Novi Cardinali Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae

Yesterday, at the general audience in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI announced the coming appointment of 23 new Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. What a perfect chance, I thought, to clarify a bit about what it really is to be a Cardinal; in the media, all the governing structures of the Church are something often cited but rarely explained. The Code of Canon Law—the law governing the Church—gives the authoritative definition of what it means to be a ‘Cardinal’:

“The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special College, whose prerogative it is to elect the Roman Pontiff in accordance with the norms of a special law [i.e. the approved practice upheld by the pope at the time]. The Cardinals are also available to the Roman Pontiff, either acting collegially, when they are summoned together to deal with questions of major importance, or acting individually, that is, in the offices which they hold in assisting the Roman Pontiff especially in the daily care of the universal Church.” (Codex Iuris Canonicis, Can. 349)

In a more colloquial (and less juridical) manner, one could say that the Cardinals of the Church are those priests and bishops summoned by the Holy Father to dedicate themselves even more so to the Church’s mission of evangelization and salvation. Some of the most noticeable characteristics of the Cardinals—their red cassocks and hats—signify their willingness even to shed their blood for the faith. Unfortunately, this meaning has been all but lost in our modern world, and contemporary media, which almost never seeks to understand the origin of traditions, but simply their utility in modern culture. In reality, Cardinals are generally chosen from among the more prominent dioceses around the world, in order to provide both a visible symbol of the faith and a dominant spiritual leadership for multitudes of people in every socio-economic situation. Even in China, where today priests and bishops are shedding their blood for the Catholic faith, Cardinals have taken the lead in sustaining their local churches and preserving the faith from a government-lead genocide.

Far more than simply being the ‘red-robed Princes of the Church,’ as they were commonly (and no doubt tauntingly) referred to during the last papal election, the Roman Cardinals are a visible symbol of the 2000-year-old tradition and faith of the Catholic Church. Although they are human—and thereby just as much sinners as you and I—they hold a very profound responsibility, and we ought to continually remember them and their mission in our prayers.