Last month, Pope Francis created 14 new cardinals. But what exactly is a cardinal?

Cardinals

Cardinals leaving a Mass just before electing Pope Francis in 2013. PICTURE: Jeffrey Bruno/licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

• A cardinal is a senior leader of the Roman Catholic Church, considered 'Princes of the Church', and are usually an ordained bishop. They sit just below the Pope in the Catholic hierarchy.

• The word 'cardinal' comes from the Latin noun 'cardo' which means 'hinge' - hence the word came to mean 'something on which an important development turns', then 'important' and eventually just the concept of 'very important' or 'chief'.

• Cardinals are appointed by the Pope alone and the appointment is for life.

• Cardinals, senior counsellors to the Pope, serve in a variety of roles, including as part of the Roman Curia (kind of like a cabinet formed to advise the Pope, its members include the Vatican's Secretary of State, responsible for representing the papacy to foreign governments) as well as overseeing archdioceses around the world.

• The College of Cardinals has existed since 1150 and is presided over by a dean (the current dean is Italian cardinal Angelo Sodano).

• Membership of the College of Cardinals currently stands at 225. Cardinals fall into three different ranks - cardinal bishops, cardinal priests and cardinal deacons.

• About half of the current college - 124 of them - are eligible to participate in a conclave (those aged 80 and over cannot) at which a pope is elected, a task cardinals have had since the 11th century (115 participated in the election of Pope Francis).

• Members of the College of Cardinals come from almost 90 different countries. Italy is the country most represented with more than 40 cardinals.

• Four of the cardinals are also patriarchs of the Eastern Catholic Church: Nasrallah Sfeir, Patriarch Emeritus of Antioch of the Maronites, Antonios Naguib, Patriarch Emeritus of Alexandria of the Copts, Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, and Louis Raphaël I Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans (among the 14 recently created cardinals).

• Latin-rite cardinals wear scarlet garments when in 'choir dress' (worn, for example, at the papal conclave) - the blood-like red colour symbolises the cardinal's willingness to die for their faith.