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Church Terms

Based on definitions contained in the Catholic Encyclopedia (Thomas Nelson Publishers), The Official Catholic Directory (P.J. Kenedy and Sons), Stylebook on Religion (Catholic News Service), and Catholic Dictionary (Our Sunday Visitor).

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The forgiveness of a debt either by the remission of sin in the Sacrament of Penance or the lifting of a canonical penalty.


Any layman who serves the Mass or who assists at other church services.

Ad Limina

The abbreviated form the Latin phrase ad limina Apostolorum is translated, "to the thresholds of the apostles." It describes the quinquennial (five-year) reports that all bishops and military vicars are required to make to the Holy See.


One who is officially appointed for a temporary period to perform the duties of the person holding the permanent office. An administrator may be assigned by the archbishop to oversee the pastoral care of a parish without a pastor, or while the pastor is unable to fulfill the functions of the office.

Adoration, Perpetual

The practice of continuous exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, usually in the monstrance, for the purposes of uninterrupted vigil and adoration on the part of the faithful.


A long, white garment that can be used by all liturgical ministers. It is a reminder of the baptismal garment worn when the new Christian "puts on Christ."


A place where scriptures are proclaimed and homilies may be preached. It is a main focal point of the church and a lector stands at or behind it when reading aloud. Also referred to as a pulpit.


A recess that holds the holy oils that are blessed and consecrated at the Chrism Mass during Holy Week.


A Hebrew word of assent found in the Old and New Testaments, generally left untranslated but meaning "So be it," "Truly," "Certainly," or even, "I do believe."


"The one sent." This normally refers to the 12 men chosen by Jesus to be the bearers of his teachings to the world. They are:

  • Simon, renamed Peter
  • Andrew
  • Bartholomew
  • James the Greater
  • James the Lesser
  • John
  • Judas Iscariot
  • Matthew
  • Matthias - was chosen to fill the place of Judas
  • Philip
  • Simon the Zealot
  • Thaddeus
  • Thomas


Referring to the 12 Apostles. It also characterizes certain documents, appointments, or structures initiated by the Pope or the Holy See.


Title of a bishop with jurisdiction over an archdiocese, which is the principal see of an region; he has certain limited supervisory jurisdiction over the other dioceses in his province. In the Archdiocese of Detroit, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron serves in this capacity, overseeing parishes in the counties of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Monroe, St. Clair and Lapeer.


A territory of the Church governed by an archbishop. It is the primary see of an ecclesiastical province having one or more other dioceses.


Liturgical instrument used for the sprinkling of holy water.

Associate Pastor

A priest who assists the pastor in the pastoral care of a parish or parishes.

Auxiliary Bishop

A bishop assigned to assist a diocesan bishop in the administrative and pastoral care of the a diocese. "Auxiliary" refers to jurisdiction, not to sacramental ordination. A man may be named an auxiliary bishop, but he is ordained a bishop.

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Baptismal Font

A receptacle for water that is used in the sacrament of baptism.


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 Pope for the affairs of their diocese.

Blessed Sacrament

The consecrated bread and wine when they become the Body and Blood of Christ. The Blessed Sacrament is perpetually reserved in Catholic churches in a prominent place, marked by a burning sanctuary lamp. This is a test.


A metal pan used to hold incense.

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Greek for "rule" or "measure." Refers to a law of the Church or a doctrinal formula of a council or synod. The canon of Scripture comprises books of the Bible received in the Church as authentically inspired and normative for the Faith.

Canon Law

The name given to the official body of laws by which the Church is governed. The current code was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983.


The one who leads the congregation in singing the music within the liturgy in a prayerful way.


Cardinals are the highest-ranking prelates below the Pope himself. They are appointed by the Pope to assist him through the College of Cardinals with questions of major importance and, individually, in the daily care of the universal Church. When a Pope dies, the College of Cardinals sits in a conclave to elect the next Pontiff.


A long, black garment worn by altar servers under the surplice; also worn by diocesan priests (black), monsignors (rose), bishops (violet), cardinals (red), and the Pope (white).


Religious instruction and formation for those preparing for baptism and for the faithful in all stages of spiritual development. It is a lifelong process of conversion.


A person who teaches catechesis. The main catechist at each parish is known either as the Director of Religious Education (DRE) or Parish Catechetical Leader (PCL).


Unbaptized adult or child preparing for the sacrament of initiation through the RCIA process.


The archbishop's chair, the symbol of his role of chief teacher and pastor of the local church.


From "cathedra," literally, chair of the bishop. 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.


Bishop, priest, or deacon who presides at a liturgical function.


The large cup used to hold the wine that becomes the Blood of Christ.


Appointed in accord with canon law by the bishop of a diocese, the chancellor 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.


A term commonly used in some countries (the United States included) for the diocesan administrative offices.


Any small place of worship that may (but need not) house the relics or mementos of martyrs or saints.


From the Latin for "little house," the chasuble is the outer liturgical vestment worn by the celebrant at Mass. Its color changes according to the feast or liturgical season:

  • Green: Ordinary Time
  • Red: Passion (Palm) Sunday, Pentecost, and on the feast days of martyrs including the Apostles and Evangelists
  • White: Christmas and Easter seasons; on the celebrations of Mary, the angels, saints who were not martyrs' the feasts of All Saints, Birth of John the Baptist, Chair of St. Peter, Conversion of Paul, and St. John the Evangelist
  • Violet: Advent and Lent
  • Rose: Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday) and Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday)


Mixture of olive or other vegetable oil and balsam, consecrated by a bishop, for use in liturgical anointings at Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders, the blessing of an altar, or, in former days, the coronation of a king. At the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, a bishop consecrates the holy chrism as well as the oil of the catechumens and the oil of the infirm.


A vessel used to hold the hosts which will be used for communion. Some are cup-like and others are bowl- or plate-like. They are also used to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle.

Coadjutor Bishop

A bishop assigned by the Holy See to assist the residential bishop. Upon the death, retirement, or removal of the residential bishop, the coadjutor automatically becomes the residential bishop.


The priests and bishops who join the main celebrant in celebrating Mass.


The enclosed meeting of the cardinals of the Church for the purpose of electing a Pope.


In the Catholic context, confession occurs in the Sacrament of Penance, in which one reveals one's sins to a priest who grants absolution when there is true repentance.


In the Catholic context, confession occurs in the Sacrament of Penance, in which one reveals one's sins to a priest who grants absolution when there is true repentance.


The Words of Institution in the Eucharistic Prayer, by which bread and wine are transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ.Crucifix

An object is a crucifix only if it depicts Christ on the cross; otherwise, it is a cross.

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There are two kinds of deacons: transitional and permanent. Transitional deacons are men who have been ordained to the diaconate but who will ultimately be ordained to the priesthood. Permanent deacons are men who have been ordained to the diaconate and who will remain deacons. The permanent diaconate was reestablished in 1967 and is open to single and married men.


A territorial division of the Church comprised of all the Catholics living in a specific geographic region under the pastoral care and authority of a bishop.

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Pertaining to or connected to the Church.


The highest form of papal teaching document, generally addressed to all the bishops and/or all the faithful.


The sacrament of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ really, truly and substantially present under the appearances of bread and wine. The Holy Eucharist is the primary act of worship of the Catholic Church in which Christ perpetuates the sacrifice of the cross; the Church, in turn, offers herself with Jesus to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.


The teaching or spreading of the Gospel message and all those activities by which every member of the Church proclaims and presents to the world the saving message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Every Christian is given the responsibility by Christ to evangelize; the Archdiocese and many of its parishes have various formal plans, departments and committees dedicated to evangelization.

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Faith Formation

Often used interchangeably with "religious education" or "catechesis," it refers to everything that contributes to a person's growth in faith and intimacy with Jesus Christ: evangelization, religious instruction, liturgy, faith sharing, personal prayer, life experiences, etc.


The law of fasting binds persons from the completion of their 18th year to the beginning of their 60th year, i.e., from the day after their 18th birthday to the day after their 59th birthday.The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing as far as quantity and quality are concerned, approved local custom. The order of meals is optional; i.e., the full meal may be taken in the evening instead of at midday. Also: 1) The quantity of food taken at the two lighter meals should not exceed the quantity taken at the full meal; 2) The drinking of ordinary liquids does not break the fast.


A member of one of the mendicant orders founded since the thirteenth century, for example, the Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites.

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Ancient hymn of praise in which the Church glorifies God. It is used on all Sundays except for those during Advent and Lent. The text originates from the Christmas narrative in the Gospel of Luke: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests." (Luke 2:14)

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Holy See

The residence of the Pope and the center of the administrative offices of the Church. The Holy See has its headquarters in Vatican City and is composed of a host of departments. The mission of the Holy See is to carry on the spiritual and moral authority as exercised by the Pontiff.

Holy Water

Water blessed and used for Baptisms and in the blessing of religious articles, homes, and other items.


A reflection by the celebrant or other minister on the Scripture readings and on the applications of the texts in the daily lives of the assembled community.


The bread that is used at Mass is only the Host after the consecration and in the view of its consummation at Holy Communion.

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The canonical process whereby a cleric is returned to the lay state.


The book of Scripture readings used during the Liturgy of the Word in Mass.


The public worship of the Church, including the rites and ceremonies of the Mass and sacraments.

Liturgy of the Eucharist

The section of Mass when the gifts of bread and wine are prepared, the Eucharistic Prayer is proclaimed by the celebrant, and the Blessed Sacrament is distributed to the assembly.

Liturgy of the Word

The section of the Mass when readings from the Scriptures are proclaimed and reflected upon.

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Magisterium of the Church

The Church's teaching authority, instituted by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, which seeks to safeguard and explain the truths of the faith.


The common name for the Eucharistic liturgy of the Catholic Church, the principal celebration of the Church's public worship.

Mitre (or Miter)

The liturgical headdress proper to all bishops of the Latin Rite, including the Pope.

Moderator of the Curia

An administrative office for the coordination and supervision of offices and personnel of the diocesan curia. The office was introduced after Vatican II.


One who withdraws from society in order to pursue a life totally dedicated to God in prayer, penance, and solitude. Monks are commonly distinguished from communities of clerics or friars who engage in some form of active ministry.


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.


The sacred vessel used for the exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as well as solemn Benediction. The Host is generally enclosed in a round glass or crystal-covered opening and surrounded by rays or other decorations.

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The papal representative or ambassador who represents the Holy See to a state or civil government and who also represents the pope to particular churches in that state or nations, in contrast to papal legates who relate only to particular churches.

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A person placed in authority over a particular Church (diocese) or its equivalent. Bishops, major religious superiors, vicars general, and vicars episcopal are examples.

Ordinary Time

All those parts of the Church's liturgical year that aren't included in the major seasons (Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter).


The act of consecrating or setting apart of men to be the sacred ministers for the worship of God and for the sanctification of all people.

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A circular band of white wool with two hanging pieces (front and back) decorated with six black crosses worn over the shoulders by all metropolitan archbishops and by the Pope himself.


A community of Catholics served by a pastor, most commonly worshipping at a single church building. Technically, a parish refers to the Catholics residing within a specific geographical boundary, however Catholics may, and commonly do, cross geographical boundaries to become “parishioners” of the parish not nearest to their residence (e.g. , someone living in Livonia can still be a “parishioner” of a parish in the city of Detroit).


A member of a parish.


The priest charged with the care of souls of a parish.

Pastoral Administrator

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.

Pastoral Associate

A deacon, religious, or lay person who serves the parish in multiple areas of ministry. This position is similar to that of an associate pastor in that a pastoral associate assists the pastor in fulfilling the entire pastoral ministry of the parish.


A saucer-like plate that holds the bread that becomes the Body of Christ.


The pope is visible head of the Church. He is the infallible guide of the spiritual welfare of the Church.


One who is ordained and who offers the Sacrifice of the Mass, reconciles sinners to God, preaches the Gospel, anoints the sick, baptizes, and witnesses marriages.

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Regional Moderator

The cleric who oversees a particular region of the Archdiocese of Detroit on behalf of the Archbishop. The Regional Moderators in the Archdiocese are Regional Moderator pro-tem Msgr. John Zenz (Northeast Region), Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda (Northwest Region), Auxiliary Bishop Donald Hanchon (Central Region), and Auxiliary Bishop Francis Reiss (South Region).

Religious Brother

Members of a religious community who are either not ordained and not intending to receive Holy Orders or those who are in the process of preparing for Holy Orders.

Religious Order

A religious community of men or women who have professed solemn vows.

Religious Sister

Women members of a religious community or order. Usually, there is a distinction between sisters, who have taken simple vows, and nuns, who have taken solemn vows.


Ceremonies surrounding the sacred liturgy and the sacraments or a particular division within the Catholic Church pertaining geographical and cultural differences (Latin Rite, Chaldean Rite, etc.).

Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA)

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) from the Roman Ritual is the mandatory rite for the initiation of adults and children of catechetical age in the United States. The use of this rite is mandatory in all parishes of the Archdiocese of Detroit..Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the process by which adults are received into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Roman Curia

The official collective name for the administrative agencies and courts and their officials who assist the Pope in governing the Church. Members are appointed and granted authority by the Pope.

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Sacramental Minister

A priest assigned to perform sacramental ministry in a parish whose pastoral care has been entrusted to a pastoral administrator.


The English edition of the Roman Missal containing the directives, prayers, and rubrics for the Mass. The Lectionary holds the readings used during the liturgy.


The part of the church where the altar is located.

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The receptacle in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in churches and chapels.


The change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

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The residence of the Pope, in Vatican State. A descriptive term for the official position of the Catholic Church on matters of religion and other issues.


The cleric that represents a particular Vicariate, or grouping of parishes within a certain geographic area. The Vicar is a pastor from one of the parishes in his Vicariate.


A group of parishes within the archdiocese, defined by geographic area for the purposes of administration. Each the 16 Vicariates in the Archdiocese is represented by a cleric as its vicar. Vicariates are aligned into the four Regions that make up the Archdiocese.




The calling God has for an individual. Its common use refers specifically to “priestly vocations” or the calling of men to become priests. The Archdiocese of Detroit has an Office of Priestly Vocations which is dedicated to helping men discern whether they have a vocation to the priesthood. The term “vocation” also can refer to “religious vocations” (the calling to become a nun or a brother, for instance) or “lay vocations” (the call to become a wife/husband/parent).

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The small skullcap worn by the Pope (white), cardinals (red), and bishops (purple).