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Cardinals traditionally wear red robes and hats

Posted in Historical articles, History, Religion, Uncategorized on Friday, 10 May 2013

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This edited article about Roman Catholicism originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 249 published on 22 October 1966.

Wolsey and More, picture, image, illustration

Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More by Ron Embleton

On ceremonial occasions, the Pope is preceded in procession by the cardinals, resplendent in their red robes. The Pope is borne along on his throne by the Papal Guards, and thousands of people throng the route to see the Pope and receive his blessing.

Cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church are like princes in a kingdom. They make up what is known as the Sacred College of Cardinals.

The cardinals form the Pope’s council. When a Pope dies, they meet ‘in conclave’ to elect a new Pope from amongst their own number, and during the vacancy they have to direct administrative matters and watch over the interests of the Church.

Bishops and archbishops are elevated to the College of Cardinals by the Pope. The number at any given time in the past has varied greatly, ranging from below 20, but not as a rule being above 70. The last Pope, John XXIII, and the present one, Paul VI, have increased the number, so that since 1965 there have been 100 or more, the highest number ever.

Even when a cardinal is engaged in his ordinary daily business, his garments are edged with the red which has come to be associated with his dignity. A brilliant red glows from the pipings and cloth-covered buttons on the everyday black cassocks, and from waist sashes, skull-caps and stockings. On ceremonial occasions, the cardinals’ cassocks are entirely in red, and they wear red silken cloaks with voluminous trains which they drape over the arm like the Romans did their togas.

The special sign of a cardinal is his hat – although it is not very practical and is seldom worn. For hundreds of years it has been a wide-brimmed, silk hat from which tassels hang on either side. More commonly, cardinals wear the familiar four-cornered, red birettas – and skull-caps in the same colour.

The title of cardinal evolved about 15 centuries ago, most probably from the Latin word cardo, meaning ‘hinge’. The title emphasises the fundamental relationship between these princes of the Church and the Pope – cardinals are the ‘hinges of the papacy’.

Paul II, a Venetian-born Pope who loved magnificence, first put the cardinals into red – a deep red, half-way between scarlet and crimson – in 1464. This Pope was determined to preserve peace in Italy, and the political tranquillity of his reign was offset by the magnificence and ceremony which surrounded the papal court, and in particular the vivid costume of his cardinals. It was this Pope, too, who organised feasts and sports for the Roman people, from which Rome’s main street, the Corso, got its name.

At that time the Pope himself wore red. But in 1566, a Dominican friar was elected Pope, Pius V, and he continued to wear the white habit of his Order. Since then the Pope has usually been dressed in white.

Cardinals have continued to be associated with the colour red, and within the Roman Catholic Church the colour has become symbolic of a willingness to shed blood in martyrdom for the Faith.

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