Michigan Catholic Conference
(800) 395-5565
(517) 372-3940
510 S. Capitol Ave.
Lansing, MI 48933

Common Church Terms

What follows are a number of key church terms based on definitions contained in The Catholic Encyclopedia (Thomas Nelson Publishers), The Official Catholic Directory (P. J. Kenedy & Sons), and Stylebook on Religion (Catholic News Service).

Ad Limina
The abbreviated form the Latin phrase ad limina Apostolorum is translated “to the thresholds of the apostles.” It is a term descriptive of the quinquennial (five-year) reports that all bishops and military vicars are required to make to the Holy See.
This title, used in the Western Church from the ninth century, is given to a bishop who governs one or more dioceses that form an ecclesiastical province. As such he presides over the metropolitan see, which is usually that of the principal city of the territory.
The territory, ecclesiastical province of jurisdiction, governed by an archbishop is an archdiocese.
Auxiliary Bishop
A bishop assigned to a diocese or archdiocese to assist its residential bishop is usually an auxiliary bishop. Auxiliary refers to jurisdiction, not to sacramental ordination. Someone may be named an auxiliary bishop but he is ordained a bishop.
From the Greek word meaning “overseer,” a bishop is a supreme, divinely instituted member of the Church hierarchy. He has received the highest of the holy orders, is invested with the authority to govern a diocese, and is a successor of the Apostles. Bishops are responsible directly to the Holy Father for the affairs of their diocese.
“The cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special college whose responsibility is to provide for the election of the Roman Pontiff in accord with the norm of special law; the cardinals assist the Roman Pontiff with questions of major importance; they do so individually when they assist the Roman Pontiff especially in the daily care of the universal Church by means of the different offices which they perform” (New Code of Canon Law–1983). Today, according to canon law, only ordained priests may be elevated to the college of cardinals.
The official church of a bishop who has jurisdiction over a diocese is the cathedral. It is located within the diocese, generally in the see city in which the bishop exercises his authority and conducts worship for all under his jurisdiction. (As the principal church of a diocese it need not be the largest or the most beautiful.)
In the Church, the chancellor is appointed in accord with canon law by the bishop of a diocese. His/her title is “diocesan chancellor,” and he/she serves as an ecclesiastical notary. The chancellor’s duties include the supervision of the diocesan archives, the authentication of documents, and the drawing up of written reports on the official government of the diocese.
The chancery is the diocesan office where the administration of a diocese is carried on and where records, documents, and proceedings of diocesan courts are kept.
Literally, a “servant,” the diaconate is the first of the major orders of holy orders, but the lowest in the hierarchical order of the Church. In the Sacrament of Holy Orders the diaconate is received prior to ordination to the priesthood. (This step is called the “transitional diaconate.”) The “permanent diaconate” was reestablished in 1967; a permanent deacon is thus distinguished from a candidate for the order of priest. Dioceses are permitted to make their own decisions (within certain guidelines) relative to the selection, training, and role of the permanent deacon in the community of the Church. Duties of transitional deacons and permanent deacons are similar. Vatican II declares: “It is the duty of the deacon, to the extent that he has been authorized by competent authority, to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the sacred Scripture to people, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside at the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, and to officiate at funeral and burial services.”
A district of the diocese, usually a territorial division, is a deanery. A diocese must be divided into deaneries by canon law.
A diocese is the territory under the jurisdiction of a bishop, decided canonically only by the Holy See, which comprises the institutions and properties of the Church and the people within the area. The diocese in turn is divided into deaneries each with several parishes, and each having its own proper pastor or administrator appointed by the diocesan bishop.
The hierarchy of the Church has two distinctions. First, by reason of holy orders, the hierarchy is composed of bishops, priests, and deacons. Second, by reason of jurisdiction, the hierarchy is made up of the pope and the bishops under his authority.
Holy See
The Holy See is the composite of authority, jurisdiction, and sovereignty vested in and exercised by the pope and his governing groups in the spiritual and temporal governance and guidance of the universal Church. It is located in Rome, chiefly in the Vatican State.
This word itself means public service or function done on behalf of the people. The sacred liturgy is the public worship that Christ, as divine Head of the Church, gives to God the Father, and that which the faithful of Christ give to Christ and through Him to God, the Father. The liturgical worship of the Church is made up of the sacrifice of the Mass, the sacraments, the Divine Office, and the sacramentals.
Magisterium of the Church
Magisterium of the Church is the power given by Christ to the Church together with infallibility by which the Church teaches authoritatively the revealed truth of the Scripture and holds forth the truth of tradition for salvation.
Moderator of the Curia
The Moderator of the Curia is a bishop or priest, appointed by the diocesan bishop, who is concerned primarily with administrative matters and with supervising those working in the diocesan curia (the personnel and offices assisting the diocesan bishop in directing the pastoral activity, administration, and exercise of judicial power of his diocese).
Monsignor is an honorary ecclesiastical title granted by the Pope to some diocesan priests. The title carries no additional authority or responsibility but is given as a sign of recognition of their service to the church.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB)
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops is the national ecclesiastical body made up of the bishops of the United States through which the juridical authority of the Roman Catholic Church is exercised officially for the entire country. All bishops who have served or are now serving the Church in the United States and its territories and possessions are members and have voting rights. Its general headquarters are located at: 3211 Fourth Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017-1194. Phone: 202-541-3000.
In Catholic ecclesiastical usage, ordinaries are diocesan bishops or their equivalent, their vicars general and episcopal vicars, and major superiors of clerical religious orders, congregations or societies. (Always treat as a job description, never as a title before a name.) Before the new Code of Canon Law was issued in 1983, ordinary often was used to refer exclusively to those who were heads of dioceses or major superiors of religious orders. The new code redefined the term, extending its meaning to cover vicars general and episcopal vicars. The proper term now for the chief bishop of a diocese is the dioscesan bishop or residential bishop.
Parochial Vicar
A parochial vicar or several of them can be associated with the pastor. The term replaces the titles “associate pastor,” “assistant pastor,” or “curate,” although the terms may persist in some areas.
A parish priest is one who is designated as the pastor of a parish. A parish priest has ordinary power and is not simply a delegate of the ordinary. As such he rules the parish in his own name but under the delegated authority of the bishop.
Pastoral Administrator
This term refers to a religious or lay person who assumes the administrative duties of a pastor in a parish where a priest is not in residence. A priest is appointed to perform sacramental services in that parish.
The pope as the sovereign pontiff is the visible head of the Church, the mystical body of Christ. He is the infallible guide of the spiritual welfare of the Church, and in him is recognized, by the clergy and faithful, the fullness of jurisdiction in governing the body of the Church.
A priest is one who is ordained or on whom the priesthood has been conferred, who offers sacrifice, and who has the threefold power of teaching, ministering, and governing. Vatican II teaches: “Though all the faithful can baptize, the priest alone can complete the building up of the Body in the Eucharistic Sacrifice.”
Sister is the name of the women members of a religious community or order. Usually there is this distinction: sisters are religious women with simple vows; nuns have taken solemn vows.
As used at the Michigan Catholic Conference, the term refers to churches, schools, diocesan offices, and other institutions that participate in any of the MCC Services programs.
United States Catholic Conference (USCC)
As a service agency for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the USCC acts to carry out the civic and religious programs of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. It is distinct from the National Conference in its purpose and function. Its general headquarters are located at: 3211 Fourth Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017-1194. Phone: 202-541-3000.
  1. The residence of the Supreme Pontiff in Vatican State.
  2. The shortened term often applied to the state of Vatican City.
  3. Descriptive term for the official position of the Roman Catholic Church on matters of religion and other issues.
  4. Term sometimes applied, but not properly, to pronouncements of the Holy See on questions of doctrine or administration.
Vatican Council II
The greatest religious event of the twentieth century, whose teachings and clarifications have yet to reach their full impact, was the twenty-first Ecumenical Council, called Vatican II or the Second Vatican Council. The Council was opened by Pope John XXIII in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, on October 11, 1962. It was the first such council convened in the twentieth century, and only the second since the Protestant Reformation.
Vatican State, City of
The capital city of the Vatican State, which includes the principal territory of the surrounding city of Rome, was recognized as sovereign land of the Roman Catholic Church by the Lateran Treaty. It includes the Vatican palace, its gardens, the basilica and piazza of St. Peter’s, and other official buildings on a plot of land about one square mile with approximately 1000 residents. It is properly called the papal state and is governed by the pope as the sovereign ruler with executive, legislative, and judicial powers exercised through commissions or delegated groups.
In general, vicar is the prefixed title of a cleric who takes the place of another according to canon law and exercises authority in an ecclesiastical office in his name in accord with limitations laid down in the law. The Vicar General is one who is appointed within a diocese and who exercises the habitual powers granted to the bishop by indult.
The office, jurisdiction, or tenure of a vicar.
Michigan Catholic Conference
(800) 395-5565
(517) 372-3940
510 South Capitol Avenue
Lansing, Michigan 48933
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