EXPLAINER: How does a cardinal get appointed in the Catholic Church?

·Senior Editor
·4 min read
Pope Francis greets William Cardinal Goh, Archbishop of Singapore, at an investiture ceremony for new cardinals at Vatican City on Sunday, August 27 2022. (PHOTO: Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore)
Pope Francis greets William Cardinal Goh, Archbishop of Singapore, at an investiture ceremony for new cardinals at Vatican City on Sunday, August 27 2022. (PHOTO: Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore)

The recent elevation of Archbishop William Goh to become Singapore's first Cardinal was a surprise even to the 65-year-old, as he told Vatican News in July.

"I was preparing a homily and when the news came in, some people sent me some SMS messages congratulating me on being elevated to the rank of Cardinal. I thought maybe it was fake news, so I didn't pay much attention."

But there was plenty of excitement when Pope Francis, 85, addressed the faithful at St Peter's Square in Vatican City on May 29, and announced the names of 21 new cardinals, including Cardinal Goh.

"So everybody who (was) in St. Peter's Square (was) excited, especially those Singaporeans who were there. They started messaging Singaporeans in Singapore, 'Eh our Archbiship is now made a cardinal, the Pope just announced it'," recalled Father Ignatius Yeo, 49, with a smile.

Cardinal Goh was later formally notified of his appointment by Archbishop Marek Zalewski, the Apostolic Nuncio, or ambassador, to Singapore.

In the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, cardinals rank second only to the Pope.

The term itself comes from the Latin root word cardo, which is a fortifying beam, or hinge. 'Cardinal' was first recorded officially in the church's documents in 769 under Pope Stephen III, said Fr. Yeo, a professor of sacred liturgy and parish priest for the Church of Anthony in Woodlands, Singapore.

"So a cardinal is a fortifying beam and the hinge for the Holy Father. They therefore assist the Holy Father in his dealings and his work for the universal church."

As one of the pontiff's top advisors and administrators, one of Cardinal Goh's rights is to be incorporated into the clergy in Rome, noted Father Yeo. Therefore, on the day of his investiture, he was assigned a titular church in the diocese of Rome — the Church of Santa Maria Regina Pacis in Ostia Lido.

As Cardinal Goh is below the age limit of 80, he is eligible to vote in a conclave drawn from the College, that will elect a successor to Pope Francis when he retires or passes on.

In the infancy of the church, cardinals were chosen from laymen, who were then immediately ordained as priests and bishops. "The purpose of ordination is to give them what we call sacramental power in order to allow them to shepherd God's people after the heart of Jesus the Good Shepherd," said Fr. Yeo.

But with the new Code of Canon Law, instituted in 1983, "the Pope freely chooses men from ordained clergy", or priests. It is not possible to put one's name forward for consideration, and most new cardinals are already bishops or archbishops.

The names of the candidates must then be proposed to the College of Cardinals at a consistory, or a formal meeting of the College.

There are no female Cardinals since there are no female priests.

The tilt toward Asia

William Cardinal Goh was one of six new cardinals from Asia recently appointed by Pope Francis, with his investiture taking place at a consistory in Vatican City on August 27. The other cardinals hail from or are currently serving in India, Timor Leste, Mongolia and the Vatican.

All six are well below 80, making them eligible to be electors of the next Pope.

There are now a total of 31 cardinals from Asia, with 21 eligible to be electors. There are 229 cardinals in all, including 131 electors.

There are currently two cardinals from the Philippines, which has one of the largest Catholic populations in the world: Luis Antonio Tagle, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and Archbishop of Manila Jose F. Advincula. The country has produced a total of nine cardinals.

"The Holy Father is always wanting to reach out to the fringes of the Church," noted Father Yeo. "And so for a bishop in Singapore to be chosen as a Cardinal, it is a surprise and yet not a surprise, because it is part of Pope Francis' agenda of trying to have a larger representation of cardinals."

William Cardinal Goh, Archbishop of Singapore, addresses a thanksgiving mass for his appointment as cardinal, on Thursday, September 2022. (PHOTO: Freddy Chew/Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore)
William Cardinal Goh, Archbishop of Singapore, addresses a thanksgiving mass for his appointment as cardinal, on Thursday, September 2022. (PHOTO: Freddy Chew/Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore)

Following the consistory, the Pope met all the cardinals from Aug 29-30, to reflect on the new Apostolic Constitution, titled the Praedicate Evangelium. This refers to a piece of formal legislation announced by him in March, which took effect on June 5.

Analysts say that the 21 new cardinals largely agree with the pontiff's vision of a more progressive and inclusive Church.

According to Fr. Yeo, Pope Francis holds the track record of appointing the most cardinals from Asia. The pontiff, who hails from Argentina, is also the first Pope from the Americas and the first form outside Europe since the 8th century.

"But of course, I believe he would appoint more from Asia in order to show the representation from Asia and also the growth of Christianity in Asia," added Fr. Yeo.