Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Church Hierarchy

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia CommonsCC-BY 2.5

Many people know about the hierarchy of the Catholic church but they are confused on the intricacy of it.  We know who the Pope is, we see the bishop at confirmations and hear his name weekly in the Eucharistic prayer and we see a priest and deacon at mass.  That is really all we see in our everyday Catholic life but then what is a cardinal, a monseigneur or a brother and how do all these roles fit together?

This is a very short intro to the Church hierarchy to clear up some confusion about who does what.  This topic could a whole book and there are books written about it.  But for a blog post this covers the basics.  

There are details about each role and nuances that the average person may not know about the powers of the bishop and authority of bishop and what he can and can’t do.  I may cover that in a future post but I wanted to get the basics of the titles out to start.

Lets take the it from the bottom up

Deacon is a holy order that primary role during the mass is to proclaim the gospel and outside of mass to be involved in service to the Church.  The deacon was established in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 6:1-7).  

There are two types of deacons transitional and permanent.  The transitional deacon is on his way to becoming a priest and must first be ordained and deacon.  This period usually last about a year(or two), until the deacon is ordained a priest. The second type is a permanent deacon who is ordained to be a deacon permanently with no aspiration to the priesthood.  The permanent deacon can be married before ordination but after ordination he cannot marry or remarry if his wife dies.    

The primary role of the priest is to administer the sacraments to the people.  In the early church the bishop was the primary dispenser of the sacraments but as the church grew it became logistically impossible for the bishop to say mass for the entire diocese.  The priest is the ordinary minister of the Eucharist.  Hence the proper name of Eucharistic ministers in extraordinary ministers of communion since they are help the priest because it would be difficult for one priest to distribute to the whole congregation.  The priest cannot confer the sacrament of holy orders and generally does not administer confirmation (except on Easter Vigil), because these are usually left to the bishop.

The bishop is usually in charge of a specified geographic region of the church called a diocese (or archdiocese if there are suffrage diocese beneath it).  The bishop is responsible for teaching doctrine, governing Catholics in his jurisdiction, and sanctifying the world and representing the Church.  The bishop is the fullness of the sacrament of holy orders and has an unbroken succession to the apostles.  

The Pope is the bishop of Rome but with the title of bishop Rome comes the a multitude of other  titles (Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God).  The power of the papacy comes from being the successor of Peter the first vicar of Christ.  The Pope speaks for the church in union with college of bishops.  

side note on papal infallibility
The Pope has the authority make infallible statements on faith and morals but rarely uses this authority.  Detractors try to use this authority to undermine the Church but if understood in proper context they really do not have a case.  Usually the doctrine is already widely held and the Pope makes it “official”.  The last time the pope made an infallible statement was 1950 in regard to the assumption of Mary into heaven.


A member of a religious order with no holy order but has taken the vows of the order to live by the chrism of the order.  

An honorific title given to a priest by the Pope.  There are three levels of monseigneur and the diocese are limited to have less than 20% of the clergy in a diocese with the title.  But in regards to duties and function a priest and monseigneur are the same except of the title.

A cardinal is a prince of the church in ecclesiastic terms and a cardinal is usually a bishop(although not always).  The major role of the cardinal is to elect the next Pope upon the death of the current one.