Cardinals play a very special role in the Roman Catholic Church. Cardinals, who are bishops with a special designation, are in charge of electing a new pope upon the current Pope's death. Traditionally they have chosen a pope from amongst their own ranks. In another blog posting, I will get into the process of electing a new Pope. In this blog, I will focus on the secret Cardinal.
A cardinal is selected by the Pope, as a special leader in the Church. This selection is accompanied by celebrations and festivities, as this sacred honor is bestowed upon a shepherd to the people. This man will guide his people spiritually in a special way, and play a part, along with the Holy Spirit, in protecting the Church against error, as her new Earthly leader is chosen. While this is the norm, sometimes circumstances call for a much different situation.
Not all countries are peaceful, some are openly hostile towards religion, and sometimes toward the Roman Catholic Church. China, for example, has tried to set up its own Church, so that people will join that instead of the true church, fearing those who join the Roman Catholic Church may have an authority outside China. Other countries are hostile toward Christianity in general, and the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Many of these regions are war-torn and violence is common. Practicing Catholics must sometimes hide or be quite secretive to avoid being punished. In such circumstances, the Church must be very careful.
Sometimes if a region is unstable and violence is very common, a pope will choose a Cardinal for that area, but will keep it a secret. Nobody knows the identity of the chosen cardinal, not even the cardinal himself, except for the Pope. These Cardinals are called Cardinals in pectore, which is Latin for in the breast. This symbolizes that they are hidden and only the Pope knows their identity. This situation is rare, but not non-existent.
If the Pope feels the situation has ameliorated enough to justify revealing the name of the cardinal, he may very well do so. The priest or bishop to whom this honor had been given may be surprised to know that he was in fact selected. It is also possible for the pope to write the name of the man in his will so that upon his death, the name of the cardinal would be revealed. This however, is unlikely, since the death of the pope does not seem to be a possible cause to improve the situation.
This is where the secret cardinal comes in. Upon the death of Pope John Paul II, on April 2, 2005, it was revealed that Pope John Paul II had named a cardinal in pectore. He had named a man to the Cardinalate sometime during his papacy, but could not reveal his name. He could have been living in a very violent or communist country which did not accept religion too well, or perhaps he was living in a country that did not accept Catholicism or Christianity in general. There are many possibilities. Yet, to this very day, we know not, and may never know, the identity of the man who was selected Cardinal!