ROME – Pope Francis signed a rescript adding four more members to the group of cardinal bishops in the College of Cardinals.

They are: Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, 63, Vatican secretary of state; Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 74, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches; Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 74, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; and Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, 72, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

The College of Cardinals has three ranks:

  • Cardinal bishops, a group that now includes 10 Latin-rite cardinals, one of whom is elected dean of the College of Cardinals. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, 90, is the current dean of the college.
  • Cardinal priests, most of whom are diocesan bishops, although some senior curial officials also hold the rank.
  • Cardinal deacons, most of whom are curial officials.

The new additions to the group of cardinal bishops were necessary because — before the rescript — eight of the nine members, including two of the three cardinal bishops who were patriarchs of Eastern-rite churches, had been over the age of 80 and, therefore, all of them were ineligible to enter a conclave. The exception is Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, who is 78.

“The Roman Pontiffs have always looked with fraternal predilection to the College of Cardinals. Indeed, they offer special support to the mission of the Successor of Peter, bringing the precious contribution of their experience and service to the particular Churches dispersed throughout the world and effectively enriching the bond of communion with the Church of Rome,” reads the rescript signed by Cardinal-designate Angelo Becciu.

“In recent decades there has been a significant expansion of the College of Cardinals. Within it, however, while the Members belonging to the Orders of Priests and Deacons have considerably increased, the number of those who belong to the Order of Bishops has remained constant and unchanged over time,” the rescript continued, before announcing the elevation of the new cardinal bishops.

The role of the dean of the College of Cardinals takes on particular importance with the death of the pope. However, when the dean is over 80, it is up to the next top-ranking cardinal bishop of those under 80 who handles the dean’s duties inside the Sistine Chapel, such as administering the oath of secrecy and presiding over the conclave. When a candidate achieves a two-thirds majority vote, the dean — in the name of the entire college — asks the candidate if he accepts the election and what name he will take.

Traditionally, the Latin rite cardinal bishops hold the episcopal title to “suburbicarian sees”: Dioceses on the outskirts of Rome. The cardinal bishops’ role is purely ceremonial, and the dioceses usually have other bishops actually heading them.

Despite this tradition, the four new cardinal bishops have not been given suburbicarian sees.

With the new additions, the next top-ranking cardinal bishop who would take on the dean’s duties during a conclave would be Parolin.

Crux staff contributed to this report.