Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Ask Tony: Monsignors and cardinals


Growing up an “Air Force brat”, ranks and titles of different kinds interested me. I accepted the existence of monsignors and cardinals as much as I accepted the existence of captains and colonels. But what are monsignors and cardinals all about? We know where bishops, priests and deacons are spoken of in the New Testament; where did these ranks come from?

Technically, no one is really “appointed a monsignor”. Rather, there are three kinds of papal honor conferred on priests who either hold specific ministries within the Church or whom their bishops feel are specially deserving; generally, a monsignor is thought to have “a leg up”, so to speak, when the Congregation for Bishops are looking for episcopal candidates; however, bishop candidates don't have to be monsignors. The three kinds of papal honor, in descending order of precedence, are:

  • Protonotary apostolic, which are split into
    • de numero and
    • supernumerary;
  • Honorary prelate; and
  • Chaplain of His Holiness.


There are minimum requirements of age and time in priesthood for each level: a protonotary apostolic must be 55 and have served 20 years as a priest; an honorary prelate, 45 and 15 years; a chaplain of His Holiness, 35 and ten years. The vicar general and diocesan administrator of a see are considered protonotaries durante munere (for the duration of their appointments); if their bishops wish to have them honored, the age and years of priesthood requirements for honorary prelate are waived.

The papal honor confers some differences in dress as well. In choir, a monsignor wears a purple cassock with a mantelletta (a sleeveless, knee-length cape) and a rochet (similar to a surplice). For non-liturgical purposes, they wear a black cassock with red piping and a purple sash, and may wear a purple cape called a ferraiulo. However, only protonotaries de numero may wear the biretta with a red tuft; the rest still wear the black-tufted biretta of a regular priest.

While the title itself is pretty grand — it stems from the Italian monsignore, literally “my lord” — monsignors aren’t given any additional authority by virtue of the honor. Rather, their authority stems from their particular ministry (e.g., pastor of the cathedral, vicar general, judge of the Roman Rota, etc.) and stops within the bounds of that ministry.

Similarly, a cardinal doesn’t become a boss of other bishops by virtue of receiving the red hat. Rather, the cardinal usually heads up a dicastery or commission of the Holy See, or is an archbishop within a particular country. The difference between him and any other bishop or archbishop is that he has a vote for the next pope when the Chair of Peter falls vacant.

The term itself comes from the early medieval period, when a priest was permanently appointed (or incardinated) to a particular church as its senior priest, which made him “pivotal” or cardinalis (from cardo, “pivot and socket” or “hinge”). The pope was selected by the clergy and people of Rome; later, the Holy Roman Emperor had some power in the matter. But in 1059, Nicholas II promulgated the bull In nomine Domini, which reserved the actual votes to the cardinals alone. Although history records cardinal laymen, since 1917, canon law has required ordination to the priesthood; in 1962, Bl. John XXIII required episcopal consecration.

Because of its Roman roots and tradition, bishops elevated to the College are assigned titular positions within the Roman diocese. This gives us three ranks of cardinals:

  • Cardinal bishop, who is assigned possession of one of the seven titular suburbicarian sees of Rome;
  • Cardinal priest, who is assigned titular possession of any one of almost 150 churches in Rome; and
  • Cardinal deacon, who is assigned to one of over 50 titular diaconates.

Although there are seven suburbicarian dioceses, there are only six Latin-rite cardinal bishops; the Dean of the College also holds the titular see of Ostia (now juridically part of the diocese of Rome). The suburbicarian dioceses are actually administrated by the Vicar General — currently Cdl. Angelo Comastri, a cardinal deacon — and auxiliary bishops of the Vicariate of Rome. Patriarchs of Eastern Catholic Churches given the red hat are also cardinal bishops; however, they can neither vote for nor become dean of the College.

Besides the Dean of the College, two other cardinals have additional roles. The camerlengo runs the Apostolic Camera, a body of prelates that collects financial information from all the administrations dependent on the Holy See and presents it to the College during the interregnum between popes. The senior cardinal deacon, or cardinal protodeacon, announces the new pope after his election, and vests him with the papal pallium during the inauguration ceremony. (Until John Paul I laid it aside, the cardinal protodeacon also vested the pope with the triple crown.)

There is also a practice of naming cardinals in pectore — “secret cardinals”. The sole purpose of naming a cardinal in pectore is to preserve him or his congregation from reprisal should his naming become public. Since the named person isn’t himself aware of the appointment and can’t function as a cardinal until he’s revealed, the pope usually acts in expectation that the threat will be lifted later, when the cardinal can take his place with seniority intact. If, however, the pope dies before the person is publicly revealed, the appointment expires.

Besides the usual episcopal insignia of mitre, crosier, zucchetto, pectoral cross and ring, the cardinal has other distinctions in dress. In choir, he wears a scarlet cassock and  mozzetta (an elbow-length cape), white rochet, scarlet zucchetto (the yarmulke-like skullcap) and scarlet biretta. For non-liturgical purposes, he wears a black simar (similar to the cassock but with a short attached cape) trimmed in red piping and with red buttons, a red sash-like fascia, a scarlet ferraiulo and the zucchetto. His ring carries on it a design personally chosen by the pope, and has the papal coat of arms on the inside.

As far as I know, there were never any Spanish prelates named “Cardinal Biggles” or “Cardinal Fang” during the period of the Inquisition.