The Cardinal Electors of the Pope
by Marcellino D’Ambrosio, Ph.D.
The Pope, like all bishops, needs a lot of help to fulfill his mission to teach, govern, and minister the sacraments to his people. The difference between the Pope and other bishops, however, is that the Pope has been entrusted with the awesomeresponsibility to care for ALL the Catholic churches of the world, to feed ALL the sheep (see Jn 21:15-19).
The bishops of other dioceses have clergy who help them fullfil their more limited mission: their priests (presbyters) and deacons. Sometimes, they even have auxiliary or helper bishops to assist them.
The Pope as bishop of Rome has priests, deacons, and auxiiary bishops to help him care for the people of the diocese of Rome. But to advise him in the care of the universal Church, he chooses special “key” or “hinge” clergy. The main road to the heart of any Roman city was called the “cardo” from the Latin word for hinge. So the clergy that served as the Pope’s closest advisors came to be known as “Cardinals.” They formed the main road to the Pope and the served as the hinges for the door to the Pope and from the Pope to the world.
Over time, many traditions developed around the role of the Cardinals. Since they are the key Roman clergy, each has a titular parish in Rome even though they may live elsewhere in the world. While priests normally wear black and bishops purple, cardinals, who may be drawn from the ranks of priests and bishops, wear scarlet. While the Pope lives, they are his key advisors and are personally picked by him. When the Pope dies, they come together to elect his successor who is ordinarily, though not necessarily, chosen from their own number.
Though a man is “created” Cardinal for life, he loses the privilege and responsibility to elect the next pope once he passes his 80th birthday. To be precise, if he has reached 80 before the death of the Pope, he is disqualified from participating in the conclave that elects that Pope’s successor.
As of the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2, 2005, there are 117 Cardinal eligible to serve as Electors, two of whom are too frail to participate in the Conclave. A list follows with links to their photo and a brief biography. The first thing they will do as the Conclave opens will be to pray to Holy Spirit for guidance as they go about their monumental task. Let’s join them invoking the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit and the blessing by that same Spirit of the new Pope!