Saint Peter's Basillica

The Catholic church is the largest branch of Christendom. Over half of the world’s two billion Christians are Catholics. Some Catholics feel that Catholicism is the only branch of Christianity and other denominations chose to leave the flock. In some ways that is true as the history of Christianity is one of schisms. Over more than 1,500 years one by one different sects and denominations have broken away of the prevailing mainstream and Catholicism is what is left. The word Catholic means “universal.” It is derived from the Greek word “katholikos” or “kath-holou” (“according to all”). In the West, Catholic has come to mean “universal in the sense of geographical extension of the Church throughout the world.” In the East “Catholic” mean “integral” or “whole.”

The Catholic church is headquartered at the Vatican, a sovereign state in the middle of Rome. Peter Stanford wrote for the BBC: “The Catholic Church, based in Rome and headed by the Pope, is the oldest institution in the western world. It can trace its history back almost 2000 years. Catholics believe that the Pope, based in Rome, is the successor to Saint Peter whom Christ appointed as the first head of His church. He therefore stands in what Catholicism calls the apostolic succession, an unbroken line back to Peter and has supreme authority. Popes can speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals but in practice do so rarely.” [Source: Peter Stanford, BBC, June 29, 2011]

The Catholic Church stresses hierarchy, community and good works not individualism as is highlighted in Protestantism. The theology of the Catholic church is based in a large part on the ideas of the great 5th century Christian theologian St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas ((1224-74).

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity ; History of Christianity ; BBC on Christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible ; Christian Denominations: ; Christianity Comparison Charts ; Difference between Christian Denominations Quoracom ; Holy See ; Catholic Online ; Catholic Encyclopedia ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches ; Wikipedia article on Protestantism Wikipedia ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church ; Nihov's Worldwide Coptic Directory!

Books: “History of Christianity” by Owen Chadwick; “The Faith: A History of Christianity” by Brian Moynahan; “Anatomy of the Catholic Church” by Gerard Noel and Peter Stanford (Michael Russell, 1994); “An Intelligent Person's Guide to Catholicism” by Alban McCoy (Continuum, 2001); “A Concise History of the Catholic Church” by Thomas Bokenkotter (Doubleday, 1990); “Cardinal Hume and the Changing Face of English Catholicism” by Peter Stanford (Geoffrey Chapman, 1993) |


praying woman in Poland

The 1 billion or so members of the Catholic church make up nearly one sixth of humanity, approximately the same number as Muslims. Half the world's Catholic population lives in Latin America although significant populations of Catholic can be found in almost very country. The fastest rates of growth are among animists in Asia and Africa. Elsewhere, the Catholic church suffers from declining membership particularly in North America and Europe. Less men are entering the priesthood. Sexual abuse scandals have rocked the church in the U.S., Ireland, Canada and Britain. In Italy most practicing Catholics it often seems are old women.

Peter Stanford wrote for the BBC: “ Today there are more than a billion Catholics in the world, spread across all five continents with particular concentrations in southern Europe, the United States, the Philippines and the countries of Central and South America. What binds this diverse group of people together is their faith in Jesus Christ and their obedience to the papacy.” [Source: Peter Stanford, BBC, June 29, 2011 |::|]

“Catholics share with other Christians a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ, the son of God made man who came to earth to redeem humanity's sins through His death and resurrection. They follow His teachings as set out in the New Testament and place their trust in God's promise of eternal life with Him. Catholicism, however, is distinct from other Christian churches in both its organisation and its teaching.” |::|

Christian, Catholic and Protestant Numbers

A Pew Forum study in 2012 study estimated Christianity was the largest faith at 2.2 billion adherents or 31.5 percent of the world’s population, with Roman Catholics making up 50 percent of that total, Protestants — including Anglicans and non-denominational churches — at 37 percent and Orthodox at 12 percent. [Source: Tom Heneghan, Reuters, December 18, 2012]

A 2011 study by Washington-based Pew Research Center put the total number of Christians worldwide at 2.18 billion of the estimated global population of 6.9 billion. AFP reported: “Christians make up as big a proportion of the world's population as they did a century ago, but whereas two-thirds of them in 1910 were in Europe, they now are spread more widely throughout the world, the Pew Research Center said. [Source: AFP, December 20, 2011 =*=]

“The United States, Brazil and Mexico led the list of nations with the largest number of Christians, with Russia, the Philippines and Nigeria having the biggest numbers in Europe, Asia-Pacific and Africa respectively. "Christianity today -- unlike a century ago -- is truly a global faith," said the Pew Research Center in the executive summary of its report, "Global Christianity," produced by its Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life unit. =*=

“Half of all Christians are Catholics, while 36.7 percent are Protestant and 11.9 percent Orthodox, according to the study. Nearly 37 percent live in North and South America, and 26 percent in Europe, while 23.6 percent are in sub-Saharan Africa and 13.1 percent in Asia-Pacific. Just 0.6 percent are in the Middle East and North Africa. =*=

“The report's findings, posted on the Pew Research Center's website ( were primarily based on a country-by-country analysis of about 2,400 data sources, including censuses and population surveys. In a report at the start of this year, the center estimated the world's Muslim population at 1.6 billion -- a figure it said was projected to grow by about 35 percent to 2.2 billion by 2030.” =*=

Another Pew study showed Christianity is the most evenly spread religion, present in all regions of the world, while Hinduism is the least global with 94 percent of its population in one country, India. The study, based on extensive data for the year 2010, also showed Islam and Hinduism are the faiths mostly likely to expand in the future while Jews have the weakest growth prospects. [Source: Tom Heneghan, Reuters, December 18, 2012]

worldwide Christian denomination percentages

Catholic Church Structure and Organization

The church's organization chart goes on for 2000 pages. At the top of the pyramid are cardinals, bishops and the Curia Romana, the Vatican's legendary bureaucracy. The most important body within the Curia is the Secretary of State who is responsible for coordinating all of the Vatican's other bureaucracies and conducting the affairs of the Vatican with the outside world. Its principal is the cardinal secretary of state. In the 1980s Agostino Cardinal Casarol was often referred to as "the Vatican's Kissinger."

Large areas with Catholic populations are divided into dioceses. Each diocese has a bishop and usually at least one assistant bishop. Each diocese also has a cathedral which is the 'seat' of the bishop. Sometimes diocese are grouped together under the leadership of an archbishop.

The parish is the heart of the church system. Each parish is overseen by a parish priest, usually called a vicar or rector. Sometimes they are assisted by a curate or deacon or parish worker. The latter is a lay post. Each parish church is run by the priest in collaboration with a parochial church council. The bishop appoints the priest.

There are thousands of bishops, tens of thousands of priests and million of ordinary Catholic. A cathedral by definition is the home of a bishop. Peter Stanford wrote for the BBC: “The hierarchical nature of Catholicism sets it apart from other Christian churches. It is a pyramid with the Pope at the top, followed by cardinals (who have the right to elect a new Pope on the death of the current incumbent), archbishops, bishops, priests, deacons and laity. [Source: Peter Stanford, BBC, June 29, 2011 |::|]

“Traditionally clerics were seen as having a higher calling than the laity but, since the landmark Second Vatican Council, both laity and clergy have been regarded as jointly 'the people of God'. That same reforming council stressed the need for popes and bishops to consult widely before pronouncing on matters of faith, but in practice they retain the unfettered power to teach on such questions. All major decisions rest with the Pope and his advisors. |::|

Catholic Church structure


Priests are men who have been ordained (officially designated) by the Catholic church to carry out the holy sacraments such as baptism and communion. Monsignor is the official title of a priest. It is s derived from “monseigneur”, the French word for "my lord." During their ordination priests receive and stole and chasuble as well as bread and wine for mass.

Originally priests were set up to be assistants to the bishops to administer the Eucharist acting in “persoana Christ” (“in the person of Christ”). An official who becomes a priest must be ordained by a bishop. Ordination allows the priest to consecrate the bread and wine for the Eucharist. Members of the clergy are often invited to family affairs. There is currently a shortage of priests.

Peter Stanford wrote for the BBC: “The Catholic Church ordains only celibate men to the priesthood since Jesus was, it teaches, male and celibate. In the Protestant churches married and female clergy are the norm. Orthodoxy allows married men to become priests but not bishops. [Source: Peter Stanford, BBC, June 29, 2011 |::|]

Canonical hours are fixed forms of prayer that Catholic priests are required to recite everyday and consist of vigils (late night) matins and lauds (before sunrise), prime (at sunrise), tierce (morning), sext (noon time), none (afternoon), vespers (evening), and compline (night). These prayers are delivered as chants such as Gregorian chats.

Ordination: the 5th Sacrament

Ordination in the Catholic church is a special ceremony in which bishops, priests, deacons and other clergy take the Holy Orders (special vows) and are officially designated to do the work of the church. It is regarded by Catholics and some other Christians a sacrament. Holy Orders are conferred by the laying of hands on the head of the ordained and then by the prayer of ordination. During the ordination of new priests, ordained priests must lay their hands on the new candidate. Anointment to the heads of bishops and to the hands of priests are complementary rituals.

An official who becomes a priest must be ordained by a bishop. Ordination allows the priest to consecrate the bread and wine for the Eucharist. According to Catholic teaching only a bishop in the Apostolic succession has the right to ordain priests and deacons through the laying of hands, while for Protestants all the is needed is an inner calling and training and the determination and dedication necessary to become a priest. The laying of hands by other minister is mostly symbolic.

Priests, Bishops and Cardinals

Catholic priest

The scriptural basis for priests, bishops, cardinals and the Pope is the appearance of Christ to apostles after the Resurrection and the mandate order to go forth and convert the unconverted and spread witness to humanity. As the leader of the apostles, St. Peter, was the cental figure in all this. Priests, bishops, cardinals and the Pope are also seen as successors of St. Peter and the Apostles, chosen by the laying on of hands, and serving a representatives of the Holy Spirit.

Priests and bishops preside over the faithful at their churches and dioceses (regions with many churches). Bishops are also assisted by deacons (from the Greek word “diakonos”, “servant), who perform certain sacramental ‘services. The diaconate (being a deacon) had long been seen as preparation for the priesthood and has, since the Second Vatican in the 1960s, became a permanent order again.

The Bishop of Rome—the Pope or “Servant of Servants of God”—is regarded as St. Peter’s successor. Bishops are his subordinates. Bishops, priests and deacons represent the three levels of the sacrament of Holy orders.

Priest Clothes

When officiating over ceremonies, priests are required to their vestments (special religious clothes which includes a stole (long rectangular garmet) and chausuble (robe). When they are not wearing these their official dress is 1) a soutane (an ankle-length garment with long sleeves) tightened around the waist with a belt, or 2) since 1963, what is called the “clergyman,” a black or grey suit with a small cross on the lapel over a dark shirt decked with a white dog-collar. The soutane is also worn as an undergarment for vestments.

The dog collar lies at the top of a shirt called a neckband shirt which has no collar just a thin band of cloth around the neck. This shirt has a flap of cloth that covers the buttons on the front of the shirt. At the top, where you expect to find one button, there are two buttonholes that line up. There is an additional button hole at the back of the neck. The wearer puts on the shirt and then sticks a collar stud through the buttonhole in the back of the neckband, then another collar stud through the buttonholes in the front to fasten the two ends of the neck band together under the throat. The white plastic collar has three small hole in it; one in the middle and one at each end. The wearer slips the collar over the collar stud in front, then wraps the two ends around the back and slips them over the collar stud in the back. The end effect is a circular collar that goes completely around the neck.

Vestments: Ceremonial Clothes of Priests

clothes of a priest

Vestments are the ceremonial clothes worn by priests when officiating over services. The color depends on the event it is worn at. Green is often worn in everyday use. White is for joyful occasions such as Christmas and Easter as well as festivals for saints other than martyrs. Purple is worn at mournful occasions such as Good Friday and Lent. Red s for Good Friday, Pentacost and the festivals of martyrs.

Pectoral crosses are large crosses worn around the neck by clerics in the front of the chest (hence pectoral, for chest). They are large and meant to be seen from a distance. They are worn over vestments during religious ceremonies but are too large and cumbersome to be worn on the streets.

The alb (from Latin “alba”, white) is a white robe with long sleeves, which covers the entire body, and is gathered at the waist by a cord. It is the basic garment of all those who take part in liturgical ceremonies: bishops, priests, deacons, acolytes (servers) and electors.

The stole (from Latin “stola”, “long robes”) is worn over the alb. It is the minimum that ordained priests can wear as vestments. It consists of a long strip of cloth made up of two equal bands. Bishops and priests wear it around their necks and the two bands hang down in front parallel to each other. During their ordination priests receive and stole and chasuble as well as bread and wine for mass.

The chasuble (from Latin “casula”, “small house”) is a capacious upper vestment, put over the head like a poncho. It completely envelops the wearer and protects him like a small house, or tent. It is the vestment that a priest or bishop wears when celebrating mass. By wearing a chasuble they “put on” the presence of Christ to act in his place during the Eucharistic sacrifice.

The cape (from Latin “cappa”, “hooded cloak”) is a long ceremonial cloak that covers the entire body. The cape consists of a semi-circular piece of cloth, with its two folds held together at the front by hooks and eyes. The cape is worn during solemn events outside mass.

Priests, Celibacy and Marriage

Priests reportedly are men and celibate because Jesus's apostles were men and reportedly celibate. However there is a reference in the Gospel Matthew to Peter having a mother-in-law, which implies he had a wife. Many scholars believe that Paul, who encouraged Christians to be celibate, had a wife that he divorced before his conversion at the age of 40.

In A.D. 306 the regional Council of Elvira in Spain decreed that all priests and bishops, married or not, should be celibate. The Qunisext Council in 692 highlighted the split between Eastern and Western churches and concluded only bishops need to abstain from sex. The second Latheran Council in 1139 abolished clerical marriage and established the Roman Catholic church’s official position on celibacy. Throughout history there have been many example of priests and popes giving in to the temptations of the flesh. In 1525 Reformation leader Martin Luther renounced his celibacy vow, and married an ex-nun.

Celibacy is said to have it roots in the belief that abstaining from sex was en expression of commitment to church and worries that offspring might try to claim church property. Some historians have suggested that the Catholic Church insisted that priests be celibate to remove the temptation of seeking favors for their families. The method didn't always work: the word "nepotism" is derived from "nephews," who priests favored instead.

Up until the 12th century clergy often married and monasteries were often full of families not single men. In 1724, the Vatican banned the confessional requirement of naming names of adultery partners because priests were seeking out the partners. Many surveys have shown that the majority of Catholics believe that it is okay for bishops and priests to get married.

At the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s hopes were raised that celibacy requirements would be dropped but that didn’t happen after the conservative Pope Paul VI was elected. Since the Second Vatican Council seminary membership has dropped 75 percent. In the United States there are an estimated 25,000 former priests alive today that are married.

In May 2001, a big deal was made when Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo from Zambia broke his vows to marry a Korean woman, Maria Sung, in a mass wedding arranged by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and then after several weeks left his wife, renounced his marriage on television, and reconciled with the church. Sung them staged a hunger strike outside St. Peter’s basilica in an effort to get her husband back. She claimed he was bing held prisoner and was drugged. A year earlier Milingo had been forced out of a Vatican position over controversies relating to exorcisms and healings he did in Zambia and Italy

Clergymen, who have girlfriends, who are gay or have more serious problems related to sexuality, are sometimes sent to correction centers like Our Lady of Victory in Gloucestershire in England. Clergymen who have spent time in the facility described their treatment as a "gross invasion of privacy" and an "oppressive, claustrophobic" experience and "absolute hell." The clergymen are subjected to long psychological interrogations and curtailments of freedom for between in one week or several months.

Bishops and Archbishops


Bishops are powerful priests who have the authority to ordain or confirm and oversee churches within a certain area, called a diocese, with many churches. Bishops are responsible for the unity, order and faith of their diocese. They are usually based in a church or cathedral in the principal city of a diocese. The cathedral chapter consists of members of the clergy called “canons” who assist the bishop. An archbishop is a an important bishop that presides over bishops. The clothes and vestments are essentially the same as bishops.

In each diocese, the bishop fulfills the role of pastor, priest and doctor as is regarded as a participant in Jesus Christ’s own ministry. From the earliest days of the church, bishops have been assisted by priests , who the bishops ordains and share in the bishops’ ministry.

The pontifical insignias of a bishops are a miter (the tall liturgical head covering also worn by the pope) and crook (a long staff with a curl at the top). In the Catholic church, the bishop’s color is violet. They wear a violet soutane, cape and calotte. They also wear a ring that symbolizes their marriage to the church (they constitute the sacrament of “Christ the Bridegroom”). Their pectoral cross hangs from a green cord (violet during Advent and Lent).


Cardinals are technically parish pastors in Rome and occupy the position in the church hierarchy between the Pope and archbishops. Their name is derived from “cardines”, the different quarters of Rome. But today the name is linked to the crimson color of their garments: mozzetta (capes), cassocks, and silk biretta (a type of square cap) . Pope John Paul II once said the color represents "the dignity of the office of cardinal, signifying you are ready to act with fortitude, even to the point of spilling your blood." Cardinals also wear a sash and a ring on their finger. Their pectoral cross hangs from a red chord.

Cardinal Jean de Marie Abboud

Cardinals belong to the College of Cardinals, a kind of pontifical senate. In February 2001, the Pope expanded the College of Cardinals from 167 to a record 184 cardinals. Of these 135 were eligible to vote for the next Pope and 41 percent were from non-Western countries. The others were over 80 and could not participate in the selection of the new pope.

Pope John Paul II has made an effort to internationalize the College of Cardinals. As of 1996, there were cardinal from 62 nations. Of these 55 cardinal electors were from Europe, 33 from the Americas, 15 from Africa, 14 from Asia, 3 from the Central and South Pacific.

Peter Stanford wrote for the BBC: “Great emphasis is placed on the ascetic tradition of religious life as either separation from worldly concerns or, in the words of Pope John Paul II (1978 - 2005) as 'a sign of contradiction' in contemporary culture. Catholicism retains from earliest times a strong sense of sin and correspondingly of God's redeeming love. [Source: Peter Stanford, BBC, June 29, 2011 |::|]

Jesuits and St. Ignatius Loyola

The Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) is a male order of the Catholic Church, with 19,000 members worldwide. Traditionally representing the militant side of Christianity, it was established in 16th Century Europe as a missionary order, with members making vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but going about their duties in a disciplined, militaristic way. The Jesuits played a major role in the Counter-Reformation and Christianizing Latin America and educating the European aristocracy. The order became so powerful that it was suppressed at the end of the 18th Century but later restored. Jesuits have a reputation for being expert communicators and spreading the word of God through beauty and art. Jesuits undergo as much as 12 years of training. In recent decades the order has been perceived as becoming too liberal.

The Jesuits were founded by St. Ignatius Loyola (1491?-1556), who regarded himself as a “knight of the virgin." Born Ifigo de Onez y Loyola in the castle of Loyola near Azpeteita in Guipuzcoa in northern Spain, he was the youngest of 11 children born into an ancient noble family. He received little formal education and was trained as soldier. He spent the early part of his life pursuing worldly concerns. His passions were games and military matters.

Saint Ignatius Loyola

In 1521, during the siege of Pampeluna, Ignatius broke his leg, ending his military career. While recovering there was little he could do other than read. He read “The Lives of the Saints” and was deeply impacted by it.. After finished the book he vowed to change his ways and devote his life to God. In 522 he went to Our Lady Shrine in Montserrat and prayed and did penance in a cave near Manresa. He gave away all his worldly clothes; dressed in pilgrims dress of sackcloth and hempen shoes and spent seven hours a day in prayer.

Ignatius went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem but was not allowed to stay. He returned to Spain, now age 32, and began studying. During that time he was suspected of heresy and imprisoned by the Inquisition for teaching before he completed his prescribed studies. During that time he conceived his idea of the Jesuits—a group of priests, spiritually drilled and disciplined like a military unit—to battle heresy and do missionary work in heathen countries. The members, he thought, should take their monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but wear no distinctive dress and not by tied down by monastic rules.

In 1534 St. Ignatius Loyola and six companions founded a groups that would become the Jesuits. In 1540, the Society of Jesus was sanctioned by the Pope and Ignatius was named the first “general.” After that Ignatius devised the constitution for the organization and developed a strategy for the Counter Reformation, in which the Roman Catholic Church won back half the land it lost through Martin Luther’s revolt (The Reformation). St. Ignatius was canonized in 1628.

Book: “The First Jesuits” by John W. O'Malley.

Roman Catholicism Passed by by the Modern World?

The world seems to be passing the Catholic Church by. Defying calls by the Vatican to do otherwise, the majority of Catholics in Catholic countries use some form of contraception. Predominately Catholic Italy and Spain have among the lowest birth rates in the world. Many young people are losing their connection with Catholicism. Many don’t know how to use a rosary or properly say a Hail Mary.


Many people believe the time has come for the Catholic Church to get real about issues like overpopulation and women's rights. In the 1990s, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, and from Barcelona, once said the Olympic Games were "more important that the Catholic religion." The Italian Soccer Federation more or less told the Vatican to get lost when it asked the league to stop league matches on Sunday. The Irish legalized divorce. German Catholics have called for ordination of women.

Church attendance has been declining for some time, especially in Europe and North America. According to a survey in the late 1990s, only 17 percent of Catholics in Austria and 28 percent of the Catholics in Rome attend Mass. In the United States only a third of Catholics attend Mass weekly. In Latin America the figure is only 6 to 10 percent. This is arguable due to lack of interest and a shortage of priests.

In 1998, the Vatican issued an apostolic letter urging Catholics t improve Mass attendance and make weekend leisure pursuits secondary to obligatory worship. The letter reminded Catholics that its is :grave sin: to skip Sunday Mass without a good reason. It mostly fell on deaf ears.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; “ Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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