top of page

Catholic Glossary


The Catholic Church has been around for a long time, and, over the course of its 2000-year history, we have developed some pretty distinctive terminology. If you are wondering about the meaning of some of the words that we use on our parish website or that you have heard at Mass or in conversation, please consult our handy "Catholic glossary" below. (Many of the definitions come from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.) If you have any questions about the terms that appear here (or any that don't), please contact the parish office at (301) 373-2281.




Advent - the four-week liturgical season following the Feast of Christ the King and preceding Christmas, which is devoted to preparing for the coming of Christ through prayer and penance


Agnus Dei (pron. AH-nyoos DEH-ee) - "lamb of God;" this is the Latin name for the "Lamb of God" prayer we recite before receiving HOLY COMMUNION at MASS


Annunciation - the angel Gabriel's visit to Mary to obtain her consent to God's plan that she become the mother of the Savior Jesus Christ; after giving her consent, Mary became the mother of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit (Lk 1: 35); the Feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on March 25th, 9 months prior to Christmas


Apologetics - the area of Christian theology and thought dedicated to "giving a defense" of the faith (apologia was the ancient Greek word for a defendant's speech in court)


Apostolic Succession - "the handing on of apostolic preaching and authority from the Apostles to their successors, the BISHOPs, through the laying on of hands" (CCC Glossary)


Ascension - "The entry of Jesus' humanity into divine glory in God's HEAVENly domain forty days after his RESURRECTION" (CCC Glossary); the Feast of the Ascension is celebrated about six weeks, i.e. 40 days, after Easter


Assumption - "The dogma which recognizes the Blessed Virgin Mary's singular participation in her Son's RESURRECTION, by which she was taken up body and soul into HEAVENly glory when the course of her earthly life was finished" (CCC Glossary); the Feast of the Assumption is celebrated on August 15th


Bishop - "one who has received the fullness of the SACRAMENT of Holy Orders, which makes him a member of the episcopal college and a successor to the Apostles; he is the shepherd of a particular church entrusted to him;" (CCC Glossary) from the Greek word episkopos, meaning "overseer"


Blessed Sacrament - "a name given to the Holy EUCHARIST, especially the CONSECRATED elements reserved in the tabernacle for adoration or for the sick" (CCC Glossary)


Canon Law - "the rules (canons or laws) which provide the norms for good order in the visible society of the Church" (CCC Glossary)


Canonization - "the solemn declaration by the POPE that a deceased member of the faithful may be proposed as a model and intercessor to the Christian faithful and venerated as a SAINT on the basis of the fact that the person lived a life of heroic VIRTUE or remained faithful to God through MARTYRdom" (CCC Glossary)


Catechesis - instruction in the CATHOLIC faith (from the ancient Greek word for "teaching") oriented toward making the student a disciple of Jesus Christ


Catechism - a compendium (or summary) of Catholic DOCTRINE intended for popular use and/or use in CATECHESIS


Catholic - from the Greek word meaning katholikos, meaning "universal," this is one of the four marks of the Church found in the Nicene Creed; this mark indicates that the Church "possesses the fullness of Christ's presence and the means of SALVATION, and... has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race" (CCC Glossary); as a name for the universal Christian Church founded by Christ (as opposed to the heretical sects which dissented therefrom), it has been used since at least the early 2nd century, when St. Ignatius used the term in his letters


Celibacy - "the state or condition of those who have chosen to remain unmarried for the sake of the kingdom of HEAVEN in order to give themselves entirely to God and to the service of his people" (CCC Glossary)


Charism - "a specific gift or grace of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefits the Church" (CCC Glossary)


Church Fathers - "Church teachers and writers of the early centuries whose teachings are a witness to the TRADITION of the Church" (CCC Glossary); such as St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. before 117 AD), St. Justin Martyr (d. ca. 165 AD), Tertullian (d. ca. 250 AD), St. Athanasius (d. 373 AD), St. Ambrose (d. 397 AD), and St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430 AD)


Communion - "our fellowship and union with Jesus and other baptized Christians in the Church, which has its source and summit in the celebration of the EUCHARIST" (CCC Glossary)


Communion of Saints - "the unity in Christ of all the redeemed, those on earth and those who have died" (CCC Glossary)


Conscience - "the interior voice of a human being, within whose heart the inner law of God is inscribed; moral conscience is a judgment of practical reason about the moral quality of a human action; it moves a person at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil" (CCC Glossary)


Consecrated Life - "a permanent state of life recognized by the Church, entered freely in response to the call of Christ to perfection, and characterized by the profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience" (CCC Glossary); also sometimes called religious life


Consecration - "the dedication of a thing or person to divine service by a prayer or blessing; the CONSECRATION at MASS is that part of the EUCHARISTic Prayer during which the Lord's words of institution of the EUCHARIST at the Last Supper are recited by the PRIESTly minister, making Christ's Body and Blood - his sacrifice offered on the cross once for all - SACRAMENTally present under the species of bread and wine" (CCC Glossary)


Consubstantiation - the heretical doctrine that the Body and Blood of Christ coexist with the substance of bread and wine in the EUCHARIST; it has been condemned by numerous Church councils, including the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the Council of Trent (1551)


Deacon - "a third degree of the hierarchy of Holy Orders, after BISHOP and PRIEST; the DEACON is ordained not to PRIESThood but for MINISTRY and service" (CCC Glossary)


Diocese - "a 'particular church,' a community of the faithful in COMMUNION of faith and SACRAMENTs whose BISHOP has been ordained in APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION; a DIOCESE is usually a determined geographic area" (CCC Glossary)


Doctrine - taken in the sense of "the act of teaching" and "the knowledge imparted by teaching", this term is synonymous with CATECHESIS and CATECHISM


Dogma - a truth having to do with Christian faith or morals which is revealed by God, transmitted from the Apostles in the Scriptures or by TRADITION, and proposed by the Church for the acceptance of the faithful; "the faithful are obliged to believe the dogmas contained in divine REVELATION and defined by the MAGISTERIUM" (CCC Glossary)


Epiphany - a feast traditionally celebrated on Jan. 6th, now often transferred to the Sunday between Jan. 2nd and Jan. 8th, which celebrates Jesus' manifestation to the world as the Son of God and Savior; it commemorates the adoration of Jesus by the Magi, his baptism by John the Baptist, and his miracle at the wedding feast of Cana


Eucharist - "the ritual, SACRAMENTal action of thanksgiving to God which constitutes the principal Christian liturgical celebration of and COMMUNION in the paschal mystery of Christ; the liturgical action called the Eucharist is also traditionally known as the Holy Sacrifice of the MASS; it is one of the seven SACRAMENTs of the Church" (CCC Glossary)


Evangelization - "the proclamation of Christ and his Gospel by word and the testimony of life, in fulfillment of Christ's command" (CCC Glossary); from the Greek word euangelion, "good news"


Excommunication - "a severe ecclesiastical penalty, resulting from grave crimes against the Catholic religion, imposed by ecclesiastical authority or incurred as a direct result of the commission of an offense; excommunication excludes the offender from taking part in the EUCHARIST or other SACRAMENTs and from the exercise of any ecclesiastical office, MINISTRY, or function" (CCC Glossary)


Fasting - "refraining from food and drink as an expression of interior penance, in imitation of the fast of Jesus for forty days in the desert; fasting is an ascetical practice recommended in Scripture (cf. Esth 4: 16; 2 Sam 12: 16; Jon 3: 5; Lk 5: 33-35) and the writings of the CHURCH FATHERS; it is sometimes prescribed by a PRECEPT OF THE CHURCH, especially during the liturgical season of LENT" (CCC Glossary); when fasting, one is permitted to take water, one small meal, and up to two smaller meals that together do not equal or exceed the one small meal, as needed to preserve one's strength


Feast Days - "the annual cycle of liturgical celebrations commemorating the saving mysteries of Christ's life... feast days commemorating Mary, the Mother of God, and the saints are also celebrated, providing the faithful with examples of those who have been glorified with Christ" (CCC Glossary)


Form - in Greek philosophy, this referred to the immaterial quality by which a material thing is recognized as being what it is, or as that which gives matter its recognizable shape; in reference to the SACRAMENTs, the form is said to be the characteristic words or prayer which effect the SACRAMENT


Genuflect - from Latin, lit. "bend the knee;" to show reverence for the BLESSED SACRAMENT, one genuflects on the right knee (that is, the right knee touches the ground) when passing in front of the TABERNACLE and when entering or exiting one's pew


Godparent - a sponsor for a person who is baptized, the godparent assumes the responsibility of helping and guiding the baptized child or adult in the Christian way of life


Gospel - "the 'good news' of God's mercy and love revealed in the life, death, and RESURRECTION of Christ" (CCC Glossary)


Grace - "the free and undeserved gift that God gives us to respond to our VOCATION to become his adopted children" (CCC Glossary)


Heaven - "eternal life with God; COMMUNION of life and love with the Trinity and all the blessed" (CCC Glossary)


Hell - "the state of definitive self-exclusion from COMMUNION with God and the blessed, reserved for those who refuse by their own free choice to believe and be converted from SIN, even to the end of their lives" (CCC Glossary)


Heresy - "the obstinate denial after Baptism of a truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith" (CCC Glossary)


Hierarchy - "the Apostles and their successors, the college of BISHOPs, to whom Christ gave the authority to teach, sanctify, and rule the Church in his name" (CCC Glossary)


Holy Communion - the reception of Jesus Christ in the SACRAMENT of the Holy EUCHARIST


Holy Day of Obligation - important feast day on which the CATHOLIC faithful are obliged by a PRECEPT OF THE CHURCH to attend MASS; intentionally not to attend MASS on a Holy Day of Obligation is a MORTAL SIN


Holy See - "the seat of the central administration of the worldwide CATHOLIC Church; the name is taken from the seat or DIOCESE of the POPE, BISHOP of Rome and successor of St. Peter as Vicar of Christ and PASTOR of the universal Church" (CCC Glossary)


Holy Week - the week of the Church year which begins with Palm (Passion) Sunday and ends with Easter Sunday, and which includes Holy Thursday and Good Friday


Homily - "preaching by an ordained MINISTER to explain the Scriptures proclaimed in the LITURGY and to exhort the people to accept them as the Word of God" (CCC Glossary)


Illicit - "That which is unlawful, or contrary to established prescriptions, but not necessarily invalid" (Fr. John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary)


Immaculate Conception - "the DOGMA proclaimed in Christian TRADITION and defined in 1854, that from the first moment of her conception, Mary - by the singular grace of God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ - was preserved immune from ORIGINAL SIN" (CCC Glossary); the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated on Dec. 8th and is a HOLY DAY OF OBLIGATION


Indulgence - "the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to SIN whose guilt has already been forgiven... an indulgence is partial if it removes part of the temporal punishment due to SIN, or plenary if it removes all punishment" (CCC Glossary)


Infallibility - "the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church whereby the PASTORs of the Church, the POPE and BISHOPs in union with him, can definitively proclaim a DOCTRINE of faith or morals for the belief of the faithful; this gift is related to the inability of the whole body of the faithful to err in matters of faith and morals" (CCC Glossary)


Intercession - a prayer of petition which is offered on someone else's behalf


Intinction - dipping a CONSECRATED host into CONSECRATED wine; this is a valid way to receive the EUCHARIST, however, the intinction must be performed by a PRIEST, BISHOP, or Extraordinary minister of Holy Communion - the lay faithful are not permitted to self-communicate by intinction (i.e., dip the host into the CONSECRATED wine themselves)


Invalid - "null and void, ineffective; applied to the SACRAMENTs, it means that something essential was missing so that a SACRAMENT was not actually administered or conferred" (Fr. John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary)


Kerygma - the initial and essential proclamation of the GOSPEL and the heart of the Good News


Kyrie - the Greek word for "Lord"; also the Greek name for the "Lord, have mercy" prayer said during the Penitential Rite near the beginning of MASS


Laity - the faithful who are incorporated into Christ's body, the Church, through baptism and who are distinguished from clergy and those in CONSECRATED LIFE


Latin Rite - "the traditions of LITURGY, laws, and practice in the Church in the West, as distinct from the RITEs and practices of the churches of the East" (CCC Glossary)


Lent - the liturgical season devoted to prayer and penance which begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with the Easter TRIDUUM


Licit - in accordance with the established laws and prescriptions


Liturgical Year - "the celebration throughout the year of the mysteries of the Lord's birth, life, death, and RESURRECTION in such a way that the entire year becomes a 'year of the Lord's grace;' thus the cycle of the liturgical year and the great feasts constitute the basic rhythm of the Christian's life of prayer, with its focal point at Easter" (CCC Glossary)


Liturgy - from Greek leitourgos, lit. "public work"; in present day usage, liturgy is the official public worship of the Church and is thus distinguished from private devotion; it is the special title of the EUCHARIST, and the administration of the SACRAMENTs with the annexed use of the SACRAMENTALs (Fr. John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary)


Magisterium - "the living, teaching office of the Church, whose task it is to give as authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its wrtten form (Sacred Scripture), or in the form of TRADITION; the Magisterium ensures the Church's fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles in matters of faith and morals" (CCC Glossary)


Martyr - one who witnesses to the truth of the faith even to the point of choosing to die rather than renounce it


Mass - "the EUCHARIST or principal SACRAMENTal celebration of the Church, established by Jesus at the Last Supper, in which the mystery of our SALVATION through participation in the sacrificial death and glorious RESURRECTION of Christ is renewed and accomplished" (CCC Glossary)


Matter - in Greek philosophy, this term denoted the "stuff" that a body is made out of, and which could be measured in time and space; in reference to the SACRAMENTs, it indicates "that part of a SACRAMENT with which or to which something is done in order to confer grace, e.g., water in baptism, chrism in confirmation, bread and wine in the EUCHARIST" (Fr. John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary)


Ministry - "the service or work of sanctification performed by the preaching of the word and the celebration of the SACRAMENTs by those in Holy Orders, or in determined circumstances, by laity" (CCC Glossary)


Mortal Sin - a SIN involving serious or grave matter, committed with full knowledge of the evil of the act and deliberate consent of the will, which destroys the divine life of charity in the soul and constitutes a turning away from God


Mystagogy - liturgical CATECHESIS which follows a person's reception into the Church through baptism


Original Sin - the lack of sanctifying GRACE and preternatural gifts (immunity from sickness, eternal life, etc.) in the human soul which is the effect of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, when they disobeyed God's command and ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree


Orthodox Churches - the Eastern Churches which are, as yet, not in full COMMUNION with the Catholic Church due to the Eastern Schism of 1054 AD


Papacy - "the supreme jurisdiction and MINISTRY of the pope as shepherd of the whole Church" (CCC Glossary)


Parish - "a stable community of the faithful within a particular church or DIOCESE, whose pastoral care is confided by the BISHOP to a PRIEST as PASTOR" (CCC Glossary)


Passion - Jesus' suffering and death, which began on the Mount of Olives following the Last Supper (Holy Thursday) and concluded with his death on the cross around 3 o'clock in the afternoon the following day (Good Friday)


Pastor - from Latin, "shepherd," this refers to the office of shepherding and guiding the faithful in the name of Christ, an office exercised by the POPE and the BISHOPs and shared with those PRIESTs who serve as PASTORs of PARISHes


Pentecost - the feast of the Church occurring seven weeks after Easter which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and the beginning of the Church's mission


Pope - the BISHOP of Rome, successor of St. Peter, and Supreme Pontiff and shepherd of the universal Catholic Church


Precepts of the Church - "positive laws (sometimes called commandments) made by Church authorities to guarantee for the faithful the indispensable minimum in prayer and moral effort, for the sake of their growth in love of God and neighbor" (CCC Glossary); these include the requirement of attending Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation and the requirement of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday


Priest - a member of the ministerial priesthood (i.e., someone who has received Holy Orders) who serves the faithful by administering the SACRAMENTs (particularly the EUCHARIST) and building up and guiding the Church in the name of Christ; diocesan priests take vows of CELIBACY and obedience to their local ordinary (i.e., BISHOP) and usually but not always serve as PASTORs, while religious priests are members of religious communities (such as the Benedictines, Franciscans, or Dominicans) and take the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience


Purgatory - "a state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God's friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven" (CCC Glossary)


Pyx - the smaller vessel of gold, or silvergilt, in which the EUCHARIST is commonly carried to the sick


Real Presence - the true presence of Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul, and divinity, in the EUCHARIST under the appearances of bread and wine


Redemptive Suffering - human suffering that is offered to Christ and joined with his suffering in his PASSION for the sake of others (cf. Col. 1: 24)


Reparation - "making amends for a wrong done or for an offense, especially for SIN, which is an offense against God... We are obliged to make reparation for personal SINs against justice and truth, either through restitution of stolen goods or correcting the harm done to the other's good name" (CCC Glossary)


Resurrection - Jesus' bodily rising from the dead on the third day following his death on the cross and subsequent burial in the tomb


Resurrection of the Dead - "the raising of the righteous, who will live forever with the risen Christ, on the last day" (CCC Glossary)


Revelation - God's self-communication through the person of Jesus Christ, the Sacred Scriptures, and Church Tradition, by which he tells us of himself, his law, and his divine plan of salvation


Rite - a liturgical tradition through which the one CATHOLIC and apostolic faith has come to be expressed in a particular culture and land: e.g., the Roman, Ambrosian, Byzantine, Coptic, Armenian, Maronite, and Chaldean rites


Sacrament - "an efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit" (CCC Glossary)


Sacramental - a "sacred sign... by means of which spiritual effects are signified and obtained through the prayers of the Church" (CCC Glossary)


Sacrificial Love - the purest form of love, which sacrifices its own will and desires for the sake of the good of others ("Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends" - Jn 15: 13)


Saint - from Latin, "holy," any person who has received the reward of eternal life from God and lives with him in HEAVEN


Salvation - "the forgiveness of SINs and restoration of friendship with God, which can be done by God alone" (CCC Glossary)


Sanctifying Grace - from Latin, lit. "making holy", the grace which gives us a share in the divine life and heals our nature which has been wounded by SIN; it is a free gift of God which allows us to be perfected in following Christ


Sanctus - the Latin word for "holy," this is also the name for the "Holy, holy, holy Lord" prayer said during the LITURGY of the EUCHARIST at MASS


Sin - "an offense against God as well as a fault against reason, truth, and right conscience; sin is a deliberate thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the eternal law of God" (CCC Glossary)


Tabernacle - the receptacle in which CONSECRATED hosts are kept for Holy Communion for the sick and dying


Tradition - "the living transmission of the message of the GOSPEL in the Church" (CCC Glossary); distinguished from "small t" traditions, which are local practices of LITURGY, devotion, and discipline which have developed over time in a particular region or culture


Transfiguration - the feast of the Church, celebrated on August 6th, commemorating Jesus' glorification on the mountain before Peter, James, and John, who saw his appearance change, saw him speaking with Moses and Elijah, and heard the voice of God proclaim Jesus to be his "beloved Son" (cf. Mt 17: 1-9, Mk 9: 1-9, Lk 9: 28-36)


Transubstantiation - the DOCTRINE that the bread and wine consecrated at MASS actually become the Body and Blood of Christ with no trace of their former substance remaining, though the appearance remains


Triduum - any liturgical celebration lasting three days, but usually refers to the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil) 


Universal Call to Holiness - the DOCTRINE that all men and women are called not merely to be "decent" or "good people," but rather to be "perfect, as also your Heavenly Father is perfect," (Mt 5: 48) that is, to be SAINTs


Valid - "having not only legal force but actually producing the effect intended" (Fr. John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary)


Venial Sin - a lesser SIN which does not destroy the divine life in the soul, but does damage it


Vice - "a habit acquired by repeated SIN in violation of the proper norms of human morality" (CCC Glossary)


Virtue - "a habitual and firm disposition to do the good" (CCC Glossary)


Vocation - from the Latin vocatio, meaning "calling," this word refers to God's calling to each person to know, love, and serve him, as well as to live the life he made him/her to live; vocations can be general (for example, marriage) or specific (being married to a particular person)


Works of Mercy - divided into the "spiritual" and "corporal" works of mercy, these are acts of charity by which we serve our neighbor and see to their spiritual and bodily needs

bottom of page