When the cardinals enter the conclave next month, you’re going to hear a lot of church terminology. Even if you’ve heard of some of these words before, it can leave you feeling like the reporters and commentators are talking inside baseball.
Here are two words you need to know.
Cardinal: Sometimes referred to as “princes of the church,” a cardinal is a senior church official. The name comes from the Latin word “cardo,” which means “hinge.” Many of them are “titular” (that means they got the title but don’t actually run the place) heads of major churches in Rome. A cardinal, like the pope, is a bishop. This, however, wasn’t always the case.
The last cardinal who was not at least a priest died in 1899. A bishop becomes a cardinal by papal appointment. Cardinals are members of the College of Cardinals, and their main job is electing popes. In the meantime, they lead a diocese or archdiocese, or run a department of the church bureaucracy known as the Curia.
At the moment, there are 118 cardinals who can take part in the election. Once a cardinal is age 80, they’re out of the pope-electing business. There might be less than 118 when the conclave rolls around because one will turn 80 on Feb. 26, and three more will hit the big 8-0 in March.
Conclave: That’s when the College of Cardinals meet to elect a new pope, who is not only head of the universal church, but also bishop of Rome. The name conclave comes from two Latin words: “con,” which means with, and “clavis,” which means key. The cardinals would be locked up in a room for two reasons: secrecy, and to get the job done. Some conclaves dragged on for so long that certain popes made rules that the cardinal’s food be reduced the longer they were in conclave. During the conclave of 1269, people were so annoyed that the cardinals were taking so long that they removed the roof of the building where it was taking place. Conclaves have been held in the Sistine Chapel since 1878, although the first one was held there in 1492.