Catholic Glossary

Catholic words and phrases explained

The Catholic Church has its own language, or sometimes it can seem like it anyway. A lot of people already within the Church use this language freely, taking for granted that everyone else will automatically know what they are talking about. Not knowing what people are actually saying can seem a little overwhelming and sometimes quite off-putting. So here is a list of terms that tend to get thrown around in Catholic circles.

Ambo – Auxiliary Bishop
  • Ambo: the stand where Scripture readings are proclaimed
  • Annulment: Technically called a decree of nullity, is a sentence by a church court, confirmed by an appellate court, that a putative marriage was not valid from the start because something was lacking: full knowledge and consent by both parties, freedom from force or grave fear, or some other factor needed for a valid marriage. “Putative” (meaning apparent or seeming) is a key word in the entire process: It refers to a marriage in which at least one party acted in good faith, believing it was valid at the time it took place. Children from a putative marriage are considered legitimate even if the marriage is later ruled to be invalid. This has been a source of one of the major popular misunderstandings of annulments; namely, that an annulment somehow makes the children of that union illegitimate. Church law explicitly rejects this interpretation, saying that children of a putative marriage are legitimate even if the marriage is later judged to be invalid.
  • Apostle: one of the twelve men Jesus chose as His particular followers (See Matt. 10:1-4)
  • Apostolic nuncio: Church term for the Vatican ambassador to another country and the papal liaison with the church in that country. An apostolic nuncio, also called a papal nuncio, is always an archbishop.
  • Auxiliary bishop: a bishop assigned to a Catholic diocese or archdiocese to assist its residential bishop. Whether in a diocese or archdiocese, his title is bishop. The auxiliary bishop for Neasden Lane is Bishop John Sherrington.
Bible – Brother
  • Bible: the collection of writings authored by many different people under inspiration from the Holy Spirit; without error regarding faith and morality; the Bible contributes to the deposit of faith
  • Bishop: the highest rank in the clergy; the leader of a particular diocese
  • Bishops’ conference: a national (or in a very few cases regional) body of bishops that meets periodically to collaborate on matters of common concern in their country or region, such as moral, doctrinal, pastoral and liturgical questions; relations with other religious groups; and public policy issues. It is also called an episcopal conference.
  • Brother: a man who has taken vows in a religious order but is not ordained or studying for the priesthood. Sometimes he is called a lay brother to distinguish him from clerical members of religious orders.
Canon Law – Curia
  • Canon Law: the rules (called canons or laws) which provide the norms for good order in the visible society of the Church
  • Cardinal: a bishop who has special duties to assist and advise the pope in the governance of the universal Church; able to vote in elections for a new pope
  • Catholic: means ‘universal’; it designates both the fullness of Christ’s saving presence in the Church and the universality of the Church’s mission to the whole human race
  • Celibacy: refers to a decision to live chastely in the unmarried state. At ordination, a diocesan priest or unmarried deacon in the Latin rite Catholic Church makes a promise of celibacy.
  • Chancellor: the chief archivist of a diocese’s official records. Also a notary and secretary of the diocesan curia, or central administration; he or she may have a variety of other duties as well. It is the highest diocesan position open to women.
  • Church: the assembly of all who believe in Jesus Christ, who are bound together as members of the Body of Christ and made holy by His grace; also designates the visible structure that Jesus founded on the Rock of Peter which has persisted through history and is expressed in its fullness by the common creed, worship, and leadership of the apostles’ successors with the Bishop of Rome as their head
  • Clergy: the members of the baptized who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders
  • College of Cardinals: a group of men chosen by the pope as his chief advisers. Most are heads of major dioceses around the world or of the major departments of the Vatican, or are retired from such posts. In the interregnum following the death of the pope, the College of Cardinals administers the church, and those under the age of 80 meet in a conclave to elect a new pope.
  • Conclave: the gathering of the world’s Catholic cardinals, after the death of a pope, to elect a new pope. Only cardinals under the age of 80 are allowed into a conclave under current church rules.
  • Congregation: (1) A term used for some Vatican departments that are responsible for important areas of church life, such as worship and sacraments, the clergy, and saints’ causes. (2) The proper legal term for some institutes of men or women religious, all of which are commonly called religious orders. The difference between a religious congregation and a religious order is technical and rarely of significance in news reporting. (3) Any gathering of Christians for worship.
  • Consistory: a meeting of cardinals in Rome. It can be an ordinary consistory, attended only by cardinals in Rome at the time of the meeting, or an extraordinary consistory, to which all cardinals around the world are summoned.
  • Curia: the personnel and offices through which (1) the Pope administers the affairs of the universal church (the Roman Curia), or (2) a bishop administers the affairs of a diocese (the diocesan curia). The principal officials of a diocesan curia are the vicar general, the chancellor, officials of the diocesan tribunal or court, examiners, consultors, auditors and notaries.
Deacon – Disciple
  • Deacon: the lowest rank in the clergy; ordained for ministry and service, particularly to assist the bishop and priests in their sacramental duties
  • Delict: The Church term for a crime. Church crimes are spelled out in the Code of Canon Law
  • Deposit of Faith: made up of Sacred Scripture, sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium; that which Jesus has given to His followers in order to provide a way to salvation; conatins everything a person needs to know and follow Jesus
  • Diocese: a geographical district under the pastoral care of a bishop (a map of the 4 Dioceses of Missouri )
  • Disciple: a follower of Christ who freely accepts a share in the Lord’s mission, His joys, His suffering, and His glory
Episcopal – Excommunication
  • Episcopal: refers to a bishop or groups of bishops, or to the form of church governance in which ordained bishops have authority.
  • Episcopal vicar: a priest or auxiliary bishop who assists the diocesan bishop in a specific part of the diocese, over certain groups in the diocese, or over certain areas of church affairs. Some large dioceses, for example, are divided geographically into several vicariates or regions, with an episcopal vicar for each; some dioceses have episcopal vicars for clergy or religious or for Catholics of certain racial or ethnic groups.
  • Eucharist: means ‘thanksgiving’; refers to the bread and wine at Mass after they are consecrated by the priest and transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
  • Excommunication: a penalty or censure by which a baptised Catholic is excluded from the communion of the faithful for committing and remaining obstinate in certain serious offenses specified in canon law. Even though excommunicated, the person is still responsible for fulfillment of the normal obligations of a Catholic.
Faculty – Font
  • Faculty: Church authorisation, given by the law itself or by a church superior, to perform certain official church acts. In some rare cases a member of the clergy will be denied certain faculties, such as hearing confessions or preaching during the liturgy, because of public positions taken that are not in accord with church teaching.
  • Faithful, The Christian: those who have been incorporated into Christ in Baptism and constituted as the people of God, the Church. The term “lay faithful” refers to the laity, all the faithful except those in Holy Orders and those who belong to a religious state approved by the Church.
  • Fasting: refraining from food and drink as an expression of interior penance, in imitation of the fast of Jesus for forty days in the desert. Fasting is an ascetical practice recommended in Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers; it is sometimes prescribed by a precept of the Church, especially during the liturgical season of Lent.
  • Fathers of The Church: Church teachers and writers of the early centuries whose teachings are a witness to the Tradition of the Church.
  • Filioque: a word meaning “and from the Son,” added to the Latin version of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, by which the Latin tradition of the Creed confesses that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”.
  • Font: a basin or bowl in a Church used for the Baptismal water.
Genuflection – Grace
  • Genuflection: a reverence made by bending the knee, especially to express adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
  • Gifts of the Holy Spirit: permanent dispositions that make us docile to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The traditional list of seven gifts of the Spirit is derived from Isaiah 11:1-3: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, piety, fortitude, and fear of the Lord.
  • God: the infinite divine being, one in being yet three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God has revealed himself as the “One who is,” as truth and love, as creator of all that is, as the author of divine revelation, and as the source of salvation.
  • Gospel: means ‘good news’; refers to the saving message of Jesus by which we are freed from sin and made able to attain eternal life; also refers to one of the first four books of the New Testament Scriptures
  • Grace: the free and undeserved gift that God gives us to respond to our vocation to become his adopted children. As sanctifying grace, God shares his divine life and friendship with us in a habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that enables the soul to live with God, to act by his love. As actual grace, God gives us the help to conform our lives to his will. Sacramental grace and special graces (charisms, the grace of one’s state of life) are gifts of the Holy Spirit to help us live out our Christian vocation.
Habit – Homily
  • Habit: the distinctive form of dress worn by members of religious communities.
  • Hail Mary: the prayer known in Latin as the Ave Maria. The first part of the prayer praises God for the gifts he gave to Mary as Mother of the Redeemer; the second part seeks her maternal intercession for the members of the Body of Christ, the Church, of which she is the Mother.
  • Happiness: joy and beatitude over receiving the fulfillment of our vocation as creatures: a sharing in the divine nature and the vision of God. God put us into the world to know, love, and serve him, and so come to the happiness of paradise.
  • Heaven: eternal life with God; communion of life and love with the Trinity and all the blessed. Heaven is the state of supreme and definitive happiness, the goal of the deepest longings of humanity.
  • Hell: the state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed, reserved for those who refuse by their own free choice to believe and be converted from sin, even to the end of their lives.
  • Heresy: the obstinate denial after Baptism of a truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith.
  • Hermit: one who lives the eremitical life. Through silence and solitude, in prayer and penance, the hermit or anchorite vows, although not necessarily publicly, to follow the evangelical counsels out of love for God and desire for the salvation of the world.
  • Hierarchy: the Apostles and their successors, the college of bishops, to whom Christ gave the authority to teach, sanctify, and rule the Church in his name.
  • Holy: means ‘set apart’; refers to both objects or people; holy objects (like the altar or ambo) are ‘set apart’ from ordinary or ‘secular’ things; holy people (or holiness) means that a person is becoming more and more ‘set apart’ from worldliness, being in the world but not of the world
  • Holy See: the primary official term of reference for the Diocese of Rome, as the chief diocese of Catholic Christendom; used to refer to the pope and the Roman Curia—congregations, tribunals, and various other offices—in their role of authority over and service to the Catholic Church around the world. In most news uses, Vatican is synonymous with Holy See: A Holy See representative is a Vatican representative, a congregation of the Holy See is a Vatican congregation, etc.
  • Homily: the sermon given by a member of the clergy following the proclamation of the Gospel reading at Mass
Kingdom of God – Kyrie Eleison
  • Kingdom of God: the reign or rule of God: “the kingdom of God is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). The Kingdom of God draws near in the coming of the Incarnate Word; it is announced in the Gospel; it is the messianic Kingdom, present in the person of Jesus, the Messiah; it remains in our midst in the Eucharist. Christ gave to his Apostles the work of proclaiming the Kingdom, and through the Holy Spirit forms his people into a priestly kingdom, the Church, in which the Kingdom of God is mysteriously present, for she is the seed and beginning of the Kingdom on earth. In the Lord’s Prayer “Thy Kingdom come” we pray for its final glorious appearance, when Christ will hand over the Kingdom to his Father.
  • Knights of Columbus: a Catholic service fraternity for men dedicated to charity and works of service; founded in 1882 by Father Michael McGivney in New Haven, CT
  • Kyrie Eleison: Greek words meaning; “Lord have mercy”. Sometimes said or sung in Greek during the penitential rite of the Mass.
Laicisation – Liturgy
  • Laicisation: the process by which a priest is returned to the lay state. It is sometimes used as a penalty for a serious crime or scandal, but more often it comes at the request of the priest. A laicised priest is barred from all priestly ministry with one exception: He may give absolution to someone in immediate danger of death. The Pope must approve all requests for laicisation. When a priest is laicised without his consent, for a crime such as living in concubinage, committing child sexual abuse or using the confessional to solicit sex, it is sometimes called defrocking or unfrocking. Those terms, which are not used in church law, should be restricted to forcible laicisations, since they connote a penalty.
  • Laity: the members of the baptized who have not received the Sacrament of Holy Orders; sometimes also distinguished from those in consecrated life
  • Liturgy: the prayer of the Church; the participation of the People of God in the redemptive work of God, expressed principally in the celebration of the Sacraments
Magisterium – Monsignor
  • Magisterium: made up of all the bishops, with the Pope and cardinals at the head; the teachings of the magisterium contribute to the deposit of faith
  • Mass: the central act of worship of the Catholic Church; established by Jesus at the Last Supper, the Mass is the Sacramental celebration in which the mystery of our salvation is renewed and accomplished, where Jesus gives himself to us in the Eucharist
  • Ministry: the service or work of sanctification performed by the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments
  • Monsignor: an honorary title given to some priests by the Pope for their years of service to the Church
Parish – Purgatory
  • Parish: a stable community of the faithful within a particular diocese whose pastoral care and responsibility is given by the bishop to a priest as pastor
  • Pope: the bishop of Rome and the historical successor of St. Peter who leads the universal Church as Christ’s vicar on earth
  • Priest: the second rank in the clergy and a co-worker of the bishop; whereas a bishop is the leader of a particular diocese, priests are typically assigned as leaders of a particular parish within the diocese
  • Purgatory: a state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but whose souls were yet imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven
RCIA – Rosary
  • RCIA: the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults; the program of initiation established for adults who wish to become members of the Catholic faith; learn more here.
  • Rosary: a prayer in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a meditation on the central mysteries of Christ’s life; often prayed with a chain of beads
Sacrament – Secular
  • Sacrament: an efficacious sign of grace which Jesus instituted and entrusted to the Church by which divine life is dispensed to us; there are seven Sacraments of the Church
  • Sacred: another word for holy or holiness
  • Saint: any member of the communion of souls who are in heaven; some saints are officially recognized by the Church as models of heroic Christian virtue, who have lived lives of surpassing charity and exceptional witness to the Gospel
  • Sanctuary: the space inside the church building that is specifically for Mass and other forms of prayer and worship
  • Scripture: another name for the Bible
  • Secular: refers to anything that is not directed toward religion; anything ordinary; anything that is not considered sacred or holy

Tabarnacle – Tradition
  • Tabernacle: the place where the unconsumed Eucharist is kept; made of precious material and designated by a constantly burning candle known as the ‘sancutary lamp’ or the ‘sanctuary light’
  • Tradition: that which has been handed down to the Church from Christ but never written (i.e. Sunday being the day set aside for Christian worship)
Vatican II – Vestments
  • Vatican II: a number of sessions held at the Vatican from 1962-1965; comprised of the Magisterium seeking to further clarify and explain the Deposit of Faith and set the direction for the entire Church; 16 documents were published as a result
  • Vestments: garments worn by members of the clergy when offering prayers in an official capacity on behalf of the Church