Catholic Church: Glossary of Roman Catholic terms

Here is a glossary of Roman Catholic terms:


A senior bishop, heading an archdiocese, appointed by the Pope after consultation with outgoing/neighbouring bishops and the Pope's local representative, the nuncio.

An archbishop has oversight of a number of dioceses; in England and Wales, there are five metropolitan areas which each have an archbishop.

Clergy can be appointed archbishop without actually serving as the archbishop of a particular archdiocese, usually when they are appointed to a senior position in a Vatican department. (Style: Archbishop John Smith of Someplace; honorific: "Your grace".)

Ad limina

A meeting between the diocesan bishops of a country and the Pope in Rome. Usually held every five years.


One of the 12 original followers of Jesus Christ as named in the New Testament. The term disciple is sometimes mistakenly used for the original 12 apostles. Disciples are followers in a more general sense.

Apostolic succession

The handing on of authority from the apostles to their successors (bishops). It has significance as one of the most jealously guarded traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of England also claims to be "apostolic" with the same handing down of authority via a 2,000 year-old chain of bishops.


The third of four steps in the process by which a dead person officially becomes a saint. Requires at least one miracle to have been attributed to intercession of a candidate for sainthood who, once beatified, is given the title blessed.


A short service in which the consecrated, or blessed, wafers of altar bread, known as hosts, are placed in a monstrance (receptacle in which the host is displayed) for the congregation to venerate. Catholics believe the bread becomes the body of Jesus in the process of its blessing by a priest, and that sharing it at services commemorates the last supper shared by Jesus and his apostles, and Jesus' sacrificial death by crucifixion.


A bishop is the third tier of ministerial ordination (after deacon and priest), appointed by the Pope, after consultation with local officials, to head the Church in a diocese, a specific geographical area. There are 22 dioceses in England and Wales and nine in Scotland. In the larger ones a bishop may be aided by auxiliary bishops. (From the Greek word episcopos, meaning overseer. Style: Bishop John Smith of Someplace; honorific: "My Lord".)

Bishops' Conference

Assembly of diocesan bishops from a certain area. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales (president: Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster) is separate to the Bishops' Conference of Scotland (president: Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow).

Blessed Sacrament

The host (bread) consecrated during a Mass and distributed during communion. The Blessed Sacrament is also kept in a locked container (tabernacle) behind or beside the altar from where it is taken for distribution to the sick and veneration during services of Exposition or Benediction.

Camerlengo (chamberlain)

The camerlengo (Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone) is the most important Curial official during the interregnum, taking charge of and administering the property and finances of the Holy See, assisted by the vice chamberlain and a canonical adviser.

During the interregnum he reports to the college of cardinals, which governs the Church until a pope is elected. He also organizes the conclave, heading a three-member commission that oversees the physical preparations.

During the conclave, the camerlengo heads a "particular congregation" with three cardinals younger than 80 (chosen by lot and replaced every three days) which deals with lesser issues until a new pope is elected.


A priest who is selected by a bishop to run a cathedral. Canons come together as a chapter or group and are responsible for the work of the cathedral.


Final step in official process that declares a deceased person to be a saint and acknowledges they can be venerated by the universal Church as "an example of holiness that can be followed with confidence". Requires attribution of one further miracle after the candidate has been declared "blessed" through beatification.


Cleric (normally archbishop) appointed by the Pope to join the College of Cardinals - the Pope's principal advisers. When a pope dies or resigns, cardinals younger than 80 are eligible to vote for his successor in a conclave (style: Cardinal John Smith, Archbishop of Someplace; honorific: "Your eminence").

There are currently 203 cardinals from 69 countries. The rules of the Conclave were changed in 1975 to exclude all cardinals over the age of 80 from voting. The maximum number of cardinal electors is 120.

As of the date Benedict XVI resigns on 28 February, 115 cardinals who are set to take part in the vote. Cardinal Julius Riyadi Darmaatmadja, the 78-year-old Archbishop Emeritus of Jakarta, has ruled himself out of travelling to Rome due to the "progressive deterioration" of his vision. And 74-year-old Cardinal Keith O'Brien - Britain's most senior Catholic cleric - has also been ruled out of the voting after his resignation over allegations of inappropriate conduct.

Sixty-seven of the cardinal-electors were appointed by Benedict XVI, and 49 by his predecessor John Paul II. About half (60) are European, and 21 are Italian. There will also be 19 Latin Americans, 14 North Americans, 11 Africans, 10 Asians and one cardinal from Oceania among the voters.


The mother church of a diocese - so called because it contains the cathedra, or bishop's chair, the symbol of a bishop's authority in the area


The body of people ordained for religious service, (deacons, priests, bishops) as opposed to laity. NB religious (monks, nuns, friars) are not clergy, unless (in the case of male religious) they are also ordained.

College of Cardinals

The body of all cardinals of the Church. Its main functions are: to advise the pope about Church matters at an ordinary consistory and, on the death or abdication of a pope, to elect his successor at a conclave.


1) An assembly of people gathered for religious worship; 2) a type of dicastery (or department) of the Curia, the Vatican's government. Each congregation is led by a prefect, who is a cardinal.

During the interregnum, daily general congregations are held, which all cardinals are eligible to attend. These discuss the needs of the Church and handle more serious church business that must be attended to between popes.

When the conclave begins, the camerlengo and three cardinals chosen by lot every three days handle the day-to-day business of the Holy See in what are known as particular congregations - although for the 2013 conclave the camerlengo was over 80, so his responsibilities passed to the next most senior cardinal (see "camerlengo").


Meeting of cardinals to elect a new pope. All living cardinals are invited. Those under the age of 80 are eligible to vote.

During the conclave, cardinals reside within the Vatican and are not permitted any contact with the outside world.

The cardinals do not have to choose one of their own number - theoretically any baptised male Catholic can be elected pope - but tradition says that they will almost certainly give the job to a cardinal.

On the first morning of the conclave, the cardinal electors celebrate Mass in St Peter's Basilica. In the afternoon they process from the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace to the Sistine Chapel, where they take an oath to observe the rules laid down in Universi Dominici Gregis - especially those about secrecy.

Once the oath is sworn, everyone not connected with the conclave is ordered out with the Latin words "Extra omnes!" ("Everybody out!") and the camerlengo closes both the Sistine Chapel and the Domus Sanctae Marthae residence to unauthorised persons.

A figure chosen earlier by the college of cardinals gives a meditation about the election, before leaving the chapel with the master of papal liturgical ceremony - leaving the cardinal-electors are alone.

While negotiations and arguments take place outside the chapel, inside it is a place for prayer and voting in silence.

Traditionally, one ballot is held on the first afternoon of the conclave. If no one receives the required two-thirds-plus-one majority, the cardinals meet again the next morning, and two votes are held each morning and afternoon until a new pope is elected.

The 2005 conclave was over within 24 hours, as Benedict XVI was elected on the fourth vote. The 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis took five ballots.

Each cardinal-elector writes his selection on a separate ballot paper on which is printed "Eligo in summum pontificem" ("I elect as supreme pontiff"). After each vote, unless another vote is to take place immediately, ballot papers and any notes taken are burned.

Special chemicals are added to make the smoke white or black, with white smoke signalling the election of a pope and black indicating an inconclusive vote.

Shortly after a new pope is elected, his name is announced and he offers his first blessing to the world from a balcony overlooking St Peter's Square.


An assembly of cardinals presided over by the pope.


An enclosed religious house where nuns (female religious) live under a rule and dedicate themselves to prayer.

Council (Vatican)

A meeting of bishops/Church elders to discuss doctrinal and pastoral needs of Church. The most recent example was the Second Vatican Council (or Vatican II) held in Rome (1962-1965). The reforms of the Second Vatican Council were dramatic and profound, although there is now controversy about how they should be interpreted.


Administrative structure of the Vatican; a collection of "government" departments.


The elements of bread (wafer) and wine Roman Catholics believe are converted into the body and blood of Christ (through transubstantiation) during the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass. High Church, or Anglo-Catholic Anglicans, also believe in what they call the "real presence" of Jesus in consecrated bread and wine. Communion can also refer generally to a fellowship of Christians.

Deacon (part of the diaconate)

The first tier of three ordained ministries (deacon, priest and bishop). Deacons assist priests and are able to baptise, marry and bury the faithful but cannot preside over Mass to consecrate bread and wine, nor hear confessions. Deacons who go on to become priests are celibate (not married). But there are some married men who are ordained as permanent deacons who will not go on to become priests.

Dean (of the College of Cardinals)

Cardinal who informs the rest of the college upon the death or abdication of a pope and presides over their daily meetings before the conclave - currently Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

Normally the dean would be responsible for the convoking and presiding over a conclave. However, when Benedict XVI resigned in February 2013, Cardinal Sodano was 85 and too old to vote, so the senior cardinal-elector, Giovanni Battista Re, takes on the responsibility of administering the oath of secrecy and presiding over the conclave. This includes presiding over daily meetings of cardinals until the conclave begins.

The dean is elected by and from the six cardinal bishops (currently Cardinal Sodano, Cardinal Bishop of Ostia and Albano, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, Cardinal Bishop of Porto-Santa Rufina, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Cardinal Bishop of Sabina-Poggio Mirteto, Cardinal Francis Arinze, Cardinal Bishop of Velletri-Segni, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Cardinal Bishop of Frascati, and Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, Cardinal Bishop of Palestrina). The election must be approved by the Pope.

When a candidate achieves a two-thirds majority vote, Cardinal Re will ask him, on behalf of the entire college, if he accepts the election and what name he will take.


Vatican department with a jurisdiction.


The territory, or churches, under the authority and leadership of a bishop.


Those who accepted Jesus' message to follow him, as opposed to the apostles.


The revealed teachings of Christ as defined by the Church's magisterium, or teaching authority. Doctrine is what the Church believes.


The final element of many Christian prayers, which gives praise and glory to the three persons of the Trinity - God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


The most important festival in the Church's calendar, marking the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ


Pertaining to, or of the Church, from the Greek word ecclesia (church).


Promotion of unity among all Christians.


A pastoral letter written by the Pope and published to outline Church teaching on an issue. Pope Benedict has produced three, including Caritas et Veritate, which dealt with dealt with the crisis in the world economy. Caritas in Veritate; Deus Caritas Est, his first, dealt with love.

Eucharist (Holy Mass)

The ritual service of thanksgiving to God which centres on the consecration of the elements of bread and wine and their distribution at communion. One of the seven sacraments, it is the principal Christian liturgical celebration. Roman Catholics believe that the bread becomes the body of Jesus, and the wine his blood, in the process of its blessing by a priest, and that sharing it at Eucharist or Holy Communion commemorates the Last Supper shared by Jesus and his apostles, and Jesus' sacrificial death by crucifixion.


One of the four authors credited with writing the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). More generally, someone who works actively to spread and promote the Christian faith.


The proclamation of Christ and his Gospel. Not to be confused with Evangelicals - a word used to describe some Christian groups (usually Protestant, often conservative in their attitudes to social questions, and literalist in their interpretation of the Bible).


The formal process of expulsion from the Church which excludes an individual from receiving the sacraments and from the exercise of any Church office, ministry, or function. Declared by Church authorities for defiance of the Church's teaching authority, or magisterium. NB excommunication is not punishment for sin, the idea being that God's grace and mercy are always available to the sinner. This explains why a priest who has abused a minor is not excommunicated, while someone who attempts to ordain a woman is.

Extra omnes ("All outside!")

This Latin command orders those who are not authorised to be in the Sistine Chapel during the conclave to leave before the voting process starts.


The denial (by someone who is baptised) of accepted Church teaching (dogma).

Holy Orders

The state of having received Christian ordination (bishop, priest, or deacon).

Immaculate Conception

Belief that Mary the mother of Jesus was born free of original sin (NB not to be confused with the Virgin Birth - the belief that Jesus was conceived without sexual intercourse).

Infallibility (papal)

Belief that a pope cannot err when he speaks in a formal capacity as head of the Church on matters of faith and morals. Infallibility was formally introduced at the First Vatican Council in 1870, and is rarely invoked.


Three cardinals chosen by lot during a Conclave, tasked with overseeing balloting by any cardinal-electors who are too ill or infirm to sit through the voting sessions in the Sistine Chapel.

After depositing their votes in an urn, the Infirmieri go together to the sick cardinals with blank ballots and a locked box in which the completed ballots can be placed through a slit.

They then return to the Sistine Chapel and deliver the votes.


The interval between the end of a pope's pontificate and the accession of his successor.

Upon the death or resignation of a pope, the prefect of the papal household (German Archbishop Georg Gaenswein) informs the camerlengo (Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone - see separate entry) and then the dean of the college of cardinals (Cardinal Angelo Sodano), who informs the rest of the college, the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See and the heads of nations.

The camerlengo locks and seals the private apartment of the pope.

All the cardinals and archbishops in charge of Curial departments lose their jobs when the pope dies or resigns. These offices continue to operate, run by their secretaries, during the interregnum, but serious matters are set aside until the election of a new pope.

The secretary for relations with states (Archbishop Dominique Mamberti) and the sostituto (Archbishop Giovanni Becciu) also retain their positions.

Three major officials do not lose their jobs: the vicar of the diocese of Rome, who provides for the pastoral needs of the diocese of Rome (Cardinal Agostino Vallini); the major penitentiary, who deals with confessional matters reserved to the Holy See (Cardinal Manuel Monteiro de Castro); and the camerlengo.

During this period the college of cardinals governs the Church, although it cannot change the rules governing papal elections, appoint cardinals or make any decisions binding on the next pope.

During this period all the cardinals - retirees included - will begin to discuss in strict secrecy the merits of likely candidates. The cardinals meet daily in a congregation, presided over by the dean of the college (Cardinal Angelo Sodano), until the conclave begins.


Collective term for lay people - ordinary members of the Church who have not received holy orders (ie are not clergy).


The stand from which readings/sermons are given in church.

Liberation Theology

Theology attempting to articulate faith from the perspective of a group struggling to overcome oppression - vibrant in Latin America and after Second Vatican Council (Vatican II); the movement was clamped down on by the current Pope in his former role as John Paul II's doctrinal enforcer.


General term for a religious service or ceremony performed by a group of believers; also used to refer to style in which that service was performed, ie modern liturgy, solemn liturgy, traditional liturgy.


The teaching office of the universal Church, articulated by a pope. Papal statements which teach on a matter of faith and morals are called magisterial pronouncements and are binding on Catholics. Most statements and documents of popes are not magisterial.


Celebration of the Eucharist - central sacrament of the Church which also includes a liturgy of the word and a rite of penance.


The work of preaching the Gospel and celebrating the sacraments by those in Holy Orders or, in some cases, members of the laity. Members of the laity can also have an extraordinary ministry which assists the principal ministers (deacons, priests and bishops).


An event, commonly a physical healing, which appears to defy the laws of nature and of science. Miracles need to be "verified" before they are accepted as miracles; being inexplicable is not enough - they must also show evidence of divine power at work.


A book containing the order of services and prayers of the Mass.


A religious house where monks live in a community under a rule and dedicate themselves to prayer.

Monastic life

Consecrated life marked by the taking of religious vows (eg poverty, chastity, obedience), and living as part of a community in a monastery following the rule of a founding father - eg Saint Benedict for Benedictine monks and nuns.


Mode of address for members of clergy holding honorific titles granted by the Pope, usually at the request of a bishop. Being a monsignor does not imply one is a bishop, nor being a bishop imply that one is a monsignor.


Pope's ambassador/representative in a country, with diplomatic status. It gives rise to the term nunciature, the nuncio's residence and the Vatican embassy, where the Pope will stay during his UK visit. The nunciature in London is in Wimbledon, and the nuncio is Archbishop Antonio Mennini.


The service by which individuals are made deacons, priests or bishops. They are sequential.

Original Sin

The sin Roman Catholics believe originated from Adam and Eve disobeying God's commandment, choosing to follow their own will and introducing sin into the world. Original sin describes the subsequent fallen state of human nature.


The office and jurisdiction of a pope; or the tenure or period of office of a pope. See also: Pontificate.


The principal unit of Christian community headed by a parish priest selected by the bishop. A number of parishes make up a diocese.

Pastoral letter

A letter sent from a bishop to the parishes of his diocese, often read out to people at Mass.


An action which expresses contrition for a sin following forgiveness by a priest in confessional. A penance is usually a prayer or series of prayers, but may require a specific act of reparation (eg returning stolen goods).

Pontifical Council

A department in the Vatican which does not exercise formal jurisdiction (unlike a congregation), but which helps or advises the Vatican and the international Church with a particular expertise, or to promote a particular mission. Heads of councils are known as heads.


The office and jurisdiction of a pope; or the tenure or period of office of a pope. See also: Papacy.


The successor of St Peter as bishop of Rome and head of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis (formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires) is the 266th pope, elected after five ballots in March 2013 at the conclave following the resignation of Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) (honorific: "Your holiness").


The term for the head of a Vatican congregation.


Someone who is ordained to the second level of ministry within the Church. Main duties include preaching, celebrating Mass, administering the other sacraments and exercising the principal pastoral role in a parish/community (referred to as Father with either first name or surname: Father John or Father Smith)


Any part of the physical remains of a saint or items that have touched the body of a saint. Every Catholic altar will have a relic within it - originating from the days when the early Christians celebrated Mass in the Catacombs.


Someone who, by their life and actions, is an example of holiness. The process by which the Church declares someone to be saint can only happen after their death.

There is a four-stage judicial process each individual case has to go through before being canonised as a saint, which cannot begin until at least five years after their death.

It involves taking evidence about the individual's holiness, the scrutiny of their writings and evidence that people are drawn to holiness and prayer through the individual's example.

  1. Individual can be called a "servant of God";
  2. Individual is called "venerable";
  3. Individual is beatified and declared "blessed" (requires a miracle attributed to the individual's intercession)
  4. Individual is canonised as a saint for veneration by the universal Church (requires a further authenticated miracle)


The seven ceremonies that mark Catholics' religious development through life. They are Baptism, Eucharist (Communion), Reconciliation (often called Confession), Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders and the Anointing of the Sick.


The writings of the Old and New Testaments.


Three cardinals chosen by lot at the start of a conclave to oversee the depositing of ballot papers into an urn on the Sistine Chapel's altar.

They shake the urn, count the ballots to assure the number of votes and voters matches, then open each ballot and record and read aloud the name on it.

They add the votes cast for each candidate to determine if a pope has been elected and handle the burning of the ballots and any notes taken by cardinals.

Three more cardinals are also chosen by lot at the start of a conclave to be revisers - tasked with recounting and verifying each round of balloting.


Cardinals take two oaths of secrecy during a conclave: not to reveal to anyone anything directly or indirectly related to the election of the pope. The first is taken the first day a cardinal joins the general congregation; the second, at the start of the conclave. The few non-cardinals authorized to assist the cardinals while they are in conclave also take an oath of secrecy.

Secretariat of State

The oldest dicastery in the Curia; performs all the political and diplomatic functions of Vatican City and the Holy See. Headed by the Secretary of State (effectively prime minister), currently Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Sede vacante (empty chair)

The period between the death or resignation of one pope and the election of his successor. Period during which all major church decisions, such as new legislation or the appointment of bishops, is halted until a new pope is elected. Ordinary business and matters that cannot be postponed are decided by the College of Cardinals.


A college where men are trained for the priesthood.


A meeting of bishops to discuss doctrinal and pastoral needs of Church.


The locked receptacle in a church (usually behind the altar) where the Blessed Sacrament or Holy Eucharist is "reserved". A red light indicates the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. The contents are brought out by a priest for distribution at Mass if there are insufficient hosts consecrated by him. They can be taken out at any time to take to the sick or the dying.


A dicastery/department with judicial jurisdiction in the Vatican's government. Individual dioceses may have local tribunals, which deal mostly with applications for the annulment of marriages.

Tridentine Mass

The Latin Mass (authorized by the 16th Century Council of Trent) used until 1969 when Pope Paul VI authorised the use of a revised Mass which could be said in the language of the country.

Pope Benedict, concerned that the revised Mass lacks some of the majesty of the Latin Mass, and that it contains other undesirable elements - such as the priest turning to face the congregation, rather than away from them "towards God" - has issued a personal edict giving permission to Catholics who so wish to celebrate the Tridentine Mass once again.


Garments worn by those celebrating Mass or administering sacraments (eg alb - long white tunic; chasuble - main outer-garment; stole - type of scarf worn around the neck).

The stole is the principle symbol of ministerial authority and is worn by deacons, priests and bishops when administering the sacraments.


The eve of a religious festival observed by special prayer services and devotional exercises. Traditionally this has occurred for the major feast of Easter and Christmas. However, vigil is now also sometimes used to describe the Saturday evening Mass.


A religious calling - all Christians have a vocation to be followers of Christ in the world. However, vocation is most colloquially used to describe vocations or callings to the priesthood or religious life.

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