What is a Cardinal and What is the Purpose of the College of Cardinals?

With the elevation of Archbishop Wuerl to the College of Cardinals, it might be good to spend a brief time reflecting on what a Cardinal is and how the College of Cardinals functions. Perhaps it is good to start with a little history and then describe the present realities.

History [1]- Originally the term “cardinal” simply referred to any priest who was attached to a particular church or diocese. Even to this day we speak of diocesan priests as being “incardinated” (or attached) to a certain diocese, and this is required for every priest. There are not to be “free-ranging” priests. Later however, from about the 4th Century through the late Middle Ages the term “cardinal” came to be used only of certain more prominent priests in the larger and more prominent dioceses of antiquity such as Constantinople, Milan, Ravenna, Naples, Sens, Trier, Magdeburg, and Cologne and of course, Rome. In more recent centuries the term came only to be used of Rome.

And thus we find the term cardinal used in the Church at Rome  (from at least fifth century) to designate priests permanently serving in the Roman parishes and ministries under the Bishop of Rome, the Pope— These were the “cardinal priests.” However, as the number of priests grew, not all the priests attached to these Roman parishes were known as cardinal, but only the first priest in each such parish—i.e. the Pastor or Rector.

Cardinal priests attended not only to their own ministry or parish but also convened regularly to oversee matters of  Church discipline in the diocese of Rome. These might include matters of disciplining the clergy, filling vacancies and so forth. But it also involved matters pertaining to the laity insofar as they interacted with the Church. Thus the Cardinal priests assisted the Pope in the administration of the Diocese of Rome. There are some echoes of all this in every diocese through a mechanisms known as the College of Deans and College of Consultors who assist the Bishop in administrative details and matters of Church discipline.

Cardinal Deacons – During all this time just described there also existed a group known as the cardinal deacons. The Roman Diocese was divided into seven regions and a deacon was assigned to each. They performed numerous duties but chief among them was record-keeping and the coordination of the care of the poor, cemeteries and the like. Given their elevated status over a deacon who only served a parish, they came to be called cardinal deacons.  These cardinal deacons would also assist the Pope liturgically whenever he was in that region of the diocese. The number of these cardinal deacons gradually rose over the years.

Cardinal Bishops – Yet again, during all this time there also emerged the cardinal bishops. As the worldwide Church grew in size, the duties of the Pope, and  the administrative concerns of the Roman Church (diocese) grew. The Pope increasingly came to call on bishops of nearby dioceses (esp. Ostia and Velletri, Porto and Santa Rufina, Albano, Frascati (Tusculum), Palestrina (Præneste), and Sabina) to represent him in an official capacity and to give him counsel. In a way it was like the modern notion of a local synod.

Thus we see that the Cardinals had varying ranks and functions. They were, assistants of the pope in his liturgical functions, in the care of the poor, the administration of papal finances and possessions, and met in synod over the  disposition of important matters to include Church discipline.

By the 11th Century the College of Cardinals took on more importance as they began to oversee the election of a new pope when this became necessary. They not only saw to the election but they also ran things during the interregnum. From this time on their functions and importance grew. The Pope met regularly with them in something called the “consistory,”  i.e. the reunion of the cardinals and the pope. In these meetings were regularly treated doctrinal questions of faith,  disciplinary matters, canonizations, approvals of rules of new orders, indulgences for the Universal Church, rules for papal elections, the calling of general councils, appointing of Apostolic legates and vicars etc. The consistory also oversaw matters concerning dioceses and bishops, creation, transfer, division, the nomination and confirmation of bishops, also their transfer, resignation, etc.

The Modern Scene – More could be said of the history but allow this to bring us to modern times [2].

Although we see historically that there are three ranks of Cardinals (bishop, priest and deacon) it is now the practice that only bishops are elevated to the College of Cardinals. Since 1962 all cardinals have been required to receive episcopal consecration unless they are granted an exemption from this obligation by the Pope.  Most recently this happened with Cardinal Avery Dulles who was elevated to Cardinal but remained a priest.

Though all the Cardinals are now bishops, the traditional distinctions are maintained. The title of “Cardinal Bishop” only means that he  holds the title of one of the “suburbicarian” (nearby dioceses of Rome listed above) or that he is the  Dean of the College of Cardinals — or that he is a patriarch of an Eastern Catholic Church. Cardinal priests are the largest of the three orders of cardinals. Cardinal priests today are generally bishops of important dioceses throughout the world, though some hold offices in the Curia. The cardinal deacons are either officials of the Roman Curia or priests elevated after their eightieth birthday (such as Cardinal Dulles was).

As for the functions of the College of Cardinals, we have already seen much of this in the history above. In modern times the function of the college is to advise the Pope about Church issues whenever  he summons them to an ordinary consistory.  The cardinals not only attend the meetings of the College but also make themselves available individually or with small panels of cardinals if the Pope requests their counsel in this way . Most cardinals have additional duties, such as leading a diocese or archdiocese. Others run a department of the Roman Curia.

The College of Cardinals also convenes on the death or abdication of a pope as a papal conclave to elect a successor. The college has no ruling power except during the sede vacante (vacant see) period, and even then its powers are extremely limited.

Congratulations to Cardinal-designate Wuerl – It is a great honor to be elevated to the College of Cardinals. Those who attain to this office have proven their worth as stable and wise counselors, good bishops of the Church. I can surely attest that Cardinal-designate Wuerl is a wise and prudent steward who is careful and consultative in his approach. He will surely be a fine counselor to the Pope. May our Cardinal-designate experience many graces and blessings in this new status even as he continues to shepherd this local Church of the Archdiocese of Washington.

23 Replies to “What is a Cardinal and What is the Purpose of the College of Cardinals?”

  1. Thank you for the informative post – my children were asking about this! Maybe you could do a similar article on ‘monsignor’? … 🙂

    1. Alright now! I was once assigned to the Southeast Deanery wherein also Fr. Greg Butta serves. We always said we were the only deanery in the world with a pope and a butta.

  2. Let me try to give you examples, a Monsignor, is a Priest who has been given special authority by his bishop to administer a part of a Diocese, but he is still a Priest his title is Very Rev. and is abreviated as MSGR.

    Another them, which is sometimes used is Mon Seigneur, which means My Lord, and it is used in regards to a Bishop, or Archbishop especially if they are French, and this is abreviated as MGR

    1. Not all Msgrs are “very Rev.” only those who are also deans. Also a Msgr. does not per se have more authority unless perhaps he is dean or an official of the diocese.

  3. Msgr,
    What effect will this have on the Cardinal-elect’s work in the archdiocese? Will he have more travel, an added portion to his “job description”; and does he get additional resources to discharge his new responsibilities?

    1. I suppose we will have to travel a bit more though not a lot more. It is unlikely that he will receive more resources (eg auxiliary bishops). But I think overall he will be able to discharge his duties well without a serious downturn in current levels of service.

  4. Cardinal is not a rank but it is an administrative title. However all cardindls do all sorts of things except evangelisation but enjoy all privillages
    The only thing that they have to do is wear civilian habits and mix with the lay mud
    Mostly they want to be served and are not prepared to serve

    1. Your remarks are unkind and by them you demonstrate an arrogance all your own. Further, you engage in rash judgment and a collectivist sort of criticism that fails to acnkowledge the individuality of each case or person.

  5. Me: If one addresses a Bishop as Your Excellence, and a Cardinal as Your Eminence, how does one address a Cardinal-elect?
    My husband: ?? Your Eminence-Elect??

  6. I am very happy for Archbishop Wuerl and thanks for the informative article. He is a great person, and I’ve been lucky enough to get to talk with him on a few occasions. I’ve been lucky enough to get to talk with lots of great priests like you and several others, and I wish everyone nothing but the best, and you guys are in my prayers. I know you all work and pray very hard and I appreciate all that you do!

  7. All your articles are very impressive, this one too is informative, as i share all these with my family & friends, I also pray that holy spirit reveal you many more new and hidden things of God’s kingdom and his Word.

    Thanks Msgr

  8. When I first discovered your blog, I confess I thought your name funny. What if he ever becomes a pope, I wondered. Giggle. No wonder I write for children. I also thought you were in our Washington in the Pacific NW and wondered why I never heard about you in the local Catholic paper.

    Bless the new Cardinal. And bless you, Monsignor. I am not so ignorant because of you, but I’ve got a long way to go …

    1. There is a Jesuit priest in Yakima whose name is also Pope. Or he was there last time I was there, which was a few years ago.

  9. Msgr.,

    I hope you could clear something up for me and for all of your readers. I am seeing the term “Cardinal-designate” everywhere, including in the statement issued by your own Ordinary. I know this terminology when referring to a man named Bishop but who is not yet consecrated as Bishop (though I also sometimes see Bishop-elect). In any case, I do not think that this usage is proper. I have always understood that, since the title of Cardinal is just that, a title recognized by international treaty, one is a Cardinal immediately upon being named, and NOT when he receives the red hat (galero/biretta). Thus, it seems to me that Cardinal Wuerl is properly so named, Donald Cardinal Wuerl. The title “Cardinal”, of course, belongs in the middle because it is the man’s title, as in the usage Charles “Prince” of Wales or Elizabeth II Windsor or Philip “Duke” of Edinburgh, etc.

    Does this concur with your understanding?


    1. About the title of Elizabeth, it should read “Elizabeth II ‘Queen’ of England” in order to show the parallel. I apologise for the mistake.

  10. @Ben of the Bayou there is a difference betwwn the names of members of the Royal Family and Cardinals. The title Cardinal is part of the name, so there is no comma.
    Charles, Prince of Wales
    Donald Cardinal Wuerl.
    (Elizabeth II Queen of England as a title does not exist, she is just Elizabeth II, she has a whole lot more titles of course)

    For some reason Cardinal has got put to the beginning of the name. The Pope’s pre election books were always written by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. But I often see Cardinal George Pell on official stuff from the Archdiocese of Sydney.

    About suitable names the Bishop of Parramatta (western Sydney) is Anthony Fisher. Pope Benedict XV was Giacomo della Chiesa( = of the church).

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