The Roman Catholic ChurchWith 970 million followers, the Roman Catholic Church is largest denomination within Christianity. The main distinguishing feature of Roman Catholicism is the allegiance of all Catholics to the Bishop of Rome, more normally referred to as the Pope. The Pope makes his residence in Vatican City, Rome (hence the term Roman Catholic). He, according to Catholic belief, holds an office that claim an unbroken line of succession from St. Peter, the chief apostle of Jesus. The present pope, John Paul II is the 264th pope in this succession.
The Roman Catholic Church is a vast organized hierarchy. With the pope at its helm, the hierarchy consist of cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests. Cardinals, who are appointed by the pope, act as his immediate counsellors. They are also the administrators of the church. Should the position of the pope be temporary vacant, the cardinals will take over the government of the church until a new pope can be elected. And since the year 1179 the right of electing a new pope has been reserved exclusively for the cardinals. The next down the ranks are archbishops and bishops. They administer the ecclesiastical districts called archdioceses and dioceses. These districts are further subdivided into parishes. These are administered by parish priests. A single catholic church together with the congregations that come to pray in it constitute a parish. Thus a small town may only be a single parish, while a large city can consist of many parishes.
Apart from this vertical line of command, the church also has special societies for priests, monks and nuns. Some of the more well known societies for priests include the Jesuits, famed as the intellectual and missionary arm of the church and the Redemptorists, who are well known for their work among the poor. Among monks there are the Dominicans and Franciscans. The Dominican monks, so-called because of their founder St. Dominic (1170-1221), are specifically devoted to prayer and study. The Franciscans, named after its founder St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) - apart from practicing the normal prayer and study typical to monasticism - has the distinguishing feature of its insistence on complete poverty. This poverty applies not only to the individual monks but also to the whole Franciscan order.The nuns also have similar orders as the monks.
The religious life of lay Catholics consist of attendance of the organized weekly worship, called the mass, and the fulfilling of the "sacraments". The worship is normally administered by the parish priests. Nowadays Mass is said in the language of the people. Before the Second Vatican Council (1965), Latin was the language used for worship throughout the Catholic world. A typical mass would include congregational prayers, singing of hymns and the reception of the “holy communion” (see below). The elaborately dressed priest is the chief celebrant of the mass and leads the believers in the worship. Typical accessories of the mass would include holy water, candles, incense and the wafer and wine (for holy communion).
The sacraments, which are religious rites of passage, are administered both by priests and bishops. Receiving the sacraments are supposed to administer grace and blessing for the believers. For the uninitiated, the sacraments can be understood as a way of accumulating "points" for the believer to qualify for heavenly bliss in the afterlife. The Catholic Church has seven such sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, Penance, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony and Holy Orders. Baptism is the sacrament that constitutes the initiation of a believer into the Church. This involve the sprinkling of water by the priest over the head of the initiate. Holy Communion is the eating of the bread which, according to Catholic belief, is actually transformed into the body of Jesus. This process of transformation even has a name: transubstantiation. This transformation can only by brought about by members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Penance is the sacrament that involves the confessing of one's sins to the priest. After this confession the priest will absolve, i.e. forgive, the sins of the penitent. But this absolution is conditional. Before absolution, the penitent is required to either perform some "good works" or say a few prayers. While the first three sacrament we looked at can be performed by a priest, the fourth sacrament, Confirmation, needs the presence of a bishop. Confirmation involves a renewal of the baptismal vows of adolescents and is initiated by the laying of the bishop's hands on the candidates. Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament for those who are seriously ill-who may or may not be dying. This involves the prayer and laying of hands on the person by the priest. After this the person is anointed with oil on the forehead and hands.14  Matrimony is the sacrament of marriage. The seventh sacrament, Holy Orders, is the ordination into the ministry, such as priests and deacons. The Catholic clergy is not allowed to get married. Hence Holy Orders is taken at the expense of Matrimony and vice versa. The Catholic Church also encourages the veneration of the saints. The special position of Mary in the hierarchy of the saints forms a very large part in Catholic worship.
In this website we also take a close look at some issues specific to Roman Catholicism:
References1 Hoffman, The World's Almanac: p610
2 Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p90
3 Summerscale, The Penguin Encyclopedia: p513
4 Livingstone,Dictionary of the Christian Church: p158
5 ibid: p200
6 Summerscale, The Penguin Encyclopedia: p522
7 Rosenbaum, The Desk Concord Encyclopedia: p128
8 Summerscale, The Penguin Encyclopedia: p289
9 ibid: p142
10 Rosenbaum, The Desk Concord Encyclopedia: p315
11 Livingstone,Dictionary of the Christian Church: p526
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