FORUM: ‘Reflection on the Role of Cardinals in the Church’

‘A love that bears, believes, hopes and endures’

© PHOTO.VA - Osservatore Romano

Below is a reflection of Fr. Thomas Rosica, entitled ‘Reflection on the Role of Cardinals in the Church.’ It was published on November 14th.

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A love that bears, believes, hopes and endures”

Cardinals are chosen by the Holy Father to serve as his principal assistants and advisers in the central administration of church affairs. Collectively, they form the College of Cardinals.  Some believe that the College of Cardinals is nothing more than an intention of a papacy of the Middle Ages, simply in need of a consultative body in a more turbulent period of the Church’s history.  Others believe it to be the embodiment of the self-aggrandizing Papacy of the High Renaissance.

Although the theological origins of the Cardinalate might be traced loosely to Moses, the historic bonds are surely deeply rooted in the early Christian Church of Jerusalem.  The role of a Cardinal, as well as his title, is ancient.  For two centuries prior to the Christian era, Roman society had been organized hierarchically, with senators and patriarchs holding the highest office, each having assistants to carry through on their edicts or decrees.  Simultaneously, the Church continued to flourish, and its structure clearly mimicked that of the Roman Empire.  The original seven assistants chosen by the apostles in Jerusalem passed on, many martyred for their own faith.  They were replaced, in turn, by others who were consecrated as the need for these special assistants continued to grow alongside the growing infant Church.  This is in keeping with the original function of the College.

In the first centuries of the Church, the Bishop of Rome was surrounded by his presbyterium, or local priests and deacons along with the bishops of dioceses neighboring Rome. The presbyterium helped the Pope carry out his duties as bishop of the capital city of the Roman Empire. As those duties, over the centuries, began to increasingly involve all of Italy, then all of Europe, then the entire world, some of the priests and deacons who assisted the Pope began to be chosen from among non-Romans.  Today the body that was once limited in membership to the clergy of the city of Rome includes members from dozens of different countries.

The word cardinal is derived from two early Latin terms, cardo and cardinis. The English translation has rendered these two words as “hinge,” to signify that important device that serves as a juncture for two opposing forces and that affords harmony as a result. As a hinge permits a door to hang easily upon a framed portal, it was believed that the cardinals facilitated an easy relationship between the theological and governmental roles of the hierarchy of the Church. The role of the College of Cardinals remains a pivotal one in the Church of our time.

Cardinals have been called “the Princes of the Church,” “the Sacred College” and “the Senate of the Church.” Each of these terms tells us something about who they are. If the cardinals are “princes,” they are not kings. They have a secondary role to that of the one who is above them: the Pope.

If they are a “sacred college,” they are not a secular one. Their functions are in the religious sphere, not in the sphere of politics or economics or any other secular endeavor. Their decisions are rooted in and spring from their faith; they have an essentially ecclesial, not societal horizon. At times their deliberations and decisions do affect politics and society.

If they comprise “the senate of the Church,” they have some kind of deliberative function in the preparation and passage of legislation pertaining to the life of the Church. Their role is that of a group of senior Church members who can advise the Church’s leader, the Pope, on the right course of action in various situations affecting the life of the Church.
The College of Cardinals has one over-arching task: to elect the Bishop of Rome. This task has been entrusted exclusively to the College for almost 1,000 years, since 1179, about the time the College’s structure was formalized. Cardinals do not “rank” one step higher than bishops because there is no higher spiritual “rank” in the Church than that of the bishop, which is itself simply the fullness of Holy Orders (the priesthood). Even the Holy Father is Pope in virtue of the fact that he is the Bishop of Rome and for no other reason. Bishops individually have full powers to lead their local Church communities in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome; the Bishop of Rome has this type of authority over Rome and over the entire Church, because of the Petrine commission.
The role of the College of Cardinals, though made up of bishops from around the world is clearly limited to advising the Bishop of Rome on the exercise of his universal Petrine mission, and its authority is entirely derivative. The cardinals are his closest advisors, helpers, councilors, friends, his eyes and ears around the world, and, sometimes, his voice. They share in his mission because they have been personally chosen by the Pope for that task.
There are three ranks of cardinals: cardinal bishops, cardinal priests and cardinal deacons, reflecting the fact that originally not all cardinals were bishops, or even priests. The cardinal bishops include the six titular bishops of the “suburbicarian” sees (the episcopal sees bordering on the city of Rome) and the Eastern patriarchs.
First in rank are the titular bishops of Ostia, Palestrina, Porto-Santa Rufina, Albano, Velletri-Segni, Frascati, Sabina-Poggio Mirteto. The cardinal bishops are engaged in full-time service in the central administration of Church affairs in departments of the Roman Curia. Cardinal priests, formerly the priests in charge of leading churches in Rome, are bishops whose dioceses are outside Rome. Cardinal deacons, formerly chosen according to regional divisions of Rome, are titular bishops assigned to full-time service in the Roman Curia.
The dean and sub-dean of the College are elected by the cardinal bishops — subject to approval by the Pope — from among their number. The dean, or the sub-dean in his absence, presides over the entire College as the first among equals.
Since the time of BONIFACE VIII (1294-1303), cardinals have worn scarlet robes. The red hat dates back to the time of Innocent IV (1243-1254); in November 1246, while meeting with the King of France at Cluny, Innocent IV conferred the red hat on his cardinals. The red hats given to the cardinals are the color of blood, signifying that they are expected to witness to the faith “usque ad sanguinis effusionem” — “even unto the shedding of blood” — that is, even as martyrs. The color red symbolizes the blood shed by martyrs and witnesses for the faith. Giving public, clear witness to the faith lies at the heart of the Cardinal’s mission.At consistory of February 2015, Pope Francis addressed the new Cardinals at the Eucharistic celebration inaugurating their new ministry with these words that sum up beautifully the role of cardinals in the Church.

“Charity – Saint Paul adds – “does not rejoice at the wrong, but rejoices in the right”. Those called to the service of governance in the Church need to have a strong sense of justice, so that any form of injustice becomes unacceptable, even those which might bring gain to himself or to the Church. At the same time, he must “rejoice in the right”. What a beautiful phrase! The man of God is someone captivated by truth, one who encounters it fully in the word and flesh of Jesus Christ, the inexhaustible source of our joy. May the people of God always see in us a firm condemnation of injustice and joyful service to the truth.

Finally, “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”. Here, in four words, is a spiritual and pastoral programme of life. The love of Christ, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, enables us to live like this, to be like this: as persons always ready to forgive; always ready to trust, because we are full of faith in God; always ready to inspire hope, because we ourselves are full of hope in God; persons ready to bear patiently every situation and each of our brothers and sisters, in union with Christ, who bore with love the burden of our sins.

Dear brothers, this comes to us not from ourselves, but from God. God is love and he accomplishes all this in us if only we prove docile to the working of his Holy Spirit. This, then, is how we are to be: “incardinated” and docile. The more we are “incardinated” in the Church of Rome, the more we should become docile to the Spirit, so that charity can give form and meaning to all that we are and all that we do. Incardinated in the Church which presides in charity, docile to the Holy Spirit who pours into our hearts the love of God (cf. Rom 5:5).

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