By Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.
Cardinals are chosen by the Holy Father to serve as his principal assistants and advisers in the central administration of church affairs. Collectively, they form the College of Cardinals. Some believe that the College of Cardinals is nothing more than an intention of a papacy of the Middle Ages, simply in need of a consultative body in a more turbulent period of the Church’s history. Others believe it to be the embodiment of the self-aggrandizing Papacy of the High Renaissance.
Although the theological origins of the Cardinalate might be traced loosely to Moses, the historic bonds are surely deeply rooted in the early Christian Church of Jerusalem. The role of a Cardinal, as well as his title, is ancient. For two centuries prior to the Christian era, Roman society had been organized hierarchically, with senators and patriarchs holding the highest office, each having assistants to carry through on their edicts or decrees. Simultaneously, the Church continued to flourish, and its structure clearly mimicked that of the Roman Empire. The original seven assistants chosen by the apostles in Jerusalem passed on, many martyred for their own faith. They were replaced, in turn, by others who were consecrated as the need for these special assistants continued to grow alongside the growing infant Church. This is in keeping with the original function of the College.
In the first centuries of the Church, the Bishop of Rome was surrounded by his presbyterium, or local priests and deacons along with the bishops of dioceses neighboring Rome. The presbyterium helped the Pope carry out his duties as bishop of the capital city of the Roman Empire. As those duties, over the centuries, began to increasingly involve all of Italy, then all of Europe, then the entire world, some of the priests and deacons who assisted the Pope began to be chosen from among non-Romans. Today the body that was once limited in membership to the clergy of the city of Rome includes members from dozens of different countries.
The word cardinal is derived from two early Latin terms, cardo and cardinis. The English translation has rendered these two words as “hinge,” to signify that important device that serves as a juncture for two opposing forces and that affords harmony as a result. As a hinge permits a door to hang easily upon a framed portal, it was believed that the cardinals facilitated an easy relationship between the theological and governmental roles of the hierarchy of the Church. The role of the College of Cardinals remains a pivotal one in the Church of our time.
Cardinals have been called "the Princes of the Church," "the Sacred College" and "the Senate of the Church." Each of these terms tells us something about who they are. If the cardinals are "princes," they are not kings. They have a secondary role to that of the one who is above them: the Pope.
If they are a "sacred college," they are not a secular one. Their functions are in the religious sphere, not in the sphere of politics or economics or any other secular endeavor. Their decisions are rooted in and spring from their faith; they have an essentially ecclesial, not societal horizon. At times their deliberations and decisions do affect politics and society.
If they comprise "the senate of the Church," they have some kind of deliberative function in the preparation and passage of legislation pertaining to the life of the Church. Their role is that of a group of senior Church members who can advise the Church's leader, the Pope, on the right course of action in various situations affecting the life of the Church.
The College of Cardinals has one over-arching task: to elect the Bishop of Rome. This task has been entrusted exclusively to the College for almost 1,000 years, since 1179, about the time the College's structure was formalized.
Cardinals do not "rank" one step higher than bishops because there is no higher spiritual "rank" in the Church than that of the bishop, which is itself simply the fullness of Holy Orders (the priesthood). Even the Holy Father is Pope in virtue of the fact that he is the Bishop of Rome and for no other reason. Bishops individually have full powers to lead their local Church communities in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome; the Bishop of Rome has this type of authority over Rome and over the entire Church, because of the Petrine commission.
The role of the College of Cardinals, though made up of bishops from around the world is clearly limited to advising the Bishop of Rome on the exercise of his universal Petrine mission, and its authority is entirely derivative. The cardinals are his closest advisors, helpers, councilors, friends, his eyes and ears around the world, and, sometimes, his voice. They share in his mission because they have been personally chosen by the Pope for that task.
There are three ranks of cardinals: cardinal bishops, cardinal priests and cardinal deacons, reflecting the fact that originally not all cardinals were bishops, or even priests. The cardinal bishops include the six titular bishops of the "suburbicarian" sees (the episcopal sees bordering on the city of Rome) and the Eastern patriarchs.
First in rank are the titular bishops of Ostia, Palestrina, Porto-Santa Rufina, Albano, Velletri-Segni, Frascati, Sabina-Poggio Mirteto. The cardinal bishops are engaged in full-time service in the central administration of Church affairs in departments of the Roman Curia.
Cardinal priests, formerly the priests in charge of leading churches in Rome, are bishops whose dioceses are outside Rome. Cardinal deacons, formerly chosen according to regional divisions of Rome, are titular bishops assigned to full-time service in the Roman Curia.
The dean and sub-dean of the College are elected by the cardinal bishops — subject to approval by the Pope — from among their number. The dean, or the sub-dean in his absence, presides over the entire College as the first among equals.
Since the time of BONIFACE VIII (1294-1303), cardinals have worn scarlet robes. The red hat dates back to the time of Innocent IV (1243-1254); in November 1246, while meeting with the King of France at Cluny, Innocent IV conferred the red hat on his cardinals. The red hats given to the cardinals are the color of blood, signifying that they are expected to witness to the faith "usque ad sanguinis effusionem" — "even unto the shedding of blood" — that is, even as martyrs. The color red symbolizes the blood shed by martyrs and witnesses for the faith. Giving public, clear witness to the faith lies at the heart of the Cardinal’s mission.
At the consistory of Cardinals in November 2010, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the new Cardinals at the Eucharistic celebration inaugurating their new ministry with these words:
“This ministry is difficult because it is not in line with the human way of thinking — with that natural logic which, moreover, continues to be active within us too. But this is and always remains our primary service, the service of faith that transforms the whole of life: believing that Jesus is God, that he is the King precisely because he reached that point, because he loved us to the very end. And we must witness and proclaim this paradoxical kingship as he, the King, did, that is, by following his own way and striving to adopt his same logic, the logic of humility and service, of the grain of wheat which dies to bear fruit.”
(CNS Photo/Paul Haring)