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James Martin, S.J.November 14, 2010


Thomas J. Reese, S.J., senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, and former editor in chief of America, and author of Inside the Vatican sent us along this helpful primer--designed for the media but informative for everyone--for the upcoming consistory.  Here's Tom's typically thorough take:

There are two kinds of consistories. Ordinary consistories are normally for certain solemn ceremonies such as canonizations, the conferral of the pallium to archbishops, or the creation of new cardinals. For an extraordinary consistory, the pope calls all the College of Cardinals to Rome to advise him on issues facing the church. The discussions in extraordinary consistories are not open to the public or media.

An ordinary consistory to create cardinals will be held on November 20; the extraordinary consistory will be held the day before. This is the same pattern Pope Benedict followed in 2007, when the cardinal designates were allowed to participate in the extraordinary consistory before they were made cardinals the following day. At a Mass on the day after they became cardinals, the pope gave each a gold ring. Scheduling an extraordinary consistory before an ordinary consistory is simply a matter of convenience since so many cardinals will be in Rome anyway for the creation of the new cardinals.  According to canon 351, "Cardinals are created by a formal decree of the Roman Pontiff which is made public in the presence of the College of Cardinals. From the moment of the announcement they are bound by the duties and possess the rights defined by law."

If a cardinal-designate dies before the consistory at which the decree is formally announced, he is not a cardinal. This occurred with Hans Urs von Balthasar, who died June 26, 1988, two days before the June 28 consistory at which he would have been made a cardinal. If the pope dies before the consistory, the cardinals-designate do not become cardinals and cannot attend a conclave to elect a new pope.

Authority and Function

Becoming a cardinal does not increase an archbishop's canonical authority in his diocese or in his country, but it does add to his prestige and influence. People in red hats tend to stand out in a crowd.

Cardinals have three main functions in the church. Most importantly, they meet in a conclave to elect a new pope after the death or resignation of a pope. Second, cardinals advise and help the pope in the governance of the universal church. They do this especially in consistories and through serving on Vatican congregations and councils.  Third, they hold the title to a church in Rome for which they are responsible. The original 25 "titular churches" were once the major churches in Rome and the cardinals' right to vote for the pope was based on the fact that they were pastors of these churches. Cardinals from wealthy countries are sometimes given Roman churches that are in need of expensive repairs.

Errors to Avoid

A person is NOT "ordained" or "consecrated" a cardinal. This is NOT a sacrament. A cardinal-designate does NOT have to be present at the consistory to become a cardinal. Technically cardinals are "created," which has led to the clerical joke that only God and the pope can create something out of nothing. You can also refer to them as "appointed" or "promoted" or "raised to the cardinalate" by the pope. The College of Cardinals is no longer referred to as the "senate" of the church.

Although we colloquially refer to people as "getting a red hat," in fact they get a red zucchetto and a red biretta. The cardinal's hat (galero), which had a wide rim and is often seen on old coats of arms and old paintings, is no longer given. In the past there was a tradition that when a cardinal died, his hat would be hung from the ceiling of the sanctuary in his cathedral. Superstition held that a cardinal would be in purgatory until his hat fell to the ground, which led his enemies to bolt his hat to the ceiling.

Do not confuse a conclave with a consistory. A conclave is a meeting of the College of Cardinals to elect a new pope. A consistory is a meeting of the cardinals to advise the pope. The meeting at which cardinals are created is a consistory. The canonical formality is that the pope is asking the old cardinals their advice on the creation of new cardinals. While centuries ago the older cardinals were really consulted about the appointments, today by the time the consistory is held it is obviously a done deal.


Technically, it is more proper to refer to the clothes of a cardinal as "scarlet" not red. It is an orange-red. The clothes of bishops are colloquially said to be purple, although technically they are "amaranth red," which is a mixture of reddish-purple hues and scarlet. The scarlet color symbolizes their willingness to shed their blood for the church (three cardinals died violently during the 20th century). For formal events, a cardinal wears a scarlet cassock with scarlet sash and a rochet--a short, white surplice-like garment worn over the cassock. The mozzetta, the scarlet elbow-length cape, is worn over the rochet. The cardinal's hat (galero), which had a wide rim, is no longer worn. The scarlet zucchetto is a skullcap that looks like a beanie or a yarmulke. The biretta is a square hat (with no rim), covered with scarlet silk, with three "horns" or ridges. A new cardinal receives his zucchetto, biretta and cardinalitial ring from the pope. The ring is made of gold. In the past it would have had a sapphire, but today, it has a modern bas-relief design that depicts a scene from the public life of Christ. For more about ecclesiastical fashions, see The Church Visible, by James-Charles Noonan, Jr. (Viking 1996).  For a picture of Cardinal O’Malley’s ring, see: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/city_region/paulson/blog/2006/03/25/

The Consistory Ceremony

The public ceremony has been modified over time and could change again. What is described below is based on recent consistories, but you will have to check to see what will happen this year.  If the weather is good, the consistory takes place in St. Peter’s Square. [Update: This consistory will take place in St. Peter’s Basilica regardless of the weather. The receptions after this consistory will be held in the Paul VI Hall, not in the Apostolic Palace.] In 2007 it was moved inside the basilica when bad weather was forecast. Several thousand people who would not fit in the church had to watch the consistory on big TV screens in the square.  The public ceremony, which takes about two hours, is done within a Scripture service or a Liturgy of the Word and is mostly in Latin and Italian. In recent consistories the candidates are seated in two rows like choir stalls facing each other in front of the pope, who is seated on a gilded throne. The older cardinals are seated on higher level on the pope’s right. The pope enters the ceremony dressed in a gold cope with miter and crosier.

The service follows the normal format of a Liturgy of the Word: entrance song, greeting from pope and a brief address that concludes with the solemn declaration: "By the authority of almighty God, of the holy apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, we solemnly create and declare these our brothers cardinals of the Holy Roman Church." The pope or a Vatican official reads their names. From this point on the men are officially cardinals, even if they are not present at the ceremony.

The senior new cardinal then thanks the pope in the name of the new cardinals. The Liturgy of the Word continues with a prayer by the pope followed by a scripture reading (Peter 5: 1-11 has been used), a sung responsorial psalm, a reading from a gospel (Mark 10: 32-45 has been used) and the pope's homily on the duties and responsibilities of the cardinals.  After the homily, the pope then asks the new cardinals to profess their faith in God and their fidelity to the Catholic and apostolic church. The new cardinals recite the Nicene Creed followed by an oath of fidelity and obedience to the pope and his successors.

I [name and surname], Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, promise and swear to be faithful henceforth and forever, while I live, to Christ and his Gospel, being constantly obedient to the Holy Roman Apostolic Church, to Blessed Peter in the person of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI, and of his canonically elected Successors; to maintain communion with the Catholic Church always, in word and deed; not to reveal to anyone what is confided to me in secret, nor to divulge what may bring harm or dishonor to Holy Church; to carry out with great diligence and faithfulness those tasks to which I am called by my service to the Church, in accord with the norms of the law. So help me Almighty God. [Translation by Zenit.]

The choir sings "Tu es Petrus" (You are Peter). Next each new cardinal individually comes up and kneels in front of the pope who is sitting. Either the pope of a Vatican functionary puts the zucchetto on the new cardinal’s head. The pope puts the biretta on top of the zucchetto. The pope gives him a document certifying that he is a cardinal and giving him his titular church. The pope then gives the new cardinal the sign of peace, after which the cardinal gives the sign of peace to all the other cardinals. After this is completed, the universal prayers (prayers of the faithful) are said in a number of languages followed by the Lord's Prayer. The pope concludes with a final prayer and a blessing. In the past, the new cardinals have held receptions in various rooms of the Apostolic Palace. Going to the receptions is popular among Romans because it is the only time some of these rooms are open to the public.  In 2007, the pope gave each new cardinal his cardinalitial ring during a mass on the day following the consistory. As he slips the ring on the third finger of the right hand of each kneeling cardinal, he says in Latin: "Receive then the ring, sign of dignity, of pastoral readiness, and of the most binding communion with the Chair of Peter."

Historical footnote: In the past, before the public consistory, there was a private or "secret" consistory on the same day in the consistory hall where the pope met with the old cardinals and announced to them the names of the men he wanted to make cardinals. This maintained the canonical formality of consulting the old cardinals about the appointment of the new cardinals. The secret consistory appears to have been discontinued, although one occurred as late as 1988. At the secret consistory, after the names were read, the cardinals tipped their hats to indicate their approval of the candidates. The pope then declared: "By the authority of almighty God and the holy apostles Peter and Paul, we solemnly create and declare cardinals of the Holy Roman Church all those whose names have been pronounced." From this point on the men are officially cardinals. Thus if a secret consistory takes place, the public consistory would be purely ceremonial. If there is no secret consistory, then the names are read out and the pope makes the above declaration at the public consistory.

Historical background

Cardinals became the sole electors of the pope in 1059. Before that, the priests and/or people of Rome elected their bishop as was common in most dioceses at that time. One of the reasons the vote was limited to the cardinals was an attempt to keep the election out of the hands of the local Roman nobility who pressured the clergy and people to elect their candidate. This sometimes led to pitched battles and bloodshed. The hope was that the cardinals would be less susceptible to pressure.

For four centuries, the College of Cardinals could have as many as 70 cardinals. John XXIII abolished this limit in 1958. When Paul VI reformed the College of Cardinals in 1970, he limited its size to 120 under the age of 80. There is no limit to the number of cardinals over 80 years of age. After a cardinal turns 80, he loses his right to enter a conclave and vote for a new pope. Before 1970, a cardinal only lost his vote when he died. Late twentieth-century healthcare allowed most cardinals to live way beyond what was normal in earlier times. Paul VI changed the rules to allow greater turnover in the college, to avoid a gerontocracy and to avoid the possibility of having cardinals who were physically alive but mentally incapable of exercising their vote.

The College of Cardinals goes back so far in history that its origins are obscure and debated by historians. Originally the term “cardinal” referred in any diocese to a cleric (deacon, priest, or bishop) who was incardinated to a new position or parish as opposed to the one for which he was originally ordained. In the old days, a priest was ordained for a particular church and never left it. In Rome, cardinal deacons were deacons who had been moved and put in charge of social services for the various regions of Rome. Originally, cardinal priests were priests temporarily incardinated to certain shrines or basilicas for special liturgical services. The same was true for the bishops from the seven dioceses surrounding Rome when they came for special liturgical services in St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome.

Since it was normally the more talented or trusted who were assigned these duties, it was natural that these clergy became important advisors to the pope. Eventually the cardinal priests became permanently responsible for their churches in Rome, but as their curial responsibilities grew, others took over their pastoral responsibilities. Likewise, the social work of the cardinal deacons was turned over to others. The cardinal bishops worked for the pope in Rome but continued to have pastoral responsibility for their dioceses until 1962 when John XXIII relieved them of any jurisdiction over these dioceses, which by 1962 had grown from small villages to large population centers after the Second World War.

For more information, see Thomas J. Reese, S.J., “Chapter 4: The College of Cardinals,” Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church (Harvard University Press, 1996


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
12 years 4 months ago
Wouldn't it be nice if the college of Cardinals included clergy and laity, women and men? And what about the solemn oath of fidelity that requires the new Cardinal never ''to divulge what may bring harm or dishonor to Holy Church?'' I believe the sexual abuse scandal brought major dishonor to the Holy Church, but Cardinals may not divulge such abuse? When are we going to graduate from the Middle Ages? 
Jim McCrea
12 years 4 months ago
This reads like a forward to a new fantasy fiction book by Guy Gavriel Kay.

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