The recent papal conclave focused intense attention on the College of Cardinals as they went about their task of electing a new pontiff. These days, Catholics and non-Catholics alike are more apt to know something about them and even to recognize the distinctive red hats that signify their office.

Nevertheless, most people have only a vague idea of the significant role played by the College in the life of the Church. The cardinals actually do much more than just fill the See of Peter when it becomes vacant.

History of the College

The first pope to appoint cardinals was Pope Sylvester I, around A.D. 315. Their specific role has evolved over the centuries. In general, from early times they have served as assistants of the pope in his liturgical functions, the care of the poor, the administration of papal finances and possessions, and the disposition of important ecclesiastical matters.

Throughout history, the number of cardinals has varied. Pope Sixtus V (1521-90) limited the number of cardinals to 70 after the College had expanded in the 16th century. The pontiffs since Pope John XXIII have disregarded this limitation, however, so they could make the College a more representative body.

Only 14 were created during the reign of Pope Paul VI, which brought the total to 120. Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II created 171 of the current living cardinals -- more than any of his modern-day predecessors. Today, the College boasts 184 members from 66 countries.

Electing Popes

The decree of Pope Nicholas II regulating papal elections (In nomine Domini, 1059) assured the cardinals' central role in the task for which they are now best known. In accordance with this decree, the election of the pontiff and the government of the Church during the vacancy of the Apostolic See fell more and more into their hands. At the Third Lateran Council (1179), Pope Alexander assigned these responsibilities exclusively to the cardinals.

According to the current Code of Canon Law, the College primarily concerns itself with the election of the pope according to the norms of a special papal law (see Canon 349). When the Chair of Peter becomes vacant, only those cardinals who have not yet celebrated their 80th birthday -- including on the day the chair becomes empty -- are recognized as cardinal electors to form the papal conclave, the body that gathers to elect the new pope.

During the vacancy of the Apostolic See, the role of the cardinals is a limited one. They have no power regarding issues within the exclusive competence of the pope during his lifetime. They are restricted to dealing with only ordinary ecclesial business, treating nondeferrable matters such as the granting of emergency absolutions and preparing themselves personally, mentally and spiritually for the conclave.

Other Responsibilities and Privileges

The role of the Sacred College remains a pivotal one as the Church enters the third millennium. Cardinals advise the pope in a "collegial" manner on numerous matters of major importance, such as the gathering in Rome of the U.S. cardinals with Pope John Paul II in 2002 to discuss the clerical sexual abuse scandal. Individually, they assist the pope through the various offices they perform, especially in the day-to-day operations of the Church.

All cardinals with diocesan responsibilities also serve as members of various Vatican congregations. For example, U.S. Cardinal James Francis Stafford is the Cardinal-Penitentiary. Cardinal Fran-cis Arinze leads the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Cardinals enjoy a special exemption within the Church. First, since they are the pope's key advisers, they receive diplomatic immunity in the civil forum. They also are personally exempt from the authority of the jurisdiction of the local bishop; they have unrestricted faculties for hearing confessions anywhere in the world; they have the privilege of being buried in their own church; and they are judged by no authority other than the pope.

Members of the Sacred College are scattered throughout the Catholic world. Since they serve as consultants to the Pope, a good number of them reside at the Vatican. But they are found as well in major cities around the globe, where they often serve as diocesan bishops.

In the United States, for example, the archbishops of Chicago, Detroit, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are all cardinals.

The Creation of a Cardinal

The authority to create cardinals belongs exclusively to the pope. Cardinals are created and announced by papal decree in a gathering with the pope of existing cardinals, known as a consistory. When this decree is proclaimed, the man named is bound to all the obligations of the Sacred College and enjoys all the rights and privileges of the dignity of a cardinal. Men chosen for the cardinalatial dignity must be outstanding for their doctrine, morals, piety and prudence in action (see Canon 351).

A common misconception is that cardinals constitute a distinctive grade of holy orders alongside deacons, priests and bishops. That is not the case, however, even though they do have the distinctive responsibilities we have noted. Those chosen to become cardinals must be priests who are at least 35 years old and have been ordained for at least five years.

Those who are not yet bishops must also receive episcopal consecration, although the pope can occasionally dispense this requirement. Such was the case with Cardinal Avery Dulles, the pre-eminent Jesuit theologian of Fordham University who was named a cardinal along with Archbishop Edward Egan of New York in February 2001.

Sometimes the pope may withhold the name of one selected for the Sacred College, keeping it in pectore (Latin for "in [his] heart"). This situation usually occurs when tensions between the Church and the governmental authorities of the new cardinal's nation would make a public announcement of the appointment inopportune. When the pope finally announces the name of the cardinal re-served in pectore, the latter acquires the rights and responsibilities of his office according to the date of the original decree, not the date of the formal announcement.

The pope assigns cardinals to one of the three orders into which the college is divided: episcopal, presbyterial and diaconal.

Cardinals from various dioceses around the world are assigned to the presbyterial order and receive a title or church of the city of Rome.

Those appointed in the Roman Curia are assigned to the diaconal order. Cardinals of the episcopal order are assigned to one of the suburbicarian dioceses of Rome -- that is, dioceses in the suburbs that surround the city.

Witnesses to the Faith

Canon 356 states that cardinals are to cooperate with the pope and are to come to Rome whenever their presence is required. This cooperation shows in a visible and tangible way the relationship between the cardinals and the pope and that they are indeed tied in a profound way to the Church of Rome. Throughout its long and oftentimes turbulent history, the College of Cardinals has often kept the Church afloat through stormy times.

The very color of their scarlet robes reminds us of the exhortation given by the pope to these men on the day of their elevation: Cardinals are to give -- at the cost of their lives, if necessary -- personal witness to Jesus Christ and the Church, becoming examples of faith to the people of God entrusted to their care. TCA