Catholic jargon 101

Many years ago I edited a book titled Now That You Are Catholic by Fr. John J. Kenny, an introduction to Catholic customs for the newly initiated. While the book offered great advice for Catholic neophytes, it did not touch on the many nearly inscrutable words and phrases that baffle even cradle Catholics. Here, we will try to define some of the more confusing and most common ones — especially those with multiple meanings.

Stained-glass window of St. Augustine, in the Lightner Museum, St. Augustine, Florida, by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Photo: Public Domain.


This word has two discreet definitions that have absolutely nothing to do with one another. First, there is “canon law” or the law of the Church as codified in the Code of Canon Law (abbreviated in its Latin form to CIC). When one hears of “the canons of the Church that deal with questions of divorce (or ordination or the sacraments)” canon law is generally what is being referred to. “Canon” law is the opposite of “civil” law, or the law of the land one happens to be living in.

However, “canons” also refer to a group of men, usually priests, who have taken vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability to a religious order. A good example: The Canons Regular of Premontre, better known as the Norbertines. The word “regular,” comes from the fact that the Canons, who live together in an abbey, mean that they follow a “rule,” in this case the Rule of St. Augustine. Worth noting: there are also “canonesses,” women who follow the same rule.

A bishop’s coat of arms in the entrance of the Church of Santa Caterina da Siena a Magnapoli, Rome. Photo: e55evu/iStock


Again, we have two meanings that have nothing in common. The first one you have probably heard and it refers to the liturgical year. Ordinary Time or, to use its reverse, that time of the Church year that is not Advent, the Christmas season, Lent, the Triduum, or the Easter season. Ordinary Time makes up the bulk of the Church calendar, lasting from the end of Pentecost to the beginning of Advent, and makes another brief appearance between the Christmas season and Lent. Its liturgical color is green.

The other use of the term “ordinary” is the bishop, known as “the local ordinary.” For example, the local ordinary of New York City is Cardinal Timothy Dolan. “Ordinary” here comes from the root term “ordination.”

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. Photo: TriggerPhoto/iStock


This is another case of the Church having a totally different meaning for a word that we use to mean something else. A “metropolitan” is not a sprawling urban area, but rather a man — in this case an archbishop.

A metropolitan is an archbishop who has the final say within a given area, which takes in other dioceses adjacent to his own archdiocese. This ecclesial (church) province is drawn up (or at least approved by) the Vatican, and all the dioceses and their bishops (called “suffragan bishops” to distinguish them from the metropolitan) are ultimately under the rule of the metropolitan — though in reality the metropolitan is usually very busy running his own diocese rather than being interested in interfering in the affairs of other dioceses. The metropolitan can convoke synods of the suffragan bishops under him, and make decisions such as when to observe the Ascension.

“Sacrifice of Isaac” by Caravaggio, circa 1603. Photo: Public Domain


Once more a word with a couple of different and unrelated meanings. For biblical studies, a “patriarch” refers to one or more of the ancient figures of the Old Testament: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all patriarchs, and Joseph the son of Jacob and Moses are often included in this list, too. The time of the patriarchs comes to a definitive end with St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus.

But “patriarch” is also a very special honorific title given to the metropolitan of an ancient diocese (known as a “see”). The pope is the patriarch of the West — a title that Pope Benedict XVI, however, stopped using, preferring the title “bishop of Rome.”

Still, the patriarchs are where East-meets-West in the Catholic Church, so we have the patriarchs of the Syrian, Armenian, Melkite, Coptic, and Chaldean churches. Just to make things a bit more confusing, under the Melkite patriarch are the patriarchs of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. All of these patriarchs usually are clad in black, wear distinctive head dresses, large pectoral crosses, and long, flowing beards.

Finally, back in Italy the archbishop of Venice is always given the title “the patriarch of Venice” — as Venice was once the gateway to the East.

The Perugia Altarpiece, side panel depicting St. Dominic by Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455). Photo: Domain


Another word with a load of meanings, so let’s start small. First, there is the sacrament of Holy Orders, one of the seven sacraments. Most people equate this with becoming a priest, which is true. However, before being ordained to the Order of the Presbyterate (the priesthood), a man is ordained to the Order of the Diaconate (a deacon).

It is worth noting here that deacons are members of the clergy and not the laity — the term “lay-deacon” is a misnomer.

The bishop, or as we mentioned above — the local ordinary —  is also ordained to the episcopacy. However, here the theology is a bit blurry: Some theologians see bishops as not being ordained a third time (the first time as a deacon, then as a priest), but rather “consecrated to the episcopate” — “episcopate” being another term for “bishop.”

Regardless, when a bishop takes over his diocese for the first time he is simply “installed as bishop.”

The term “orders” can also refer to any number of religious orders: that is groups of men (or women) who agree to live a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience (note that the clergy above take vows of chastity and obedience but not poverty).

Photo: reynaldodallin/Pixabay

Some orders you’ve probably heard of are the Franciscans and the Dominicans (known as “mendicant” or “begging” orders), the Jesuits (Pope Francis belongs to this order — technically called the Society of Jesus), the Norbertines (mentioned above), the Benedictines, and the Carmelites.

These religious orders are composed of both lay and clerics: If a man becomes a deacon and joins the Franciscans, he is a cleric who is also a member of a religious order. The lay members of orders for centuries were generally called “brothers” or “lay brothers.”

We still see this in the monastic orders (Trappists, Camaldolese, and especially the Carthusians, where the choir monks — those who are priests — spend most of the day and night in prayer, and the lay brothers spend part of their time praying and the rest of it simply running the everyday essentials of the monastery or abbey — such as making meals and working in the infirmary.

All members of a religious order answer directly to their superior. In an abbey, it’s an abbot (for women religious, they answer to an abbess): “Abbot” means “father,” and is also the title given to the head of a monastery. Some cloistered orders, that is, orders that do not go out into the world, but live monastic (also called eremitical) lives, answer to a prior.

Note that there are many different types of religious orders! One could reasonably ask, “What’s the difference?” or “Why are there so many religious orders?”

Religious orders usually exhibit a charism that is attractive to a certain man or woman who joins them. For example, Franciscans are known for their work among the poor. Trappist monks are known for their secluded life of prayer. Carthusians are more or less hermits who agree to live in a “Charterhouse.” Salesians are men and women who are devoted to working with young people. The Congregation of the Mission (“the Vincentians”), as their name states, are missionaries, usually to the very poor.

Coat of Arms Society of Jesus. Image by By Sergey Kohl/Shutterstock

In addition to the vows or solemn promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience, many orders have a fourth vow unique unto them.

For example, the Jesuits fourth vow is to go wherever the pope may send them at any time. Benedictines take a vow of stability of place — that is, they will not leave that particular abbey or monastery. Mercedarians take a vow to die, if necessary, for another who is in danger of losing their faith, or to swap places with a person who has been taken captive for the faith. And the Christian Brothers take a vow never to be ordained (to the diaconate or the presbyterate).

Finally, a word that you may come across and is worth defining outright: “soteriology.” In brief it refers to the study of the doctrine of salvation. Or as theologians would say, “the systematic interpretation of Christ’s saving work for human beings and the world.” I mention — and end with it — to remind us all that we are saved by God’s grace and Christ’s blood.


canonsCatholic vocabularyHoly OrdersKevin T. Di CamillometropolitanordersordinarypatriarchReligious OrdersSacramentsVocations
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