Swiss Guards stand at attention as Spanish Cardinals Julian Herranz, a retired Vatican official, and Antonio Canizares Llovera, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, and Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna leave a fter attending a vespers service with Pope Benedict XVI in the synod hall at the Vatican Feb. 17. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Of cardinal importance: new princes of the church on their role

By  Francis X. Rocca, Catholic News Service
  • February 18, 2012

VATICAN CITY - Practically everyone knows two things about cardinals -- that they wear red hats and elect the Pope. But what other purpose do these men serve in the Catholic Church?

On the eve of the Feb. 18 consistory where Pope Benedict XVI was scheduled to expand the College of Cardinals by 22 new members, the three North Americans among them shared some thoughts on the meaning of their new role.

"Every priest and certainly every bishop has a responsibility to care for the church universal," said Cardinal-designate Edwin F. O'Brien, "but a cardinal really has a very clear role in a pastoral concern for the church universal."

"It's a wider focus on the church and how we can help the Holy Father and inform the Holy Father as to the needs of the church universal as we experience them," Cardinal-designate O'Brien said.

Unlike most of his peers working in Rome, Cardinal-designate O'Brien has not been named to run a Vatican office. Instead, Pope Benedict has made him head of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem.

The order, which has its roots in the medieval crusades, now works to help Christians living in the Holy Land, among other ways, by running hospitals, orphanages and schools.

That mission has lately "taken on a special urgency," said Cardinal-designate O'Brien, as war and civil unrest in the Middle East have made the always-precarious position of Christian minorities there even more threatening.

But the cardinal-designate, who will continue to administer the Archdiocese of Baltimore until the Pope names his successor as archbishop there, said that he will also remain involved in efforts to defend religious freedom in the United States, from what he called the "steps being taken on every level of our government to limit our options as Catholic and Christian people."

"I'm still an American," Cardinal-designate O'Brien said. "I will not interfere, but I will support my successor in every way possible, and my brother and sister Catholics in every way possible, to turn this tide around. It's gone too far and we've been too complacent for too long, and we have to take action."

Cardinal-designate Thomas C. Collins of Toronto said he recently drew inspiration from a biography of St. John Fisher, a cardinal who was martyred in 1535 for refusing to recognize King Henry VIII as head of the English church.

"The red robes, those spectacular scarlet robes of the cardinals, the reason for that is the shedding of blood," Cardinal-designate Collins said.

Most cardinals, of course, do not expect to be killed as witnesses to the Catholic faith. Another model for his new role, Cardinal-designate Collins said, is St. Charles Borromeo.

The 16th-century archbishop of Milan, a towering figure of that century's Catholic Reformation, experienced a kind of non-physical martyrdom in the sense that "he was with his people even in the midst of plague ... and he was also very firm in terms of the civil power," Cardinal-designate Collins said.

New York's Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan struck a characteristically informal note when he told Basilian Father Thomas Rosica of Salt and Light Television that "in the long run it doesn't amount to much" becoming a cardinal.

"In the vocabulary of the church, we don't like to use words like 'promotion' or 'honor' or 'dignity' or 'prestige,'" the cardinal-designate said, "because Jesus told us not to."

"This is a great honor, my God, for a kid from Ballwin," Mo., he said, but "in the vocabulary of the Gospel it's simply a call to more expanded service."

"What really counts is what?" Cardinal-designate Dolan said. "That we're made in the image and likeness of God, that I'm baptized into the church and saved from my sins by the precious blood of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. For me, it means a lot that I'm a priest. And everything else is gravy."

Then the cardinal-designate, often known to poke fun at his own hearty appetite, quickly added with a laugh: "I like gravy."

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