VATICAN CITY, JAN. 22, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The number of currently vacant seats of elector cardinals for a future conclave will be filled with the consistory Feb. 21.
Historically, when the Church held temporal power, cardinals were known as “princes of the Church.” Indeed, after the title Pope, that of cardinal has the greatest dignity in the Catholic Church, recognized as such during the pontificate of Sylvester I (314-335).
One theory says the term comes from the Latin word “cardo,” meaning hinge; some scholars say it referred to a principal officer or church on whose functions much ecclesiastical administration was said to “turn.” Their red hats signify that they must be prepared to shed their blood for the faith and the Church. The Bishop of Rome freely decides on the creation of cardinals.
In the beginning, the title cardinal was generically attributed to people at the service of a church or diaconate, reserving the title later to those responsible for titular churches — “tituli cardinales” — of Rome and of the most important Italian and foreign churches.
Since Pope Nicholas II in 1059 and, gradually, up to 1438 with Pope Eugene IV, this title acquired the prestige that characterizes it today. The College of Cardinals was established in its present form in 1150.
Numbers 349-359 of canon law describe the College´s functions. Canon 349 states: “The cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special college whose responsibility is to provide the election of the Roman Pontiff in accord with the norm of special law; the cardinals also assist the Roman Pontiff collegially when they are called together to deal with questions of major importance together; they do so individually when they assist the Roman Pontiff especially in the daily care of the universal Church by means of the different offices they perform.”
Since 1059, the cardinals have been the sole electors of the Pope, whom they elect in conclave. Paul VI established that cardinals who are older than 80 cannot participate in the conclave and therefore cannot vote for a new pope.
The latest norms on the holding of a conclave have come from John Paul II, and are written in the apostolic constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis,” dated Feb. 22, 1996, which fixes the maximum number of elector members of the College of Cardinals at 120. However, for the second time, John Paul II will surpass this norm in the next consistory, as the number of electors will increase to 128, but as several cardinals will soon be 80, the exception will not last for long.
During the period of “vacancy” in the Apostolic See, the College of Cardinals plays an important role in the general government of the Church and, following the 1929 Lateran Pacts, in the government of Vatican City also.
The requisites for being elected cardinal are more or less the same as those established by the Council of Trent in its 24th session on Nov. 11, 1563: men who have received priestly ordination and are outstanding for their doctrine, piety and prudence in carrying out their duties. Those who are chosen and are not yet bishops, must receive episcopal consecration, as established by John XXIII.
The cardinals act collegially as advisers to the Pope through the consistories, which the Pope convokes and which take place under his presidency. Consistories may be ordinary or extraordinary. Cardinals present in Rome attend ordinary consistories, as do other bishops, priests and special guests.
The Pope convokes these consistories for consultation on important questions, or to add special solemnity to some celebrations. All cardinals are called to attend extraordinary consistories, which are held to respond to special needs of the Church or to discuss more serious matters. Cardinals are addressed as “Eminence.”