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What is a Cardinal?

Rooted in the Latin word "cardo", meaning hinge, cardinals are created by a decree (order) of the Holy Father. They are senior church officials of the Roman Catholic Faith who assist the Pope, consulting with the Holy Father on important church matters. When a Pope dies, cardinals from around the world are also called upon to elect a new Pontiff, in a gathering referred to as a conclave.

Cardinals have been recognized as early as the pontificate of Sylvester I (314-335). They have often been referred to as a type of cabinet or consultors to the Holy Father.

How are cardinals named?

In recent years, the Holy Father has typically announced the appointment of new cardinals approximately one month before the actual ceremony, called a consistory. From the moment they are announced, each cardinal enjoys full membership rights in of the College of Cardinals. For example, if the pope dies before the February 2012 consistory, Cardinal-designate Collins is eligible to vote in a Papal Election.

Code of Canon Law

Canon 349. The cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special college which provides for the election of the Roman Pontiff according to the norm of special law. The cardinals assist the Roman Pontiff either collegially when they are convoked to deal with questions of major importance, or individually when they help the Roman Pontiff through the various offices they perform, especially in the daily care of the universal Church.

Canon 351 §1. The Roman Pontiff freely selects men to be promoted as cardinals, who have been ordained at least into the order of the presbyterate and are especially outstanding in doctrine, morals, piety, and prudence in action; those who are not yet bishops must receive episcopal consecration.

What is a Cardinal "in pectore"?

Translated to mean "in the heart or secretly". On rare occasions, a pope may announce that he has named a cardinal "in pectore". The individual secretly named does not automatically become a cardinal – that may only happen once he is named publicly and installed. The appointee may not even be aware of the appointment himself.

Cardinals may be named "in pectore" to protect them from persecution or reprisals should their identify be known.

If the secretly named cardinal or the pope should die before he is named publicly, he never becomes a cardinal. Until he is installed he has no standing in the College of Cardinals and cannot participate in its activities.

The only effect of having been named a cardinal "in pectore" is that if he is actually installed in the College of Cardinals, he gains seniority retroactively to the time he was named "in pectore". Therefore, he is not included in the overall membership numbers of the College of Cardinals.

In more recent times, of the 232 cardinals created by the late Pope John Paul II, four were named "in pectore". The names of three of these cardinals were later revealed while a fourth was never named publicly before the late Pontiff's 2005 death.

How does one refer to a cardinal?

  • When speaking to the Cardinal: Your Eminence or Cardinal Collins
  • In formal correspondence: His Eminence, Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto