A cardinal (Latin: Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae cardinalis, literally Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church) is a senior ecclesiastical leader, considered a Prince of the Church, and usually an ordained bishop of the Roman Catholic Church. The cardinals of the Church are collectively known as the College of Cardinals. The duties of the cardinals include attending the meetings of the College and making themselves available individually or in groups to the Pope as requested. Most have additional duties, such as leading a diocese or archdiocese or managing a department of the Roman Curia. A cardinal's primary duty is electing the bishop of Rome when the see becomes vacant. During the sede vacante (the period between a pope's death or resignation and the election of his successor), the day-to-day governance of the Holy See is in the hands of the College of Cardinals. The right to enter the conclave of cardinals where the pope is elected is limited to those who have not reached the age of 80 years by the day the vacancy occurs.
In 1059, the right of electing the pope was reserved to the principal clergy of Rome and the bishops of the seven suburbicarian sees. In the 12th century the practice of appointing ecclesiastics from outside Rome as cardinals began, with each of them assigned a church in Rome as his titular church or linked with one of the suburbicarian dioceses, while still being incardinated in a diocese other than that of Rome.
The term cardinal at one time applied to any priest permanently assigned or incardinated to a church, or specifically to the senior priest of an important church, based on the Latin cardo (hinge), meaning "principal" or "chief". The term was applied in this sense as early as the ninth century to the priests of the tituli (parishes) of the diocese of Rome.
There is disagreement about the origin of the term, but the consensus that "cardinalis" from the word cardo (meaning 'pivot' or 'hinge') was first used in late antiquity to designate a bishop or priest who was incorporated into a church for which he had not originally been ordained. In Rome the first persons to be called cardinals were the deacons of the seven regions of the city at the beginning of the 6th century, when the word began to mean "principal," "eminent," or "superior." The name was also given to the senior priest in each of the "title" churches (the parish churches) of Rome and to the bishops of the seven sees surrounding the city. By the 8th century the Roman cardinals constituted a privileged class among the Roman clergy. They took part in the administration of the church of Rome and in the papal liturgy. By decree of a synod of 769, only a cardinal was eligible to become bishop of Rome. Cardinals were granted the privilege of wearing the red hat by Pope Innocent IV in 1244.
In cities other than Rome, the name cardinal began to be applied to certain church men as a mark of honour. The earliest example of this occurs in a letter sent by Pope Zacharias in 747 to Pippin III (the Short), ruler of the Franks, in which Zacharias applied the title to the priests of Paris to distinguish them from country clergy. This meaning of the word spread rapidly, and from the 9th century various episcopal cities had a special class among the clergy known as cardinals. The use of the title was reserved for the cardinals of Rome in 1567 by Pius V.
In the year 1563 the influential Ecumenical Council of Trent, headed by Pope Pius IV, wrote about the importance of selecting good Cardinals. According to this historic council "nothing is more necessary to the Church of God than that the holy Roman pontiff apply that solicitude which by the duty of his office he owes the universal Church in a very special way by associating with himself as cardinals the most select persons only, and appoint to each church most eminently upright and competent shepherds; and this the more so, because our Lord Jesus Christ will require at his hands the blood of the sheep of Christ that perish through the evil government of shepherds who are negligent and forgetful of their office."
The earlier influence of temporal rulers, notably the French kings, reasserted itself through the influence of cardinals of certain nationalities or politically significant movements. Traditions even developed entitling certain monarchs, including those of Austria, Spain, and France, to nominate one of their trusted clerical subjects to be created cardinal, a so-called crown-cardinal.