The nature of a cardinal – “To give his life as a ransom”

Cardinals at the consecration of two archbishops at Epiphany, wearing red, signifying their readiness to shed their blood for the faith

Now that the next consistory to create 22 new cardinals has been announced for 18 February, followed by news that the ceremony will be quite a bit simplified (in order to make it look less as if being created cardinal is a sacrament), maybe it’s good to look at what a cardinal is.

The actual creation of a new cardinal, which occurs when he is given the red biretta, the ring and his title church, is preceded by prayer and a reading from the Gospel of Mark:

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem; Jesus was walking on ahead of them; they were in a daze, and those who followed were apprehensive. Once more taking the Twelve aside he began to tell them what was going to happen to him, ‘Now we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man is about to be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the gentiles, who will mock him and spit at him and scourge him and put him to death; and after three days he will rise again.’
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached him. ‘Master,’ they said to him, ‘We want you to do us a favour.’ He said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ They said to him, ‘Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I shall drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I shall be baptised?’ They replied, ‘We can.’ Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I shall drink you shall drink, and with the baptism with which I shall be baptised you shall be baptised, but as for seats at my right hand or my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted.’
When the other ten heard this they began to feel indignant with James and John, so Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that among the gentiles those they call their rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. Among you this is not to happen. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of man himself came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'”

Mark 10:32-45

This is the very heart of being a cardinal, or any person with authority in the Church. If you want to be great, or accept a great position, you must be a servant a slave. Service, even at the cost of your own life, is what it is all about, because that is what Jesus was all about. All the exterior pomp and circumstance, while symbolical and therefore valuable in its own right, is secondary to this.

In the Code of Canon Law we find an overview of the duties and rights of cardinals, as well as how the College of Cardinals is organised. These are necessary and practical regulations which allow cardinals to do the work that the Lord has called them to do. But the heart of the cardinalate always remains firmly entrenched in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We find this also in the words that the pope speaks to the new cardinal as the latter receives his biretta: “(This is) red as a sign of the dignity of the office of a cardinal, signifying that you are ready to act with fortitude, even to the point of spilling your blood for the increase of the Christian faith, for peace and harmony among the people of God, for freedom and the spread of the Holy Roman Catholic Church“.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito