Call to Greater Responsibility

Twenty-two men will receive the red hat Feb. 18, including American Archbishops Timothy Dolan and Edwin O'Brien.

Pope Benedict XVI will soon bestow the cardinals’ biretta on 22 distinguished Churchmen, two of whom are American archbishops.

Cardinal-designates Timothy Dolan and Edwin O’Brien, respectively the archbishop of New York and the grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, were among those to be formally admitted into the College of Cardinals at a consistory in Rome Feb. 18.

As well as awarding the “red hat” at a papal Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pope will also give them a ring (a seal of their “nuptial covenant” with the Church) and assign them a titular church in or near the city of Rome in accordance with ancient tradition.

“The red indicates blood and a readiness to give our lives for the Gospel,” explained Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. “It’s not that we want to be killed, but that we are ready, if necessary, to give our lives for the Gospel.”

Once enrolled into the college, a cardinal becomes one of three ranks: cardinal bishop (the most senior and always a bishop), cardinal priest (generally bishops of the Church’s most important dioceses) or cardinal deacon (either officials of the Roman Curia or those over 80 years of age).

A cardinal’s first duty is to be an adviser to the Pope, available to offer the Holy Father counsel whenever necessary, either individually or in groups. This includes attending further meetings of the College of Cardinals while continuing, or assuming, other duties, whether they be leading an archdiocese or running a dicastery of the Roman Curia. For this reason, the College of Cardinals is sometimes likened in political terms to being a kind of “papal Senate,” or the Pope’s personal cabinet of ministers.

“[Being cardinal] is a responsibility, not a picnic,” Cardinal Arinze explained. “It is a call towards greater responsibility in the Church, and it’s a sign of the Pope’s good will.”

If under the age of 80, a cardinal also takes on arguably his most lofty and significant role: to elect the next pope. And once he receives a red hat, he himself becomes eligible to be elected as the successor of Peter. (In theory, any priest can be, though almost always he has been chosen from the College of Cardinals.) This is why a cardinal is sometimes referred to as a “prince of the Church,” though it’s not a term many cardinals themselves use.

“We don’t like that [term],” Cardinal Arinze said. “The Gospel gives the idea of service; it is the model that Christ gave us. So even though in worldly terminology people look on cardinals sometimes as princes, we should look on ourselves as servants of the Gospel and of the people of God.”

Cardinal Renato Martino, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, agreed, but added that the terminology is based on the inevitability that every cardinal, of whatever age, may become the next pope.

“In international protocol, all cardinals are ‘crown princes,’” Cardinal Martino explained. “And, in this case, the ‘crown prince’ is not just one, as any one of the cardinals can and will be elected pope.”

Cardinal Martino also stressed that the “prince” motif is on account of the pope being “a head of state as well as being head of the Church.”

Asked what went through Cardinal Arinze’s mind when Blessed Pope John Paul II elevated him to the college in 1985, the Nigerian cardinal said: “The good will of the Holy Father, the honor done to my country and the call to work to be more involved.”

Cardinal Martino stressed that the appointment is a “free choice of the pope,” so “you cannot aspire to be a cardinal.”

He added: “When a Churchman is appointed to a post in the Curia, which has generally been served by a cardinal, there is the supposition that sometimes the pope can appoint you a cardinal — but it’s not a mathematical certainty.”

For this reason, Cardinal Martino said, when appointed, “You feel really surprised. I would also say confused and obliged to make a review of your life.”

The Italian cardinal, who was elevated to the cardinalate in 2003 after serving 16 years as the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations in New York, stressed that the cardinal-making consistory is not an ordination or consecration.

“It’s not sacramental; rather, it is, let’s say, bureaucratic, because you’re called to a function,” he explained, adding that most cardinals are already consecrated bishops or archbishops of dioceses around the world.

Asked whether he felt it was like a culmination of his life as a priest, Cardinal Martino answered: “Yes, because in my service to the Church — I have now served about 55 years in the priesthood — I would say that I never decided what I wanted to do; because, for me, only one thing mattered: to be available to do what the good Lord wanted from me.”

Cardinal Arinze said being made a cardinal was “in the same line” as his vocation to the priesthood.

“A priest is ordained to celebrate the sacred mysteries, to preach the word of God, and to gather the people of God together,” he said. “So it is in the same direction — only with more responsibilities.”

The importance of responsibility is a theme Benedict XVI has often repeated to new cardinals, as is unity. Addressing new cardinals in 2007, the Holy Father said they are called to be “profoundly united” with the successor of Peter, and, under his guidance, “they must remain in the lordship of Christ, thinking and working in accordance with the logic of the cross.” It is never easy or predictable, he added, but stressed that it depends on “fidelity to the divine kingship of crucified Love.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.

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