Why do Catholic Cardinals wear Red?

His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan Colors in the Catholic Faith are a significant symbolism.  Throughout our Catholic Faith tradition there are many colors associated to different Liturgical seasons of the year.  Colors are associated to the various Feast days of the saints.  Every week at Mass you see the presider wearing Vestments of various colors representing these special times of our Liturgical year.

Catholic signs or icons, such as the symbolism of Colors, are used to represent abstract ideas or concepts; a picture that represents an idea.  A religious icon, such as a Color, is an image or symbolic representation with sacred significance.  The meanings, origins and ancient traditions surrounding Christian symbols date back to early times when the majority of ordinary people were not able to read.  Many were ‘borrowed’ or drawn from early pre-Christian traditions.

Priests can wear a black cassock, although few of them do, and black clerical shirts, and bishops wear purple sashes.

But why red for the Cardinals at the top?  My immediate reaction was to assume that the red of a Catholic cardinal was tied to the fact that dyes were extremely expensive until recent times.  I assumed that only the very rich, such as kings and nobles, could afford the crimson robes.  As princes of the church, cardinals would have the funds at their disposal to enjoy a flashier attire than the average parish priest.

The official reason why Catholic cardinals wear red robes is that the color signifies the blood of Christ.  One might presume from this that they wish to associate themselves with the Passion of Christ.

In the Renaissance, it was not uncommon to refer to cardinals as “princes of the blood.”  As this phrase has something of a cloak-and-dagger connotation, it has been dropped.

It is worth noting that the bird, the cardinal, is named after members of the Sacred College of Cardinals, not the cardinal’s robes after the pretty red bird.

The avian cardinal is native to the New World and was unknown to the medieval world that invented the Sacred College of Cardinals.  Only when European settlers came to the Americas and saw the bright red bird was the name Cardinal given to the Princes of the Church.

The purpose of the College of Cardinals is to be the pope’s personal advisers and to elect a new pope when one dies or resigns.

Only the pope may make a man a cardinal, so while the pope cannot choose his successor, he does appoint the men who will choose the next pope.  The longer a pope remains in office, the more influence he has on who will follow him.

Pope John Paul II was elected Oct. 16, 1978, and he died after a long rule, on April 2, 2005.

Of the 120 cardinals who elected him, only four were at the next conclave, which chose Benedict XVI, and so we are not amazed that Pope Benedict was very similar in his views to St. John Paul.

The history of the cardinals goes back more than 1,000 years. From the earliest days, the popes in their capacity as bishop of Rome appointed the Roman clergy and consulted them.  The senior Roman clergy therefore had a great deal of influence on church policy and politics.

These senior pastors of the Roman churches were informally known as the “hinge” men, because they had direct access to the pope.  They could open the doors to the pope, like hinges on a door.  The Latin word for a door’s hinge is cardnus, and these men were of great importance.

In the early days of the church, the popes were elected by acclamation by the people of Rome.  After the peace of the church in the days of Emperor Constantine, elections become more political.

As the Middle Ages dawned, it was all too possible for the Roman nobility or kings and emperors to buy the votes of the mobs.  This was remedied by a series of reforming popes, the best known of whom were Popes Nicholas II and Gregory VII, who did much to organize the papal civil service and cardinals into formal bodies to keep them under church control, out of the hands of monarchs.

In 1059, the power to elect the pope was reserved to the accepted cardinals, and thus it remains.

The College of Cardinals still meets regularly and each year or so the pope appoints new cardinals.  Any Catholic man may be made a cardinal, although since 1918, they must be priests, but traditionally there have been two paths to this body.

One either had to be a Vatican official and civil servant who worked his way to one of the top positions, or one had to be a bishop in the fields who worked his way up.

But Pope Francis is shaking things up. Traditional officers in the Vatican are not being made cardinals, nor are senior clergy of important places.  Instead, Francis is making men cardinals from places such as Haiti, Myanmar, Thailand and Tonga.

Cardinals younger than 80 may vote in papal elections.  After that age, they retain their titles but lose their papal vote. There are 219 cardinals, of whom 120 are eligible to vote in a papal election.

There are 17 U.S. citizens who are cardinals.  Of these, 10 have the ability to vote in a papal election, although several are about to lose that right due to their age.

Pope Francis has not yet named an American Cardinal, although doubtless he will at some point.


Symbolism of Colors

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Symbolism of Colors

Catholic Tradition