The Secret Cardinals Known Only to the Pope


The College of Cardinals is the body consisting of all Cardinals in the Catholic Church. While their most well-known duty is to elect a new pope after a vacancy in the Holy See, they also serve the Church in other ways as well. They advise the Pope, attend various Church functions such as canonization hearings, and even administer the Holy See during a papal vacancy. While there are currently 220 Cardinals that have publicly appointed, it’s possible there are many more, privately appointed, unknown to anyone but the pope. This is thanks to a special power of the Pope to make secret appointments to the College of Cardinals.

When a Pope privately appoints a person to the College of Cardinals without revealing their name, the appointment is said to be made in pectore, Latin for “in the breast,” or “in the heart.” This phrase is used to describe the appointment since only the Pope knows who was appointed in his heart. While a Pope may make an in pectore appointment for any reason, they are a relatively rare occurrence under specific circumstances. Generally, in pectore appointments are reserved for situations where a public announcement would endanger the person and/or their community, such as living under a regime hostile to the Catholic Faith. Their names are often published once they no longer face persecution or danger.

When a Cardinal is appointed in pectore, often times they aren’t even informed of their new status. If they are informed, they are unable to function as a Cardinal until the appointment is made public. When made public, their seniority in the College of Cardinals is determined from the point in time in which they were appointed in pectore, not when their appointment was made public. However, if a Cardinal in pectore is not informed by the time of a pontiff’s passing, their cardinalate ceases to exist.

In the early history of the College of Cardinals, the names of newly appointed Cardinals were traditionally made public following their appointment. On December 22, 1536 this tradition changed when  Pope Paul III made the first ever in pectore appointment of Girolamo Aleandro because his life would have been in danger if otherwise made public. After the precedent appointment, Pope Pius IV 24 years later was the first pope to appoint a Cardinal in pectorand subsequently not publish their name during their papacy. Successive Supreme Pontiff’s generally used in pectore assignments during times of  political conflict. During the French Revolution and the waves of revolutions that occurred in Europe following, in pectore assignments increased drastically as a safety measure for those appointed.

The most recent appointments in pectore were made by Pope Saint John Paul II. Out of a total of 232 appointments, 4 were made in pectore. Three names were eventually published, however, the fourth’s identity was not revealed by the late pontiff before his passing. As such, that person’s cardinalate expired. These four appointments were:

• Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, Bishop of Shanghai, People’s Republic of China. Appointed 1979,     revealed 1991, died 2000.
• Marian Jaworski, Archbishop of Lviv, Ukraine. Appointed 1998, revealed 2001.
• Jānis Pujāts of Riga, Latvia. Appointed cardinal 1998, revealed 2001.
• Unknown, appointed  in 2003.

It is not known whether or not Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI or Pope Francis have made any in pectore appointments, however it is possible such appointments do exist but were never made public.