Who's Who in the Catholic Church

How the church is organized, and who appoints its leaders.

BY: Patricia Rice


March 10--Dioceses, archdioceses, cardinals, nuncios -- what's it all about? All of those terms have been used in recent weeks as the Roman Catholic Church has coped with a series of sex scandals. But even Catholics who attend Mass daily can be confused about who is in charge of whom in the Catholic hierarchy. Here is a guide that might help:

What is the Catholic Church?

The Roman Catholic Church is its people, not the hierarchy, according to the Second Vatican Council. There are 1 billion Catholics worldwide.

Who is the head of the Catholic Church?

The pope. His ecclesiastical rank is just bishop, but he is considered the first among equals of the bishops because Catholics consider the bishop of Rome as the direct ecclesiastical successor to St. Peter.

What is a bishop?

A bishop is a spiritual leader and pastoral teacher of the church in his geographic -- or sometimes ethnic -- district called a diocese. He can ordain a person as a priest or bishop.

Bishops' responsibilities include deciding which seminarians in his diocese should be ordained priests. He also assigns priests to parishes or missions, allows new parishes and churches to be developed, and he sometimes closes parishes. He must oversee Catholic institutions in his region and see that their teaching follows Catholic moral teaching and Scripture. A bishop must be an ordained priest of 35 or older and generally remains in office until he is 75 or dies.

What's an archbishop?

He leads a region called an archdiocese. An archdiocese is generally a large and historic diocese. The Archdiocese of St. Louis was founded in 1847 and is the third oldest archdiocese in the nation. However, there are larger dioceses that are not called archdioceses, including the Diocese of Rockville Center, N.Y., which includes most of Long Island. An archbishop has no more power under church law than a bishop.

What's a cardinal?

A cardinal is a person whom the pope names as one of his closest advisers. Nearly all cardinals are bishops or archbishops, but a few are theologians or other priests the pope wants to honor. A few laymen have been named cardinals, but not in modern history. In the 1990s, one cardinal suggested that a lay woman might be named a cardinal. Most cardinals visit the pope a few times a year. The late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York used to talk to the pope on the phone regularly. Car dinals' distinctive power comes at the death of a pope, when they vote in secret session for a new pope. Cardinals have no power over diocesan bishops outside their dioceses.

What is an auxiliary bishop?

Larger dioceses have several auxiliary bishops assigned to help the diocesan bishop or archbishop with a large flock. However, an auxiliary bishop is a full bishop. At bishops councils, synods and national conferences auxiliary bishops have an equal vote with an archbishop or a cardinal.

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