by the Dean of the College of Cardinals, known as the 'Cardinal Bishop of Ostia'.

To symbolize their bond with the papacy cardinals are given a gold ring by the Pope and it is this ring which is normally kissed by Catholics when a cardinal is greeted. There is an image on the outside which is chosen by each pope and the ring also includes the Pope's coat of arms on the inside.

At various times there have been cardinals who had not been ordained as deacons or priests but had only received first tonsure and minor orders and although they were classified as clerics they were in fact laymen and were permitted to marry.

Traditionally there were fourteen Cardinal deacons that derived from the seven deacons in the 'Papal Household' and the seven deacons that supervised the Church's works in the districts of Rome during the early Middle Ages. The number has substantially increased however and as of 2005 there were over fifty recognized titular diaconates although only thirty cardinals were of the order of Deacons.

When celebrating Mass, a cardinal wears the same vestments as a bishop even if he has not been consecrated as a bishop and a cardinal deacon will on certain occasions wear a deacon's dalmatic as well as an Episcopal miter.