Cardinals of the Catholic Church

17/02/2014 2:14 pm

Black and white image of a Cardinal with red zucchetto

What's a Cardinal and what's his role?

The Cardinals of the Catholic Church are the most senior clergymen - priests - in the Church below the Pope.

Although historically they were the local clergy of Rome, today they're Bishops of important ‘sees’ (dioceses) from throughout the world, or heads of departments of the Vatican, or some priests or bishops whom the Pope personally wishes to honour.

The title of Cardinal is given by the Pope as a personal decision.


The word ‘cardinal’ comes from the Latin word for ‘hinge’. So in the Diocese of Rome, the important clergy were called ‘Cardinals’. In the second and third centuries, the bishops and senior priests and deacons of the parishes and pastoral areas of Rome were the original Cardinals of the Roman Church. Later, the title of Cardinal was given to important priests and bishops who worked for the Holy See (the Diocese of Rome), and later to bishops in Italy.

In the Middle Ages the title was given to the senior bishops outside Italy, and eventually in the modern era, to senior bishops all over the world. Even so, the origins of the ‘College of Cardinals’ is seen in the division among the Cardinals into three ranks: Cardinal Bishops, Cardinal Priests and Cardinal Deacons (most are bishops despite being called Cardinal Priests or Cardinal Deacons).

Generally, the Cardinal Bishops and Cardinal Deacons are members of the Roman Curia, heading the departments of the Holy See (often referred to as the ‘Vatican’).

The Cardinal Priests are mostly the senior Archbishops of the world; e.g. Cardinal Archbishop Vincent Nichols, who resides in England. Each has the title of an ancient Diocese in Rome (Cardinal Bishops), a Church in Rome (Cardinal Priests) or an area of the city of Rome (Cardinal Deacons). For example, Cardinal Emeritus, Cormac Murphy O’Connor’s titular church is Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

The senior Cardinal Bishop is the ‘Dean’ or head of the College (Cardinal Ratzinger held this position before being elected Pope Benedict XVI), who presides at the election of a new Pope.

The senior Cardinal Deacon is the Cardinal who announces the newly-elected Pope to the world. Cardinal Deacon Jean-Louis Tauran announced 'Habemus Papam' - We have a Pope - when Pope Francis greeted the world from the balcony in St Peter's Square in March 2013.

When a Pope dies

When a pope dies, the Cardinals administer the Church of Rome until a new Pope is elected and, of course, the world’s media is focussed on them during the election process for a new pope, who must be one of their number.

During the reign of a Pope, the Cardinals act as a body of consulters to the Pope. Some of them are in charge of the various aspects of Church life. Others represent whole countries and regions of countries. Even those who are bishops of Dioceses will be expected to offer their service in the work of the Departments of the Holy See. For example, Cardinal Emeritus, Murphy O’Connor served in four different Vatican offices, including the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

From time to time, the Pope will bring the Cardinals together for a Consistory, to consult with them as a whole body. It is at these times that new Cardinals are named. Cardinals who are under 80 years of age are allowed to vote in the election of a new Pope. The maximum number set (though it can be changed by the Pope) of elector Cardinals is 120.

St Charles Borromeo

Some of the Cardinals of past history have not graced the position well. However, there are others who have been models of sanctity and pastoral charity. St Charles Borromeo, in the sixteenth century, was born into a wealthy noble family and related to the Pope. He was made a Cardinal at the age of 22. However, unlike many similarly elevated clerics, he did not live in the splendour which his income allowed. Having served the Pope in Rome for a few years, he was appointed Archbishop of Milan. He immediately chose to travel and visited the whole diocese, meeting the priests who were serving their parishes. He carried out the reforms which had been decreed by the Council of Trent, starting with caring for the priests of his Diocese. He was keen to make sure that children received religious education and he took upon himself the care for the poor. In all, he became a model bishop. He was relentless in pursuing reform and died at the age of 46, exhausted by his efforts to gently but firmly deal with priests who were lax in caring for the souls in their care. He once preached; “nothing brings more joy to the Church than those who restore souls to spiritual life…glorifying the most Holy Trinity and preparing for themselves a never-fading crown.”

Further Reading

Spirituality of the Priesthood by Pope John Paul II, published by the Catholic Truth Society (CTS). Pope John Paul invites us to reflect on the ministry of the priesthood within the Church, on what it is and what it entails, according to the intentions of Jesus.

This was written by a member of the catechetical team at the Maryvale Institute working in partnership with the Home Mission Desk of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.