by Matthew Bunson, D. Min.

What is a Cardinal?

CNS photo - Cardinal's biretta
A Cardinal's biretta and a papal zucchetto. CNS photo

Cardinals are the pope’s close advisers in the governance of the Church and are chosen exclusively by him. Aside from their regular duties as archbishops or bishops in charge of dioceses or leaders of the Roman Curia (the central government of the Church), Cardinals provide advice and counsel to the pope, serve as caretakers of the Church after a pope dies, and above all, gather together in a conclave to choose the next Bishop of Rome. The name probably comes from the Latin word cardo, or “hinge” – for they are vital hinges around whom the workings of the Church turn.

What is a Consistory?

A consistory is a formal gathering of Cardinals summoned and presided over by the pope. Its name is taken from the Latin consistere, “to stand together.” Consistories today may be ordinary or extraordinary. An ordinary consistory brings together the Cardinals present in Rome, along with other bishops, priests, and officials and guests. Ordinary consistories are used for consultation on important matters or other solemn occasions. Extraordinary consistories are held when special circumstances facing the Church warrant bringing together all of the Cardinals.

Are there different types of Cardinals?

Yes. While all Cardinals belong to the College of Cardinals and are considered members of the clergy of Rome, there are three types of Cardinals within the College itself: Cardinal Bishops, Cardinal Priests, and Cardinal Deacons.

Catholic Almanac

Cardinal Bishops originated out of the actual bishops of the suffragan dioceses surrounding Rome, the so-called suburbicarian sees (i.e., the sees neighboring Rome). Today, Cardinal Bishops are senior members of the College who are engaged in full‑time service in the Roman Curia. The patriarchs of the Eastern Catholic Churches are also assigned rank among the Cardinal Bishops.

Cardinal Priests today are officials of the Roman Curia or bishops whose dioceses are outside Rome, such as the Archbishops of Chicago, Paris, New York, and Mexico City. They hold title to a particular church in Rome, a historical reminder of the earlier custom of the clergy of Rome participating in the election of the pope.

Cardinal Deacons are titular bishops assigned to full‑time service in the Roman Curia or are theologians honored by the pope for their contribution to the Church. Cardinal Deacons are reminiscent of the seven deacons who once administered the districts of Rome and the deacons who assisted in the papal household. They hold title to assignment to one of the deaconries of Rome.

How are they different from bishops?

Church law requires a Cardinal today to be a priest and also consecrated a bishop. Being made a Cardinal is a truly high honor, but it does not add anything to the sacrament of holy orders conferred upon a man at ordination nor to the fullness of the priesthood received by a Bishop. The pope may permit a new Cardinal to be appointed without episcopal consecration, as was requested by the theologians Henri De Lubac, S.J. and Avery Dulles, S.J.

How many are there?

The exact number of Cardinals has varied widely over the years. In 2012, with the addition of 22 new cardinals, there will be a total of 125 cardinal electors, from 51 countries.

How many can vote for the Pope?

Currently, the total number of Cardinals (called Cardinal Electors) who may vote for the pope in a conclave is limited to 120. That number was established by Pope Paul VI in 1973 and was ratified by Pope John Paul II, although he set aside the maximum number several times during his pontificate.

Do Cardinals retire?

At the age of 80, Cardinals cease to be active members of the departments of the Roman Curia and all permanent Holy See and Vatican City organizations. In addition, they lose the right to elect the pope. This rule was established by Pope Paul VI in 1970 and was ratified by Pope John Paul II; Pope Benedict XVI has also apparently chosen to adhere to the regulation.

Why do they wear red?

Cardinals actually wear scarlet, a custom that began in a formal sense in 1245 when Pope Innocent IV bestowed the famed red hat upon the cardinals. Since that time, red (or scarlet) has been the color worn by the members of the Sacred College. Scarlet reminds the Cardinals that they must be willing to give of themselves for the Church, even to the point of shedding their blood.

What do they receive when they are installed?

New cardinals receive several symbols of their new title: a zucchetto, a biretta, and a ring. A scarlet zucchetto (or skullcap) and scarlet biretta (a four-cornered silk hat) are both placed upon the Cardinals’ heads by the hand of the pope. The ring is a symbol of a Cardinal’s dignity, pastoral zeal, and communion with the See of Peter.

Cardinals’ Oath on Receiving the Biretta

Below is a translation of the oath of fidelity and obedience to the Pope and his Successors, pronounced by the Cardinals at the time they receive the biretta, or cardinal’s hat:

I [name and surname], Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, promise and swear to be faithful henceforth and forever, while I live, to Christ and his Gospel, being constantly obedient to the Holy Roman Apostolic Church, to Blessed Peter in the person of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI, and of his canonically elected Successors; to maintain communion with the Catholic Church always, in word and deed; not to reveal to any one what is confided to me in secret, nor to divulge what may bring harm or dishonor to Holy Church; to carry out with great diligence and faithfulness those tasks to which I am called by my service to the Church, in accord with the norms of the law.
So help me Almighty God.

[Translation by Zenit.]