The election of cardinals is still relevant today. This, however, depends heavily on our constant awareness of what the red biretta symbolises, and the obligations it carries to whom it is conferred. While the newly elected cardinals are being endowed with great dignity and honour, the Pope entrusts them with a special responsibility, “usque ad effusionem sanguinis”, (up to the shedding of blood), and thus to be loyal to him as the Vicar of the Living Lord, to the Church he directs in unity as the successor of Peter, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, always present in the plan of salvation that leads to the Father. Saint Theresa of Calcutta would translate this Latin axiom in her humble expression ‘until it hurts’.
In this context one should recall two risks which certainly may compromise the commitment undertaken, namely the Vespasian expression ‘pecunia non olet’, (money does not stink), because money is appealing to all, and ‘imperatorem stantem oportet mori’, (the emperor has to die standing), because power and pride are inseparable. These expressions owe their origins in the politics of the Roman empire. Unfortunately, this empire sought to impose its will on the fledging Christian community, which resulted in terrible consequences.
The presence of these risks should never be ignored, especially nowadays, as one cannot serve God and money at the same time. Francis of Assisi was not asked to build an empire but to repair a dilapidating church, obviously not through the use of earthly power and vanity but with dignified humility.
Cardinals are elected in order to accompany with their wisdom and diligence the Holy Father in guiding the Church through the divine impulses of the Spirit according to the signs of the times, while keeping in mind another Latin maxim, ‘nil umani a me alienum puto’ (nothing do I consider alien to me of that which is human). Thus they safeguard and promote the dignity of every human being and of creation, considered as the common household of humanity. Needless to say, these men in red skullcaps have to lead by example, as Saint Paul VI put it: ‘Nowadays people do not need preachers but witnesses, and if they need preachers, it is because they are witnesses before’.
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153), venerated as Saint Bernard, a Burgundian abbot, and a major leader in the revitalization of Benedictine monasticism through the nascent Order of Cistercians, is said to have addressed the Pope in these terms, that wearing the “triregnum”or tiara, he resembled more the emperor Constantine than the fisherman Peter, to whom he is successor. The idea that Cardinals were also princes of the Church does not match with the humble community on whom Christ established the Church.
The Christological hymn attributed to the early Christian community of Jerusalem puts the persona of Jesus Christ in its right perspective: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2, 6-8). It is worth noting that the ‘cross’, being a Roman abominable infliction, was abhorred by the Christian community, and was not widely accepted before the 4th century AC. In fact, there is no evidence that the cross’s symbology was used prevalently during the first three centuries of Christianity. However, much earlier than its popular acceptance as a symbol, Paul did include the term ‘cross’ “usque ad mortem in crucem” (up to death in cross) to this popular hymn. All of this concords with the Pope’s invitation to the newly elected cardinals: to be ready to shed blood in order to remain loyal to the teaching of the Church, faithful to him, in his ministry of sanctifying the world, he being “servus servorum Dei” (servant of the servants of God).
As from antiquity, the college of cardinals is divided into three orders: the episcopal order, to which belong cardinals to whom the Roman Pontiff assigns title of a suburbicarian church and Eastern patriarchs who have been brought into the college of cardinals; the presbyteral order; and the diaconal order (c. 350, §1).
The phrase “college of cardinals” means a specific juridic collegial body, which functions under the leadership of the dean (c. 352, §1). In the Middle Ages some viewed the college of cardinals as succeeding not only the apostolic college, precisely as a college, but also the ancient Roman Senate in governing Rome, the Papal States, and the universal Church. The use of the term “college” rather than “senate” is noteworthy, because it replaces this secular analogue with language which is more ecclesial than civil.
In the early church, a cleric was ordained to a particular post for life. This position was his ‘title’ and he was called a ‘titular’ there. If he changed his attachment from the title to which he was ordained to some other position, he was said to have been ‘incardinated’ in the new position. This reflected the meaning of cardo, or hinge, from which the term ‘cardinal’ derives. Such clergy were called ‘cardinals’, not ‘titulars’. Some clerics were transferred because of their outstanding ability.
The bishops of the suburban towns around Rome performed episcopal services at the Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome. They were ‘titulars’ in their own dioceses but ‘cardinals’ when functioning liturgically at the Lateran. In addition to having a liturgical role, cardinals were increasingly consulted by the pope on various ecclesial issues. This was the origin of today’s ‘cardinal bishops’, who are attached to the seven suburbicarian sees around Rome.
Priests assigned to the various ancient house churches (‘titles’) were asked to provide liturgical services at the major shrines of the martyrs. When providing such services, these priests were known as ‘cardinals’, for they were inserted there temporarily, acting outside their proper church or ‘title’. This was the origin of today’s ‘cardinal presbyters’.
The period following the papal assumption of civil governance of Rome, various social services were provided by deacons, who initially were direct papal aides attached to the Lateran palace. Later, however, they were also sent to diaconiae or social service centres throughout Rome, each with a chapel attached. Their significant role in administering church goods for the poor eventually gave rise to today’s ‘cardinal deacons’.
The cardinals increasingly became the pope’s pivotal aides in discharging his responsibilities as bishop of Rome and head of the college of bishops. They served as envoys in carrying out special papal commissions, including representing the pope at ecumenical councils.
Today, all cardinals are, by default, bishops, unless dispensed, and hence are basically equal (c. 351, §1) notwithstanding their different roles of bishop, presbyter, and deacon within the college of cardinals. Rather than reflecting a true communion of ministerial orders, which was true when the college contained bishops, priests, and deacons, the present organization, more notably, expresses episcopal collegiality.
With Sixtus V (1585 – 1590) the college of cardinals underwent a significant reform. The next significant change occurred only in the 1960s and 1970s although it was not discussed at the Vatican II. Besides increasing the number of cardinals, St John XXIII decreed that they all should be ordained bishops. St Paul VI reorganized the college’s internal structure and imposed certain age restrictions. At eighty years of age they could no longer elect the pope. The aforementioned changes in the status of cardinals were basically reaffirmed in St John Paul II apostolic constitutions Pastor bonus regarding the Roman Curia reform and Universi Dominici gregis regarding the papal election.
The cardinals exercise significant ecclesial influence due to several factors. First of all, the cardinals elect the pope, and most popes have come from their ranks. Nicholas II issued the bull “In nomine Domini”, on April 13th 1059, in which he established that the cardinal-bishops were to be the sole electors of the pope, with the consent of minor clergy. Second, contemporary popes have increasingly sought their corporate counsel in addressing significant issues such as curial reform and Vatican finances. Third, as individuals, they occupy major curial positions and increasingly govern major sees around the world.
In accordance with the Code of Canon Law, the Roman Pontiff freely selects men to be promoted as cardinals, who have been ordained at least into the order of the presbyterate and are especially outstanding in doctrine, morals, piety, and prudence in action; those who are not yet bishops must receive episcopal consecration (c. 351, §1). Regardless of whatever consultation actually occurs, the pope is not required to consult any group or individual. Pastoral experience is particularly significant given the college’s important consultative role.
Cardinals are created by a decree of the Roman Pontiff which is made public in the presence of the college of cardinals. Such an announcement of new cardinals takes place in a secret consistory. This reflects the time when the college served as the papal court and appointments to the cardinalatial dignity were subject to debate and required the consent of the college. Today, this is more of a formality. The subsequent formal public consistory involves conferring the ring and the biretta and assigning a titular church or diaconia. From the moment of the announcement the cardinals are bound by the duties and possess the rights defined by law (c. 351, §2). The Roman Pontiff can elevate an individual to the dignity of cardinal. The pontiff may not disclose the name but may reserve it in pectore (c. 351, §3) (in his heart), perhaps because of Church-State conflicts rendering such an announcement inappropriate at a given time.
Certain prerogatives of cardinals should be mentioned. They are personally exempt from the jurisdiction of local bishops, they have the unrestricted faculty to hear confessions everywhere in the world, they may be buried in their church, the pope alone may judge them in formal processes and they may choose the place where they testify in such processes.
Cardinals advise the pope collegially especially in consistories (c. 353). From the late eleventh century, one notes the development of consistories, or meeting of the cardinals, during which the pope consulted them on various spiritual and temporal issues, for example, choice of bishops and sending of papal legates. Consistories are either ordinary, concerning certain grave matters which occur rather frequently or to carry out certain very solemn acts, or extraordinary, when particular needs of the Church or the treatment of more grave affairs suggests it.
Cardinals are obliged to cooperate assiduously with the Roman Pontiff (c. 356). A cardinal to whom the Roman Pontiff entrusts the function of representing him in some solemn celebration or among some group of persons as a legatus a latere, that is as his alter ego, as well as one to whom the Roman Pontiff entrusts the fulfilment of a certain pastoral function as his special envoy (missus specialis) has competence only over those things which the Roman Pontiff commits to him (c. 358).
These roles, of an incredibly sensitive and complex nature, underline the relevance and pivotal role cardinals fulfil today, particularly in the pastoral care of Christ’s flock.