Thursday, January 12, 2012

What the heck is a cardinal, anyway?


Apart from the newly-crowned national football champions (Go SEC!), there's been another tide of crimson on the horizon in the news: 

Earlier this week, Pope Benedict announced a consistory in which he will raise 22 prelates to the Sacred College of Cardinals. Among the newly named cardinals are two Americans: Timothy Dolan, the current archbishop of New York and Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, the former archbishop of Baltimore and the current Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

I was gonna post that news and leave it at that. But it occurred to me that for most of us, that one paragraph is packed with lots of terms that could use unraveling and defining. In fact this one news item is replete with enough high technical Catholic speak to make a layperson’s head spin… not to mention what it must do to our gracious non-Catholic readers. So let’s play an educational game that I like to call, “What the heck does all of that mean?!?”




Let’s get started:

“Earlier this week…”

Okay. I assume we’ve all got that one. Moving on.

“…Pope Benedict…”

You know – the Holy Father; the Successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ, and all that.

“…announced a consistory…”

Okay. The key term here is “consistory.” What is a consistory? Basically, it’s a fancy word for a meeting of the Church’s cardinals. Each time the cardinals meet officially, it’s called a consistory. There is one exception: when the cardinals meet to elect the new pope, that meeting is called conclave. Let’s keep going.

“…in which he will raise 22 prelates to the Sacred College of Cardinals.”

Now it’s getting fun. First of all, what are “prelates?” The term “prelate” is just a fancy word that can be used to describe Church leaders (especially bishops). And now, a really important term: “Sacred College of Cardinals.”

“Sacred College” is a schmoozey synonym for “group,” and it’s simply the official name of the collective group of cardinals of the Church.

“So, what’s a cardinal?” you ask. Well, basically, a cardinal is an official in the Church who has two important responsibilities.

Firstly, cardinals help the Pope in his role of governing the Church. You have to remember that the Church is big… really big. In fact, it’s huge. Somewhere close to 1.2 billion of the world’s population is Catholic.

So to better serve the members of the Church throughout the world, the Church has developed (throughout the centuries) a series of departments (called by the Italian word dicasteries) that help to govern certain aspects of daily Church life. Examples of dicasteries are the Secretariat of State (remember the Vatican is not just the spiritual headquarters of the Church, it is also a City-State), and “congregations” which help to govern aspects of Christian life such as the Congregation for Bishops, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Each of these dicasteries is headed by a cardinal.

So, in that regard, you could say that cardinals serve a similar role in service to the Pope as cabinet members do for a U.S. President. They advise the Holy Father and help to run the day-to-day operations of the Church.

Secondly, cardinals are the ones responsible for electing a new pope whenever the seat of Peter becomes vacant (by death or resignation). That’s a pretty heavy call. When a pope dies, the cardinals meet together in conclave. Only cardinals who are 80 years old or younger at the start of the Conclave, may have a vote in electing the next pope.

Historically, the term “cardinal” comes from the Latin word cardo, referring to a door hinge. In the medieval Church, the title referred to the priests who were assigned to ancient and important parish churches (called “titular parishes”) around Rome – assignments which came with important duties as these “incardinated” priests acted as a sort of “priestly council” in aiding the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope) in his ministry to the city of Rome and to the wider Church. By the twelfth century, popes began to appoint priests and bishops from outside of Rome as cardinals. These extra-Roman cardinals would be assigned as the symbolic pastors of the old titular parishes in Rome and the surrounding areas. Interestingly, this tradition still exists as each modern cardinal is still assigned a titular church. This is all little more than symbolic nowadays as each of the titular churches has its own actual pastors and staff – but it is a beautiful connection to the past.

“Among the newly named cardinals are two Americans: Timothy Dolan, the current archbishop of New York…”

Cardinals are traditionally chosen from among the ordinaries (i.e. bishops or archbishops) of large and/or important dioceses and archdiocese from throughout the world. These men bring with them valuable experience in Church government and a real connection to (and hopefully a real understanding of) their local flock and the challenges that the Church faces in their own little corner of the globe. This is invaluable in the cardinals’ role as advisors to the Holy Father. While some cardinals move to Rome to carry out their new duties and responsibilities, most, remain in their home see (i.e. diocese) and go to Rome only when official business (or an impending conclave) warrants. This explains why Archbishop Dolan, for example, will continue to serve as the archbishop of New York. He just now has a fancier title (Cardinal Dolan) and more responsibilities.

“…and Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, the former archbishop of Baltimore and the current Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.”

Archbishop O’Brien, who is the retired archbishop of Baltimore, is an example of a soon-to-be cardinal who will live in Rome. Retired and no longer the ordinary (i.e. bishop) of his diocese, he is the Grand Master (i.e. leader – but “Grand Master” sounds much cooler) of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, an order of Catholic knighthood which traces its origins all the way back to the First Crusade and its first recognition by the pope in 1113. So, with this paragraph, hopefully we’ve learned two things: that there are still Knights from the Crusader-era and their leader is a retired American archbishop. 

The new American cardinals will be among 22 which will be given the red hat in February. Oh – I probably didn’t mention that one other perk of being a cardinal is that you get to wear a lot of red (see below). Currently, there are 192 members of the College of Cardinals. 17 of those are from the U.S.