Hailing the Church's Newest Princes

Rome Robes Itself in Red for Saturday’s Consistory

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, FEB. 17, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The snowy white of last week has given way to cardinal red, as the 22 newly appointed cardinals have been arriving in Rome to receive their red hats from Pope Benedict XVI this Saturday.

Dozens of Vaticanisti, our local form of curial ornithologists, have been taking their positions and preparing their scorecards. Eighteen of these neo-princes of the Church are under age 80 and therefore likely to be able to vote in the next conclave. Although Pope Benedict seems in fine health and is keeping up a busy and demanding schedule, Vatican watchers are also looking out for possible papabili, future contenders for the papacy.

There have been many solid analyses of the new line-up published over the past weeks. Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service brought the Roman take, while Peter Westmore thought about future implications of the group. John Allen gives an incisive glance at five points about the selection, and the Italian take can be found in Espresso Magazine.

Much has been made of the fact that the list is 25% Italian, and overwhelmingly curial. John Allen pointed out that Africa appears snubbed in the nominations, and that the line-up has no «crusaders» for one Church doctrine or another, but many who hold important positions in the actual administration of the Church.

Number crunching aside, I found it pleasing that Pope Benedict found a place for his colleagues from his former life. In many ways, Benedict may well envy the new cardinals Augustinian Father Prosper Grech, Belgian Father Julien Ries and Jesuit Father Karl Josef Becker. These academics have spent their lives teaching and studying in the service to the Church, a life that Benedict aspired to. 

The role of cardinals, the princes of the Church, fascinates Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Tourists, noting all the excitement around town and the exquisite decoration of the basilica for the consistory on Saturday, have been asking about who they are, what they do and how they are chosen.

In light of the upcoming event, I thought I would give a little history on that rarest of birds, the cardinal.

The name indeed says it all. «Cardinal» comes from the Latin word «cardo,» meaning hinge. The term was used in the early church to describe priests who could be transferred from assignments and parishes. In a world where most priests stayed put in their parishes for life, as stability after the break-up of the Roman Empire was a priority in the church, these mobile priests were precious multi-taskers. 

Theses «hinges,» moveable but always anchored to the pope, began to serve as senior advisors to the papacy and gradually became the cosmopolitan group of men known as cardinals.

But Medieval Europe saw the Church increasing hemmed in by secular powers, in particular by the Holy Roman Emperor, the most powerful man in the world of that age.

The role of the Holy Roman Emperor had been established in 800 as a protector of the Church’s person, property and liberties, but by the 11th century the emperor interfered regularly in Church matters, even appointing bishops, and he expected to have a role in electing the Roman Pontiff.

The papal election was already heavily controlled by Roman nobles, who divvied up the papacy among themselves from reign to reign, interspersed with periods of antipopes and devastating infighting and extremely long election periods.

A few reform-minded Frenchmen and Germans managed to muscle into the throne of Peter and on Easter of 1059, Pope Nicholas II issued the papal bull In Nomine Domini, in the presence of 113 bishops gathered in Rome at St. John Lateran. This bull put the election of the pope into the hands of the cardinals who would be assembled in Rome, and was the equivalent to a declaration of independence.

The Church distinguishes three types of cardinals. The title of «cardinal bishops» is officially only held by six cardinals who are titulars of Rome’s seven suburbicarian dioceses. They are the most senior prelates of the Church and provide immediate service to the pope. These seven dioceses, outside of Rome proper, include Ostia, Velletri, Tusculum and Palestrina — the former strongholds of Roman nobles who once controlled the papacy. These «sees» are assigned to the longest serving and highest ranking officials, who have always been required to be bishops, whereas, historically, priests and the lowest ranks of clergy could also be elevated to the rank of the red hat.

More recently, Blessed Pope John Paul II decreed that all cardinals are required to first be bishops unless especially permitted by the pope. Two of the new cardinals, Fathers Ries and Grech were just ordained bishops, while Father Becker has obtained permission to be exempted to maintain his Jesuit promise not to strive for any dignity in the church.

The «cardinal priests» are the most numerous in the College of Cardinals. The name alludes to the original parish priests of Rome, from the earliest 25 titular churches of Rome. Even as cardinals, they did not receive episcopal ordination as there was already a bishop of Rome. They were however all ordained priests. The number soared over the centuries and now the cardinal priests are drawn from leaders of large dioceses and curial officials. Almost all the new cardinals will be cardinal priests.

«Cardinal deacons» are meant to mirror the seven deacons of the papal circle. Their task originally was to run the many Church ministries in the city, known as the diaconia. These men could be merely «tonsured,» inducted into ordained ministry but not as priests. Today cardinal deacons are often those who have passed the age of 80 (the voting age in the conclave) or one who has not been ordained a bishop. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, who was never made a bishop, was the cardinal deacon of St. Giorgio in Velabro, one of Rome’s most ancient diaconia.

Pope Paul VI added a special provision for the patriarchs of the Eastern Catholic Churches to be raised to the cardinalate with his 1965 motu proprio Ad Purpuratorum. Four bishop cardinals were named from the Coptic, Chaldean, Syrian and Maronite rites, and are ranked after the six senior suburbicarian sees.

Titular churches

The early structure of the College of Cardinals reflected the earliest Roman Church with its parishes and diaconia and major satellite dioceses. But as Europe stabilized and flourished from the Atlantic to the Baltic, the Church began to seek collaboration beyond the confines of Italy. By the 12th century, the College of Cardinals had grown to include men from all over Europe. These non-residents of Rome were given homes in the Eternal City in the form of «titular» churches, so as to hinge the most far-flung dioceses to the See of Peter. The first were the earliest basilicas of Rome but have since expanded. Now there are 150 titular churches out of Rome’s more than 300.

The beautiful 8th-century basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin is available. This important diaconia from the medieval era was once the titular church of the Englishman Reginald Pole. St. Marcellus, where the 31st pope after St. Peter was martyred, is also vacant. St. Patrick’s on the Via Ludovisi, the Irish national church of Rome, is looking for a new titular cardinal as well. It would make a nice pairing with Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s home cathedral of St. Patrick’s in New York. At any rate, wherever these new cardinals make their Roman nest, the city will celebrate the ancient traditions from the origin of the Church renewed by these new diverse men of the modern age.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studi
es program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

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