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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1838 to 1841 > Cardinal

To many persons, no doubt, the office of Cardinal has but little significance, except as a part of the stately ceremonial of the Roman court—a brilliant and enviable sinecure, sometimes the reward of distinguished merit, sometimes the prize of political influence or hereditary family claims. But to well informed readers it is scarcely necessary to explain that the College of Cardinals forms, or rather supplies, the entire deliberative and executive administration of the Pope in the general management of the affairs of the Church; holding permanently and systematically the place of the council of which we so often read in the early centuries. By the ancient constitution of the Sacred College, all matters of importance were considered and discussed in the general meeting of the body, called the Consistory ; but, in the multiplication of business, it became necessary to distribute the labour ; and, since the latter part of the sixteenth century,* under the great administrative Pontiffs, Paul IV.,Pius IV., PiusV., and above all Sixtus V., a system of "congregations" has arisen, by which, as by a series of committees, the details of all the various departments are administered; yet under the general superintendence of the Pope himself, and subject, in all things, to his final revision. Some of these congregations, (which amount to nearly twenty in all,) consist exclusively of Cardinals; some are composed both of Cardinals and prelates ; and a few of prelates only: but, in almost every case, the Prefect, at least, of the congregation is a Cardinal. Some congregations meet every week, others only once a month j but in all the leading ones, as for instance in the Propaganda, there is a weekly meeting (congresso) of the Prefect and secretary with the clerks or minutanti, for the despatch of pressing business or of affairs of routine; all the business of these meetings being submitted to the Pope for his approval.

To each Cardinal, either as Prefect, or at least as member, four of these congregations, as an ordinary rule, are assigned at his first appointment; in many cases, the number is afterwards increased; and, when it is remembered that in many of these the business is weighty and complicated, often involving much documentary matter, extensive theological or canonical research, and careful investigation of precedents, &c.; and that these congregations, after all, form but a part of the duties of a Cardinal; it will be understood that his position is very far from the sinecure which the unreflecting may suppose it to be.
In the congregations "assigned to Cardinal Mezzofanti at his nomination, regard was of course paid to his peculiar qualifications. He was named Prefect of the " Congregation for the correction of the Liturgical Books of the Oriental Church," and also of the " Congregation of Studies." He was also, on the same grounds, appointed a member, not only of the general " Congregation of the Propaganda," but also of the special one " On the affairs of the Chinese Mission," and of those of " the Index," " of Rites," and of " the Examination of Bishops."

With a similar consideration for his well known habits and tastes, and with a due appreciation of the charity for the sick which had always characterized him, he was named President of the great Hospital of San Salvatore, and visitor of the House of Catechumens, in which, as being chiefly destined for converted Jews and Mahomedans, his acquaintance with the Hebrew and Arabic languages and literatures rendered his services peculiarly valuable.

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