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A cardinal is a senior ecclesiastical official in the Roman Catholic Church, ranking just below the Pope and appointed by him as a member of the College of Cardinals, during a consistory. The duties of the College include counselling the Pope, leading many of the archdioceses, running the Roman Curia, and overseeing the administration of the Holy See.
Since the 13th century a Cardinal is distinguished by red vestments, including a cassock, zucchetto, and a biretta. He wears a ring which is traditionally kissed by Catholics when he is greeted. The bright red color symbolizes a cardinal's willingness to die for his faith.
Pope Sixtus V limited the number of cardinals to 70 (six cardinal bishops, 50 cardinal priests, 14 cardinal deacons). Popes since John XXIII have disregarded this limitation in order to make the college of cardinals a more representative body. Pope John Paul II elevated an additional 31 cardinals in a consistory on October 21, 2003, bringing the number of cardinals at that time to 194. As of John Paul II's death, 117 of the then-current 183 cardinals were young enough to be electors.
The term "cardinal" derives from the Latin cardo, or hinge, suggesting the fulcrum-like leadership role they play. Because of the red color of their vestments, cardinals are the namesakes for the bird of the same name.
According to Canon 350 of Canon law, the College of Cardinals is divided into three orders:
- the episcopal order (Cardinal Bishops),
- the presbyteral order (Cardinal Priests), the most numerous group, who usually have pastoral duties as archbishops, and
- the diaconal order (Cardinal Deacons).
Most Cardinal bishops are those to whom the Pope assigns the title of a suburbicarian church; that group elects a Dean of the College of Cardinals to be the head of the college, the first among equals; the election must be approved by the Pope.
Cardinal priests and cardinal deacons are each assigned a title or deaconry in Rome by the Pope. All cardinal priests and almost all cardinal deacons are actually bishops.
Originally any Catholic male could be appointed to the College: for example in the 16th century Reginald Pole was a cardinal for 18 years before he was ordained a priest. Today only bishops are normally created cardinals.
Canon 351 specifically requires that a cardinal at least be in the order of priesthood, and those who are not already bishops must receive episcopal consecration. A recent exception is Rev. Avery Dulles, S.J., who was a priest at the time of his elevation to Cardinal in 2001. He successfully petitioned Pope John Paul II for a dispensation from episcopal consecration due to advanced age. As such, he cannot become a Cardinal Bishop unless he is consecrated a bishop.
In addition to the named cardinals, a pope may name cardinals in pectore, Latin for in the breast. A cardinal named in pectore is known only to the pope; not even the cardinal so named is aware of his elevation. Cardinals are named in pectore to protect them or their congregations from reprisals if their identities were known.
If conditions change such that a secret cardinal would be safe, the pope may at any time make public a previously in pectore cardinal, who ranks in precedence with those of his original consistory. If a pope dies before revealing the identity of an in pectore cardinal, the cardinalate expires.
This was the case with Pope John Paul II, who named an in pectore cardinal during his tenure that remained secret even on his death on April 2, 2005. Many speculated that the Holy Father's will would contain the name of the in pectore cardinal, but it did not.
- If the cardinal is not a bishop, he is allowed the ceremonial privileges of one.
- Cardinals place a red galero with thirty tassels, the ancient symbol of their office, above their coat of arms.
- Since 1630, cardinals have taken the style Eminence, and upon elevation the word "Cardinal" becomes part of the prelate's name, traditionally coming immediately before the surname. As an example, the full style of Cardinal McCarrick is "His Eminence, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington."
The cardinals did not always elect the Pope: the Pope was originally elected by the clergy and the people of the Roman Church, but during the medieval times, as the Roman nobility gained too great an influence, as the Holy Roman Emperors interfered into the choosing of a pope and as the papacy gained importance as an international figure, the right of election was given to the cardinals in 1159.
The Pope could substitute another body of electors for the College of Cardinals at any time; in fact there have been proposals in the past to have the Synod of Bishops perform this function (the proposals have not been adopted because, among other reasons, the Synod of Bishops can only meet when called by the Pope).
In early modern times, English and French monarchs had cardinals as their chief ministers—Wolsey in England, Richelieu and Mazarin in France. These men were cardinals, not because of their religious duties, but because it allowed their kings to pay them from church revenues. Rome accepted the loss of some revenue in order to protect the rest of its property and revenue.
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