What does a cardinal do? This is a question many are now asking, as the College of Cardinals meets in Vatican City for their papal conclave, an ancient ritual whereby they’ll select the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who stepped down in February 2013. Picking new popes is among the major duties of Catholic cardinals, and conclaves are held whenever a vacancy—the result of death or retirement—arises at the Vatican. But electing popes isn’t all cardinals do.
Read: Conclave FAQ Answered
Cardinals are close advisors to the pope, and they aid the pontiff in governing the Roman Catholic Church. Many Catholic cardinals serve as archbishops or bishops of dioceses around the world, while others are members of the Roman Curia, the central governing body of the church. According to Our Sunday Visitor, the term “cardinal” likely derives from the Latin cardo, meaning “hinge,” as these esteemed clergymen are “vital hinges around whom the workings of the Church turn.”
In addition to the question of what cardinals do, many watching the 2013 conclave are likely asking if there are different types of cardinals, as well as what the requirements are to become one. There are three kinds: cardinal bishops (senior members of the College of Cardinals), cardinal priests (leaders of churches outside of Rome), and cardinal deacons (full-time members of the Curia or theologians who have been given the title in recognition of their contributions to the Roman Catholic Church). All cardinals are priests, and they must be consecrated as bishops.
Read: What Does A Pope Do?
Do all cardinals get to elect the pope? So long as they’re younger than 80 years old, yes. This time around, 117 cardinals are eligible to select Pope Benedict’s successor, but only 115 are taking part in the 2013 conclave. Of these men, 67 were appointed by Benedict XVI, and 21 are Italian.