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On the Significance and Role of Cardinals

February 13, 2015
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
In light of the important meetings of Cardinals taking place this week at the Vatican that culminate in tomorrow’s ceremony for the “creation” of 20 new cardinals, I offer this brief explanation of the role of Cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church.
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. 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.
The cardinals’ color red of his robes symbolizes the blood shed by martyrs and witnesses for the faith. Giving public, clear witness to the faith lies at the heart of each Cardinal’s mission. At the consistory of Cardinals in November 2010, Pope emeritus 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.”
At last year’s ceremonies for the creation of new Cardinals (February 22, 2014), Pope Francis described the cardinal’s critical role with these words:
“And as we are thus “con-voked”, “called to himself” by our one Teacher, I will tell you what the Church needs: she needs you, your cooperation, and even more your communion, with me and among yourselves. The Church needs your courage, to proclaim the Gospel at all times, both in season and out of season, and to bear witness to the truth. The Church needs your prayer for the progress of Christ’s flock, that prayer – let us not forget this! – which, along with the proclamation of the Word, is the primary task of the Bishop. The Church needs your compassion, especially at this time of pain and suffering for so many countries throughout the world. Let us together express our spiritual closeness to the ecclesial communities and to all Christians suffering from discrimination and persecution. We must fight every form of discrimination! The Church needs our prayer for them, that they may be firm in faith and capable of responding to evil with good. And this prayer of ours extends to every man and women suffering injustice on account of their religious convictions.
The Church needs us also to be peacemakers, building peace by our words, our hopes and our prayers. Building peace! Being peacemakers! Let us therefore invoke peace and reconciliation for those peoples presently experiencing violence, exclusion and war.”
Cardinals have the responsibility of advising the Pope when he convenes a Consistory (special meeting of cardinals). The primary role of cardinals is that of meeting together at the resignation or death of a pope to elect his successor. They have no real power, except during the period between popes known as sede vacante. Originally their role was devised as a sort of bridge between the theological and governing roles of the hierarchy of the Church.
In the case of Pope Francis, the new Cardinals assist him to enact the reforms he began shortly after his election as Bishop of Rome and leader of the Roman Catholic Church. This includes a revamp of the governance of the Catholic Church and the reform of the financial structures in the central government of the Church. Also under Pope Francis, cardinals are playing a key role in addressing head-on the sex abuse scandal and the protection of minors that has plagued the Catholic Church for the past years.
Opening the Consistory on February 12, 2015, Pope Francis stressed that the aim of the Curial reform “is always that of promoting greater harmony in the work of the various dicasteries and offices, in order to achieve more effective collaboration in that absolute transparency which builds authentic synodality and collegiality.”
“Reform is not an end in itself, but a way of giving strong Christian witness; to promote more effective evangelization; to promote a fruitful ecumenical spirit; and to encourage a more constructive dialogue with all.”
The Pope went on to say that this reform was “strongly advocated by the majority of cardinals” in the pre-conclave meetings, and is intended to “enhance the identity of the Roman Curia itself, which is to assist Peter's successor in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office for the good and in the service of the universal Church and the particular Churches, in order to strengthen the unity of faith and the communion of the people of God, and to promote the mission of the Church in the world.”
When each new cardinal climbs the steps to the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica and kneels before Pope Francis to receive the red berretta, he begins a form of public martyrdom. If he is a residential archbishop or bishop, He not only represents his local church but his entire nation. As Cardinal, he does not lord it over others, but continues to serve the Church through the logic of humility and service - a logic which has distinguished his priestly and episcopal ministry for many years.
WuerlTRIn becoming a cardinal, one becomes a hinge, a door, a public witness, and a peacemaker. Cardinals have the great responsibility of being instruments and agents of communion, harmony, compassion and mercy, constantly reaching out, listening to all generations, consulting, dialoguing with the secular and the sacred, and facilitating the complex but necessary relationship between the theological and governmental roles of the hierarchy of the Church. At the heart of the cardinal’s vocation and mission is a passion for the unity of the Church and a deep desire to be at the service of the successor of Peter.
An excellent example of a cardinal’s vocation and mission can be found in this moving text written this past week by the Cardinal archbishop of Washington, DC, Donald Wuerl. Cardinal Wuerl has taken to heart the critical role of cardinal at this moment in Church history.
Read it here: The Pope, Touchstone of Faith and Unity