Questions Answered for December 2019

Monstrance with host and candles

What Are Cardinals?

Question: There has been a lot of controversy in the Church in the last year about how Theodore McCarrick could have risen to the rank of cardinal. What is the function of the College of Cardinals?

Answer: Though many of the faithful think that the College of Cardinals is part of the Sacrament of Holy Orders in the Church, this is not the case. The College of Cardinals is not instituted by Christ in Holy Scripture and they do not enjoy a character (indelible mark) conferred in the sacrament of Holy Orders which can never be withdrawn.

Their historical origin is a little nebulous but it seems they were composed originally of a group of clergy, priests and deacons, serving parishes in the city of Rome under the pope. They were an advisory body and still have that function, among others, today. The term cardinal comes for the Latin word cardo, which means a hinge. Their first mention in history occurs in the Liber Pontificalis, when in a Roman Synod (769 AD) it was determined that the pope should be elected by a group of deacons and cardinal priests. Before that, Roman families and often the emperor chose who the pope would be. This practice continued for about 200 years, with disastrous results to the Church. The families often warred among themselves for influence, and the emperor often chose someone who was completely unsuitable to be pope.

Gradually the cardinals evolved from being merely an advisory body to having some influence over who would be pope. This was a part of the Gregorian reform to free the papal elections from the influence of the Roman families and the emperor. The Third Lateran Council in the twelfth century determined for the first time that the pope had to be chosen from the cardinals. Also around this time there were three classes in the college: deacons, priests, and bishops who were all permitted to elect the pope. Eventually the cardinals were no longer limited to Italians and in the recent past each one has been given a titular church in Rome to demonstrate the Roman connection.

In the 1960s it was decided that only a bishop could be named cardinal, though there have been some exceptions, normally as honorary titles for those who are past the age when they can vote for the pope, which was recently determined to be 80.

The basic function of the college today is the election of a new pope. When the pope dies, the conclave of voting cardinals is convoked from around the world to participate in the election of the new pontiff. Each cardinal also serves as an advisory member of one or more of the congregations (administrative offices) of the Holy See. Though some are from faraway countries or have not the resources to travel regularly, they can participate in the meetings of these advisory “congregations” when they are in Rome.

Cardinals receive no jurisdictional power upon being named, though they are usually officials in the Roman Curia and also enjoy the privilege of de facto ruling the Church in the interregnum when there is no pope. There were also some privileges connected to faculties for confession though the present norms have largely extended most of these to priests in general. All of the rights mentioned above are in some sense extensions of their original function of advising the bishop of Rome, though obviously in a very large Church such as exists today these take on very important functions. Cardinals who do not reside in Rome are also usually heads of very large and important sees. As the closest advisors to the pope, they wear red to demonstrate that they should be ready to shed their blood for the faith and for the Church.

So the short answer to your question is that the position of cardinal is an honorary one in the Church which over time has developed in such a way as to grant voting rights for the pope and deepen their advisory position. The position of cardinal is not instituted by Christ and as such enjoys no character of orders. Whatever power of jurisdiction they may have over the Church is a result of that conferred by canon law alone. As such, a person may resign or be removed from the college, though this has rarely happened in the history of the Church.


When Is Christ Really Present?

Question: I recently attended a Eucharistic Congress and was surprised at how little even devout Catholics understand about the Mass now. When do the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ? Is it when the priest blesses the host?

Answer: It is strange how even devout and practicing Catholics can be confused about the basic theology of the Mass. There has been a difference of interpretation as to the time of the actual change of transubstantiation in the Mass between the Eastern and Western Church.

For the Eastern Church, the change takes place at the epiclesis, which is the prayer in which the celebrant calls down the Holy Spirit on the gifts of bread and wine. In Western Eucharistic prayers, you have probably seen the priest place his hands over the offerings and invoking the presence of the Holy Spirit. Though accompanied by different words in the Eastern worship, this prayer is the epiclesis.

I will summarize the Western theology here. Western theology situates the moment of the change at the pronunciation of the words of institution which constitute the form of the sacrament. In other words, when the priest says: “This is my body . . .” over the bread and “This is my blood . . .” over the wine, at that instant, in every way save for appearances, they become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. These words must be exact as they exactly reproduce the words of Christ in the Last Supper. It must be stated here that what is begun in the Last Supper is only completed on the Cross. Dr. Scott Hahn has underlined this by saying that the words “It is finished” (Jn 19:30), which occur in the Passion after Jesus drinks and before he dies, is the fulfillment of what traditionally was the fourth cup in the Jewish Passover. Significantly, this final Passover cup was not drunk at the Last Supper and its consumption just before Jesus dies connects the Passover with the completion of the perfect sacrifice on the Cross. The Mass re-presents that reality to the faithful of each time and place so that they may partake of the fruits of the sacrifice of Christ.

The words of institution over the chalice did contain one phrase which was not found in Scripture: “the mystery of faith”. This, however, had been included in these words from time immemorial. When the texts of the Ordinary Form were approved by Paul VI, no one could determine if this phrase was considered necessary for validity, and so Pope Paul included it immediately after just to be sure.

The Catechism states:

The essential signs of the Eucharistic sacrament are wheat bread and grape wine, on which the blessing of the Holy Spirit is invoked and the priest pronounces the words of consecration spoken by Jesus during the Last Supper: “This is my body which will be given up for you. . . . This is the cup of my blood. . . .”

By the consecration the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is brought about. Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and his divinity (cf. Council of Trent: DS 1640; 1651). (nos. 1412-413)

Some further points need to be made here. First, though it could be valid to pronounce these words outside the context of the Mass, it would be a grave sin to do so as the whole ritual of offertory, consecration and communion go together. The Mass is, after all, a participation in the one sacrifice of the Cross now offered in an unbloody way. Second, in concelebrated masses, because the Church has encouraged the concelebrants to speak almost sotto voce so that the voice of the celebrant may predominate, it is still necessary for each concelebrant to pronounce the words of institution for their participation in the mystery of transubstantiation to be valid. They must do this with their lips even if sotto voce.

Finally, it would be gravely elicit and perhaps even invalid to consecrate one species without the other or outside the context of Mass. The Code of Canon Law states: “It is absolutely wrong, even in urgent and extreme necessity, to consecrate one element without the other, or even to consecrate both outside the Eucharistic celebration” (can. 927). This is because the only fitting context is within the ritual of the sacrifice itself. Indeed, if for some reason the priest should die before the sacrament was consumed in communion or for some reason fail to complete the Mass, either he or another priest must do it at a later time.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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  1. Dear Father Mullady,

    I read your response to the question, “When do the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ?” In the section concerning the Latin Rite, in the paragraph beginning, “I will summarize the Western theology here,” you explain the change (transubstantiation) as concurrent with the “pronunciation of the words of institution.” Then, after explaining that, you state, “It must be stated here that what is begun in the Last Supper is only completed on the Cross.” Respectfully, I have to differ with you about that as I believe it is misleading. From my earliest years I was taught that the Mass is the Sacrifice of Calvary presented to us in an unbloody manner. We are talking about the same reality occurring in two different modes, one of the natural reality and the other of the sacramental reality. In the order of time, in the case of the Last Supper, the first Mass, the sacrifice (oblation) was “pre-presented” in the upper room. Since then, it has been “re-presented” whenever the Holy Sacrifice is offered. The Sacrifice on Calvary in no way was dependent on what happened as the Last Supper. In fact, the reverse is true. What happened at the Last Supper made present the reality of the sacrifice that would occur the next day, in an entirely different mode, i.e. the unbloody manner, technically “sacramentally.” Father Aidan Nichols, O.P. explains this in his Introduction to Abbot Anscar Vonier’s work, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, (Zaccheus Press; First edition, 2003). He says, “The Holy Eucharist is first and foremost the Holy Sacrifice not because it is something different from a mere sacrament but because it is, precisely as taught by Saint Thomas, the sacrament of the Sacrifice of Christ.”

    He also explains in the Introduction that this was an issue that Dom Vonier addressed in his book, targeting “the entire school of thought which, particularly in France, sought to describe the Eucharistic sacrifice in terms drawn elsewhere than from sacramental theology.” It so happened, that in 1921 a study of the Mass was introduced by the French Jesuit Maurice de la Taille. Nichols relates that a conclusion drawn from a feature of the work, not unlike yours above (referring to Dr. Hahn), was that, “Calvary was incomplete without the foregoing Supper and what took place there. It also implies that the first Mass, which the Lord Himself celebrated in the Upper Room, is more truly the opening phase of the Sacrifice of Christ than it is the sacramental presentation of that Sacrifice.” This was debunked by the Dominican Vincent McNabb, writing in Blackfriars for September 1924, under the heading “A New Theory of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.” Father Nichols indicated that Abbot Vonier seconded McNabb’s criticism.

    You quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church which refers to teachings of the Council of Trent. Abbot Vonier draws heavily on the Council as well as the texts of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Father Nichols stressed, “Vonier believed Saint Thomas’s approach to be the right one because it gives the clearest account of all the realities involved in their inter-relation. Indeed … that makes both Aquinas and Vonier theologians worth following. But Vonier does not simply repeat Thomas’s texts … he is a thoughtful interpreter … [a] eucharistic theologian … from first to last a theologian of the [‘sign’],” which of course is the sacrament of the Sacrifice of Christ. There is more that Father Nichols said in the Introduction. Additionally, there is much more that Dom Vonier wrote, especially about the sacramental nature of the Mass. You can find a copy of Father Nichols’ Introduction online at:
    The specific Vonier edition can be found at:

    I would be glad to discuss this further, but will leave it at that!

  2. Avatar Abba Thomas Negash says:

    Thank you very much dear father. I really appreciate your effort to answer the question on the real presence. As a priest from an Eastern Catholic Church (Metropolitan Sui Iuris Church of Eritrea), I have the experience of the epiclesis as an essential part of the Mass. But since we were re-evangelized in the 19th Century by a Catholic group of missionaries and since the Thomistic theology had a great impact in our ways of thinking about everything in the field of theology, most of us thinks of the transubstantiation happening during the utterance of the words of consecration (institution). Yet in the academic circle it is believed according to the eastern way.
    To sum up, what I wanted to emphasize here is that it would have been more appropriate to conclude that the consecration happens withing the context of the Mass without saying it is here or there. As you have put it basing yourself on Can.927 ” the only fitting context is within the ritual of the sacrifice itself.” Moreover, the Church has approved anaphoras without the words of institution as in the case of the Adai and Mari. How would a single and unified church approve a number of variations about one mystery of faith taught by the same Lord. So, I prefer to say that the change occurs within the context of Mass with the intention of consecrating the bread and wine in to body and blood of Jesus. You may check in “” or in other resources. After all, “intention” is the basic requirement according to St. Thomas Aquinas. (Summa, first Part of the Second Part, no. 12)