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Church Structural Roles

There are many roles within the Catholic Church for both ordained and non-ordained people. A non-ordained person is typically referred to as a lay person, or one who is not a member of the clergy. One who is ordained is someone who has received the sacrament of Holy Orders.


  • The pope is the head of the Church on earth. He is the Vicar of Christ in that he guides the Church in faith and morals.
  • First among equals. Of all the bishops and archbishops in the world he is the leader. While he himself is the bishop of the diocese of Rome, he is the leader of the entire Christian flock as commissioned by Jesus (John 21:15-19).
  • The present day process for selecting a pope is through election. The election is held amongst the cardinals of the Church that form a conclave and select the next pope. The cardinals vote each day until a majority of the votes cast are in favor of one person.
  • The pope, by the power of the keys and promise of Jesus to protect the Church (Matt. 16:13-19), has the ability to speak infallibly ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals only. This does not mean that he is impeccable or that every time he speaks he is infallible. Infallibility also extends to all other bishops as long as they are speaking together with the pope. The pope does not make infallible pronouncements as a private person, but rather does so as the supreme teacher of the Catholic faith. Even when he is not speaking ex cathedra his teaching authority is to be respected.
  • 21st – 20thCentury popes:
    • Leo XIII (1878-1903)
    • St. Pius X (1903-14)
    • Benedict XV (1914-22)
    • Pius XI (1922-39)
    • Pius XII (1939-58)
    • Blessed John XXIII (1958-63)
    • Paul VI (1963-78)
    • John Paul I (1978)
    • John Paul II (1978-2005)
    • Benedict XVI (2005-Present)


  • Cardinals are bishops or archbishops that have been given special designation to be eligible as the next pope. They are appointed by the pope. The title is generally given to bishops of prominent or large dioceses (i.e. Chicago, Boston, New York, Sydney). From the early times they were (and some still are) assistants to the
    pope in liturgy, Church administration and counsel.
  • The College of Cardinals simply refers to the body of cardinals, those that are allowed to vote in papal elections.


  • A bishop is one who oversees a diocese as its chief pastor. Archbishopsgovern their diocese (called an archdiocese) as well as govern the other bishops of a nearby area. For example, Archbishop John Nienstedt oversees the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis as well as the other presiding bishops of the other 5 dioceses of Minnesota.
    • Auxiliary bishops are bishops appointed to assist an archbishop in running an archdiocese.
    • A coadjutor bishop is one that governs a diocese or archdiocese along with another bishop. The coadjutor is the one that is appointed to succeed the bishop of the diocese of which he is coadjutor.
  • A diocese is a geographical area over which a bishop governs. It is broken into smaller sections called parishes which contain a parish church. An archdiocese is simply the territory an archbishop governs.
  • Every 5 years the (arch)bishop(s) visit the pope in what is call an ad limina visit. They discuss with the pope what has been happening in the (arch)diocese and future plans. The pope often shares a message with the visiting (arch)bishop(s) regarding their efforts.
  • Nearly each country in the world has a conference of bishops. For example, the United States one is calles the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). It is the organized body of bishops for our country. They often make policy regarding issues specific to our people. They also help set appropriate liturgical standards for the country.


  • Priestsare essentially assistants to the (arch)diocesan bishop. They help the (arch)bishop by celebrating the rituals with all the people in the different parishes. Since many (arch)dioceses are too large for the (arch)bishop to conduct mass and other rituals for all the people he grants priests the authority to do so in his place. The bishop is considered the ordinary minister so the priests are granted permission by the bishop to perform a bishop’s duties in place of him.
    • Episcopal vicar is a priest who has the authority to act in place of the bishop. An episcopal vicar’s authority is defined by the bishop at the time of his appointment and can be limited to a geographic area of the diocese, a type of business, a group of the faithful, or otherwise as the bishop determines. There can be many episcopal vicars or none in a given (arch)diocese.
    • Vicar general is similar in office to an episcopal vicar. It is the highest office in a(n) (arch)diocese after the local ordinary (bishop). A vicar general is the priest who has the general power to act in place of the bishop throughout the diocese except in the areas which are reserved for the (arch)bishop alone as outlined by Canon Law. Each (arch)diocese is required to have 1 vicar general.
    • Monsignor is a special designation given to a priest of exemplary stature. In some countries this is how the lay people would refer to the bishop. Not really used anymore.
    • The pastor is a priest who promotes the spiritual welfare of the faithful by preaching, administering the sacraments, and exercising certain powers of supervision, giving precepts and imposing light corrections. These powers are rather paternal in nature (hence the title “father” as in father in faith, not supreme Father (God)). A pastor is also called a parish-priest when assigned to lead a group of the faithful in a parish.
    • An associate pastor is an assistant to the pastor and his responsibilities are given to him by the pastor of which he is an associate.
    • A diocesan priest is one that is ordained for the service of a particular (arch)diocese. He is subject to the authority of the local ordinary in all matters.
    • A religious order priestis one that belongs to a religious order. Religious orders vary, but in general work to serve a particular cause within the Church (or sometimes the world for those orders that are service or mission oriented). Some religious orders are the Franciscans, Benedictines, Claretians, Paulists, etc. They originated from the monastic movement in the early middle ages.
      • Some religious orders require their members to take additional vows to the normal priestly vows such as poverty or silence.
  • Laicization is, by etymology, making a person of ecclesial character into a lay person. Laity, meaning the ordinary non-ordained people of the Church, is derived from the Greek word meaning people. Laicization is also used to signify things that are under the control of public authority and no longer by the Church (such as many governments and institutions in Europe). A synonym for this definition is secularization.

Religious Communities

  • Religious communities are groups of lay and ordained people organized around a specific cause in the Church and often live together. There are male religious communities as well as female religious communities. There are religious orders for married people as well making co-ed religious orders.
  • These communities exist functioning to serve a particular cause within the Church. Some are devoted to service, others evangelization, while yet others are devoted to education.
  • Taking the vows of a religious community is not the same as being ordained. All people in a religious community that do not have the title of father or bishop are laity.
  • Male religious communities often contain priests and sometimes brothers. Brothers are men who have taken the vows of a religious order (most often include celibacy) and devote themselves to the cause of the order while not being ordained a priest.
  • Female religious orders do not contain priests so all members are called sisters. Sister function in the same way as brothers of male religious orders. Often the head of a religious community of women is called Mother (i.e. Mother Angelica of EWTN).


  • In general, the role of a deaconis to assist. They either assist the priest or the bishop. Deacons can conduct many of the rituals a priest can. The main exception is Mass. A deacon is not authorized to consecrate the Eucharist (and therefore celebrate Mass). There are 2 types of deacons: permanent and transitional.
    • A permanent deacon is a deacon who is married. In order to be a deacon and be married at the same time the deacon must have been married before entering the diaconate formation program. A permanent deacon can never
      be ordained a priest insofar as he is married. If his wife should die then he can be ordained.
    • A transitional deacon is one who is on his way to becoming a priest. He will not remain a deacon for long since he is pursuing the priesthood.

Professional Ministers

  • A professional ministeris a lay person who specializes in a particular area of ministry. The following are examples.
    • Youth Minister – one who coordinates ministry to youth. Often this person is responsible for coordinating activities and ministry opportunities for youth. Also this person might be responsible for coordinating religious education for their youth.
    • Director of Religious Education (DRE) – This person is in charge of the curriculum for the religious education programs in the parish. Also in charge of gathering catechists (teachers of the faith) for the religious education program.
    • Music minister – This person often coordinates the music at Mass and other worship events.
    • Social minister – This person coordinates social gatherings for the parish.
    • Pastoral minister – This person is one who is gifted at providing support to those who are troubled, seeking advice, need emotional support, etc. Often times professional ministers other than a pastoral minister are required to have some level of pastoral skills.
    • Hospitality ministers – these people take care of food and socializing activities after Mass. Another name
      is fellowship minister.
    • Family minister – offer support to families.

Volunteer Lay Ministers

  • Volunteer lay ministersare people that are not part of the professional paid staff of a parish but do work that is instrumental to the operation of a parish. Without them many of the things that happen in parish life would not be available.
    • Parish council members – these people give their input to the overall operation of the parish.
    • Finance council members – these people help plan the budget for the parish and make recommendations for the budget.
    • Choir – these people offer the gift of their lovely voices to lead the congregation in singing during Mass.
    • Eucharistic ministers – in many parishes it would take an hour to distribute communion if there was only one line so these people help distribute communion during Mass.
    • Lectors – another group of people using the gift of their voice to present to Word of God to us during Mass.
    • Presenters for the children’s liturgy of the Word – these people bring the young children of the parish to another room during the first half of Mass to help them understand the Scriptures in non-adult language.
    • Ushers – these people facilitate in taking the collection during mass as well as help people find a space to worship if they come in late or the church is crowded.
    • Liturgy committee – help with planning the various decorations for different liturgical seasons as well as make recommendations for worship.
    • Sacristans – a helper for the Mass who makes sure all the parts of the liturgy are coordinated including alter servers, lectors, Eucharistic ministers, that there are enough candles, the alter has been set up correctly, etc.
    • Nursery workers – watch very young children during Mass.
    • Outreach and social justice committee – these people help plan ways the parish can do social justice or reach out to those less fortunate.
    • Catechists – these people provide us with their gifts and talents to help teach religious education classes.

All Other Baptized Catholics

  • Everyone else that may not have a specific role in the Church has an opportunity to participate in those roles in one way or another. Helping with decorations, volunteering time to plan an event, etc.
  • All Baptized Catholics have the mission of sharing the Gospel with each person they encounter not only in word, but in deed.

16 thoughts on “Church Structural Roles”

  1. The ONLY “Eucharistic minister” is the priest. A lay person assisting with the distribution of the precious body and blood is called an “Extraordinary minister”.
    As it is supposed to be extraordinary conditions when they are to be used.
    The USCCB-
    In every celebration of the Eucharist, there should be a sufficient number of ministers of Holy Communion so that it may be distributed in a reverent and orderly manner. Bishops, priests and deacons distribute Holy Communion in virtue of their office as ordinary ministers of the Body and Blood of the Lord. (1) When the size of the congregation or the incapacity of the bishop, priest, or deacon requires it, the celebrant may be assisted by other bishops, priests, or deacons. If such ordinary ministers of Holy Communion are not present, “the priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist him, i.e., duly instituted acolytes or even other faithful who have been deputed for this purpose. In case of necessity, the priest may also depute suitable faithful for this single occasion (GIRM 162).”

  2. the structure of the church goes
    then us
    so is the laity the nuns and the monks ??

  3. Michael Mwetulundila

    I am a concerned Roman Catholic in Namibia under archdiocese of Windhoek. Last year I was refused permition to bury my son through the church reason being that he did not receive an eucharist. Is there a law in Roman Catholic church prohibits deceased kid to go in the church before burial ?

    1. No a nun cannot conduct a mass. Only a priest is allowed to conduct an entire mass because they are the only one’s who can consecrate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ in the Catholic church. There are Deacons who can do what is called a Communion Service which does not include the consecration (a certain part of the mass said only by priests), but could give Communion with bread and wine which is already consecrated by a priest. Also there are Eucaristic Ministers who go through training to serve Communion as helpers, per se, and they can be men or women who are practicing Catholics. Hope this answers your question. God bless us all.

  4. I offer my sympathy: what happened to you is clearly wrong. I also feel very sorry for the priest. He clearly has some serious problems. Possibly suffering from srcuples which can be very challenging for priests. It can be a psychological illness. He deserves our prayers; maybe particularly in this year of mercy.
    To put things in perspective: like us all, the priest is making his way to God. Like us all, he is not perfect. Like us all, he will one day have to face his maker and give account of his behaviour. Meanwhile, it is not for us to judge another’s conscience: we do not have a full understanding.

  5. In our place (Meghalaya, India), a Parish is made up of many villages and in every village there is one or two elder(s) of what we are calling Rangbah Balang. Where we can find these village elders in the teaching of the Catholic Church e.g. CCC or Canon Law etc.?

  6. Is there a general rule for lectors bowing during the Mass. I have always believed the lector bowed to altar during the entrance procession, then took his/her place on the altar. But, if a bishop is presiding the lector bows to him as he/she approaches the ambo for the first reading. and that is all. I have been at Masses where lectors bow every time they approach the ambo. I would appreciate some information.
    Thank you, Frances Rumpf

    1. Am a lector, so let me tell you what you do not understand… Firstly, at every mass Jesus is present at the tabernacle. So to show due respect when you are approaching the ambo, you must bow. You are bowing for Jesus not the Bishop neither the priest. Augusta

  7. Premalal Fernando

    I was born in a town named Moratuwa, 15 Kms to the South of Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. My family property I Moratuwa was divided among the 4 sons in the family, all of whom built their homes. My only son, at the age of 19 yrs. went to United States of America for higher studies, where he was qualified with two Batchlors degrees and was in Chicago for employment. After 11 yrs. in USA, he wanted to go to Melbourne, Australia to do his Masters Degree and he succeeded in reading two Masters Degrees.

    My son while in Melbourne, found his partner in life, a girl from a catholic family in Sri Lanka. They decided to get married with the blessings of parents from both sides. The couple in preparation for the wedding ceremony to be taken in Colombo, Sri Lanka followed the prekiana classes in Melbourne.

    They both came to Sri Lanka for the wedding ceremony arranged at St. Theres’s Church, Colombo 5, celebrated by the Arch Bishop in Colombo (2007) Oswald Gomis. However, it was necessary for the couple to obtain a certificate from their own parishes to be handed over to St. Threshes Church.

    When my son went to St. Sebastian’s Church, Moratuwa along with the letter obtained from the priest in Melbourne who conducted the prekiana classes, he was flatly refused the issue of a letter by the Parish Priest Fr. Emmanuel Fernando. The excuse of Fr. Emmanuel was that he does not know if my son is already married in Melbourne and also he cannot remember son’s parents seeing in Church. My son told him that he has no possibility of bringing any letter from Melbourne to prove his being unmarked and also said that his parents do not live in Moratuwa at that time but is living in Ratmalana, a town just 3 Kms away but also said that our house & family book in the church is still in Moratuwa. As proof, my said that he came to the church along with a relation living in the same lane where our home was, who is also doing lot of voluntary work in the Moratuwa Church and is well known to Fr. Emmanuel. None of these could satisfy this priest in issuing the certificate due to his arrogant determination in not issuing such a certificate for reasons better known to him.

    We contacted the priest at St Joseph’s Church, Ratmalana, who was very understanding and immediately issued the certificate.

    How can such a Priest working in such a high- handed manner could get appointed as a Deputy to the Arch Bishop in Colombo? I of course as a devoted catholic has absolutely no regard or respect to Fr. Emmanuel Fernando, who acted just like a street thug.

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