The following list for class use was intended to be specifically Roman Catholic in focus, with occasional notation of some significant Protestant variations.
Several useful glossaries of Christian terms exist on the Internet, in addition to extensive entries in the ever useful Wikipedia.
A particularly useful glossary is Glossary of Christianity from Religion Facts.
In paper, perhaps the most useful small, general listing of Christian terminology for the lay reader is by Geoffrey Parrinder (reference).
A member of a minor order who assists the priest in the mass, carries candles in processions, &c. The term is often extended to anyone who actively assists in a liturgy or even to any devoted religious follower.
A spiritual messenger in God's service, neither human nor divine, but sometimes, like saints, able to intercede with God on behalf of humans.
In medieval European thought, angels were divided into nine different "orders"; those closest to God included the higher "seraphim" (singular: "seraph") and slightly lower "cherubim" (singular: "cherub"), and below them the "thrones." Cherubs have attained popularity as the puffy-faced, child-like, winged heads seen in Renaissance religious paintings and today on Valentines. However below them came the "Dominations," the "Virtues," and the "Powers." And at the bottom the "Principalities," "Archangels," and "Angels." (Usage note: The English prefix "arch" means "high"; when it is followed by a consonant, the ch is pronounced like the ch in "church," as in "archbishop." When it is followed by a consonant it is pronounced like a k, as in "archangel," pronounced ARK-angel.)
The only angels with names were Michael (represented as slaying God's enemies), Gabriel (thought to serve as God's herald and annunciator), Raphael (a guardian), and Uriel (whose specific duties were unclear). The "guardian angels" of modern piety come from the lowest order.
The declaration by the Catholic Church that a marriage was incorrectly performed and is therefore void. (This functions as divorce, except that one result is that children born to the couple are technically regarded as bastards.)
anointing the sick
One of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church in which prayers are said at the bedside of the severely ill, together with touching the forehead with a drop of consecrated oil. Formerly conducted only for those thought to be at death's door, the sacrament is sometimes also called “extreme unction” or “last rites”.
Hostility to members of the clergy or to the established authority of the church hierarchy.
Revelation of massive changes in the future. (From a Greek root meaning "uncovering.") When capitalized, the word refers to the Book of Revelation of John, the last book of the New Testament, but other apocalypses existed that were attributed to various other apostles, typically predicting the end of an age of evil and the onset of an age of virtue. In modern colloquial usage, the word is often used to refer to the terrifying tumult expected at the time of such a transformation.
A work of dubious authenticity. (From a Greek root meaning "hidden.") The Old Testament apocrypha contains works written by ancient Jews and included in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures), but not in the Hebrew Bible itself. They are canonical for Orthodox, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Catholic congregations, but not for most Protestants because they are not included in the Hebrew Bible.
One who is "sent out" to propagate a religious message. Christian usage usually confines the term to Jesus twelve disciples (minus Judas Iscariot), plus Paul, but some other early Church leaders also had the title or the nearly identical "apostolic father."
An unbroken chain of priestly authority, beginning with Jesus appointing his disciples through the right of "laying on of hands" or ordination.
Appearance of a spiritual being to a human. In popular Catholicism, there have been numerous apparitions of the Virgin, and the sites where these occurred have become centers of pilgrimage. It is also possible to speak of an apparition of, say, the spirit of a dead relative.
ascension (or translation or assumption) into Heaven
The transmutation of human individuals directly into heaven. Christian tradition holds that both Jesus and his mother ascended into heaven, a frequent theme in Western art. (Usage note: The term "assumption" is used of the Virgin.)
Initiation into Christianity through the use of water, on the analogy of the work of John the Baptist, who baptized (literally, "dunked") Jesus. For the Catholic Church the rite involves dribbling a small amount of water on a person's head while conferring a "Christian name," selected ahead of time. Catholics normally baptize people as infants. Friends of the parents may participate and become "godparents" of the child at this time. The same is true for most mainline Protestant churches, although godparents are less common in Protestantism. The Anabaptist movement (and hence the later Baptists) as well as most Evangelical churches insist upon "immersion" baptism because they believe that is what was done in antiquity. They also practice baptism of adults rather than children, so that the participant may enter the church with awareness of the step being taken. See sacrament.
(1) A list of books considered to be authoritative. (From a greek word for a rod, and by extension a standard.) Although the term is sometimes used in other contexts —"She assigned books outside the normal canon for courses in English literature"— it normally refers to a set of scriptures regarded as authoritative within a religious or philosophical tradition ("the Confucian canon," "the Daoist canon").
(2) A clergyman in charge of services of a particular cathedral.
The process by which the Church officially recognizes a saint.
The bishop of a particularly important diocese, and a direct adviser to the pope.
The teachings of the church presented as a set of questions and answers, designed for the instruction of children or new members.
A person, usually a lay person, trained to teach the doctrines and practices of the church to children or new converts.
(1) (adjective) Associated with the Church headed by the pope. (2) (noun) A member of the Catholic Church.
Universal. (Usage note: This term is not necessarily religious. For example: "He has catholic tastes in music." Even in a religious context, if it is not capitalized, it need not refer specifically to the Catholic church. Protestants often pray for the welfare of the "holy catholic church," meaning all Christians everywhere.)
Voluntarily refraining form sexual activity of any kind.
a divine gift, such as the ability to perform miracles, received from the Holy Spirit.
Olive oil consecrated by a bishop and used in some sacraments.
The population of all Christians in the world.
People who have been initiated into the ecclesiastical state by the conferral of membership in holy Orders through a ritual of ordination which empowers them in the ministry of the sacraments. (Usage note: The term "clergy" never refers to a single person. It can refer to all clergy members taken collectively. The singular is "clergyman" or sometimes "cleric." The plural is "clergy" or "members of the clergy.")
A body made up of all bishops, under the leadership of the pope and meeting in occasional Ecumenical Councils, advisory to the pope. National councils (synods) of bishops exist in some countries.
College of Cardinals
A body made up of all cardinals, charged with the selection of a new pope after the death of an old one.
A group of ten commandments believed to be revealed by God to Moses for the ordering of Israelite life after the departure from Egypt. Most Christians hold that these, unlike some Old Testament instructions, are binding upon Christians as well as Jews. Click here for the text and more information.
(Protestant) The dedication and consumption of bread and wine in a reenactment of Jesus' Last Supper. Different denominations stress and interpret this differently. Many Protestants do not regard it as the central event in a church service and may include it only in some services. For Catholic usage, see sacrament, eucharist, transubstantiation.
In Protestantism, this is a rite by which new members are welcomed into full church membership, usually after a period of instruction ("confirmation classes") and a public "profession of faith." In churches with adult baptism, confirmation may immediately follow it. For Catholics the rite, which also follows instruction in the faith, is usually performed by a bishop, and, like the anointing of the sick, is marked by the use of consecrated oil (chrism). See sacrament.
A lay organization, especially in Spain, devoted to sustaining a church and usually taking responsibility for its processions.
Those who have assembled to attend a religious service.
a residence for nuns. (Usage note: the term monastery is more usual for priests.)
A cover term for a series of Catholic internal reforms in the mid-1500s taken in response to the Protestant reformation, based on discussions at the Council of Trent (Italy) from 1545 to 1563.
The beliefs and practices associated with the veneration of a particular saint or supernatural being, e.g., "the cult of Saint Vincent." (The term is also used by some sociologists to refer to a religious organization of recent creation and few members. That usage has now become the most common popular meaning of the word. E.g., "Her mother worried because she joined a cult.")
A cleric who can preach, give counsel to the laity, and serve as a teacher of Church doctrine, but who usually makes his living by secular employment. (Usage note: The deacons taken collectively are referred to as "the diaconate" pronounced dee-ACK-uh-net.)
A malevolent supernatural being intent upon harming people. Jesus "cast out demons"; the Church also does so with a rite of exorcism.
An organized branch of Christianity (that is, a "Church" with a capital C), such as Lutherans, Methodists, or Catholics. (Usage note: The term is most often used in referring to Protestant Churches as organizations. For example, the United Methodist Church is a denomination. The term "denomination" implies an organization, and is not used in referring to a religious style, such as evangelical, fundamentalist, or charismatic.)
Secondarily canonical. The prefix "deutero-" means secondary, and the word is applied to texts that are revered but not part of a canon or are only secondarily part of a canon. (Pronounced DOO-ter-oh-kan-AHN-ih-kal.)
The most important administrative-territorial unit of the Church, headed by a bishop. The diocese is subdivided into parishes. (Pronounced DIE-aw-siss or DIE-aw-seez.)
A teaching of the Church.
A teaching of the Church which must be accepted as a condition of good standing in the Church.
The devotion or veneration offered to saints, in contrast to the "latria," which is the worship offered to God alone. See also hyperdulia.
Explanation or interpretation, especially of scriptural texts. (From Greek meaning "to lead.") (Pronounced: ex-uh-JEE-sus.)
The action by the church to exclude a member from participation in the Eucharist and (in the stronger form called anathema) from all participation in church activities. Excommunication is usually a decision taken in response to the member's stubborn refusal to accept church discipline or stubborn defense of heretical views.
A term of reference or address for a Catholic priest.
The all-powerful, all-knowing, creator and ruler of the universe, and the principal object of Christian worship. The worship of God, technically called latria, contrasts with the veneration, dulia, of the saints. (The distinction is important in the argument that Christianity is monotheistic despite its attention to saints or its belief in angels.)
Non-Jews. (Usage note: For some Protestants, most famously Mormons, the word is redefined as applying to people who are outside their own Church.)
The first four books (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) of the New Testament, chronicling the life of Jesus. Outside of the canonical Bible, some other early works are also referred to as "apocryphal gospels," such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas.
The commonest prayer offered to Mary by Catholics. Click here for the text of the Hail Mary. Protestants do not use this prayer.
A realm where the souls of the virtuous dead (saints) live in perpetual nearness to God, enjoying a "Beatific Vision" or face-to-face contact with him.
A realm where the souls of the sinful dead suffer eternal torments.
Deviating from and offending orthodoxy. In Christian history several views of the divinity of Jesus, the nature of the trinity, predestination, or other topics have been formally declared to be heresies, usually after gaining a popular following. Click here for a brief list of major heresies.
The special veneration accorded to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, by the Catholic Church. It is greater than the "dulia" veneration offered to the saints, but less than the "latria," which is the worship offered only to God.
The grant by the church of forgiveness (remission) of sins in response to good works, prayers, or money. The Protestant Reformation was initiated in part by rebellion against the "sale" of indulgences. (The practice of granting indulgences was revived by pope John Paul II, who in 2000 granted an indulgence to people who gave up alcohol or tobacco for a day during the official millennium celebration.)
The quality of being without any error whatsoever. The term is usually applied to the Bible, and used especially by conservative Protestants.
The inability to make a mistake. Since 1870, the pope has been officially regarded as infallible in maters of Catholic doctrine.
The act of a saint in persuading God to grant the wish of a believer.
Church members who are not members of the clergy. (Usage note: The term "laity" never refers to a single person. It can refer to all lay church members taken collectively. The singular is "layman" or "lay person." The plural is "laity" or "members of the laity." The adjective is "lay.")
The worship and veneration owed to God, in contrast to the dulia owed to saints.
lay religious groups
Charitable and pious associations made up of wholly or primarily of lay members, such as the Legion of Mary, the Knights of Columbus, and Opus Dei. Some laymen take monastic or other vows similar to priestly vows and become "lay brothers" or "lay sisters." For example, the Maryknoll Brothers.
The Catholic church considers marriage to offer three "goods": procreation, unity of a man and wife as "one flesh," and the "sacramental good," namely the symbolization of the bond between Christ (represented by the groom) and his church (represented by the bride). In Catholicism, a marriage may not be dissolved in divorce.
A prayer or group of prayers said on nine consecutive days for various reasons. In some regions this has evolved into a popular (i.e., non-clerical) religious ritual offered among relatives and neighbors and organized by laity.
A woman belonging to any of a wide variety of religious orders open exclusively to women and normally taking vows similar to those of regular priests or monks. Women are not permitted to officiate at the mass or to hear confessions, however.
order (or congregation)
Any catholic organization whose members live in groups and follow a specific religious "rule" ("regula"), usually including vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty. The most important orders are the Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits.
A distinction is made between "major orders" (bishops, priests, and deacons) and "minor orders" (lectors, exorcists, and acolytes).
Any religious order whose members devote their lives to prayer and meditation.
order, mendicant (or begging)
Any religious order whose members wander from place to place.
Deacons, priests, and bishops. Except for deacons who were married prior to their ordination, the clergy must observe the rule of celibacy. (Priests have been required to be celibate since the 1000s. This does not apply to Protestant or Orthodox clerics.)
The ritual by which a person becomes a priest. Also called "laying on of hands." Ordination is considered to be irreversible in nearly all cases, and even a priest who is later disciplined for bad behavior or heresy continues to be a priest. Although he may be prohibited from performing a mass, the mass he might perform in defiance of the prohibition, if correctly performed, continues to be considered valid. See sacrament.
Mainline, following established teachings. Contrast: heterodox.
Churches that divided from the Roman Catholic Church in a schism of the XIth century. Referred to as "Eastern Orthodox" or "Greek Orthodox," they do not have a single organization, and often take the form of national churches, such as the Serbian Orthodox Church or the Russian Orthodox Church.
The commonest prayer offered to God by Catholics, taken directly from the instruction of Jesus in the New Testament on how to pray. (Matthew 6: 7-13) Protestants commonly use this prayer as well, adding an extra line at the end. Click here for the text of the Our Father.
(1) A congregation of Catholic believers, overseen by a secular priest. (2) The land occupied by this group of people. A Catholic is a member of a parish, based on residence. Most Protestants, in contrast, consider themselves at liberty to join any congregation of their denomination without regard to residence.
A secular priest entrusted with the care of a parish by the local bishop. Duties include both ritual and other service to the parishioners and responsibility for the property of the church. (Usage note: In Protestantism, the term pastor has similar but more general meaning.)
Supreme head of a branch of christendom. The term is especially used in referring to the heads of the Eastern orthodox churches, e.g., the Patriarch of Moscow.
A crucial sacrament of the Catholic Church by which sins are forgiven. The process includes a formal confession to a priest, contrition and the sincere resolve not to repeat the sin, absolution by the priest, acting as the agent of God, and finally "satisfaction," including the performance of a "penance," often a set number of repetitions of a familiar prayer. Protestant churches do not recognize the right of priests to stand in for God in forgiving sin and formal penance of this kind is rarely featured.
Journey to a spiritually important site, usually where an important religious event occurred.
The bishop of Rome, and the supreme authority of the Roman Catholic Church, regarded as infallible in matters of doctrine. The pope holds office until the end of his life. The institution of the office of pope, and the social structures associated with the office, are collectively called the "papacy."
(1) (Protestant) an elder of the church. (Usage note: This term is limited almost exclusively to the Presbyterian Church.) (2) (Catholic) A priest.
priest (or presbyter)
An ordained cleric who performs the basic ministry of the Church; priests celebrate the mass, hear confessions, baptize babies, anoint the sick, counsel parishioners, and preside over funerals and other religious services provided for the laity. (Usage note: Protestants normally use the term "pastor" rather than "priest." In Protestantism, a presbyter is an elder of the church.)
A priest who is a member of one of a large number of religious orders.
priests, secular (or diocesan) priests
Clergy responsible to the bishop of the diocese and appointed by him. Most serve and minister to the laity in parishes.
Carrying a statue or other sacred object from one place to another, or through a parish and back to the church.
Divisions of Christianity which do not acknowledge the authority of the pope. (Usage note: In some usage this includes the Orthodox Churches and the other very old Churches —for example the Coptic Church in Egypt— that never acknowledged the priority of the pope in the first place. More often, it applies only to the denominations founded after the Protestant Reformation.)
The release of someone or something from constraint or bondage, usually through a payment. Thus one redeems an object left with a pawn broker, or redeems a slave by purchasing and liberating him or her. In Christianity the crucifixion of Jesus is said to have been a payment which redeemed his followers from the punishment for sin, including especially original sin. Often the punishment is said to be death (or hell), and redemption is to eternal life. See resurrection.
A cover term given to the rebellion in the 1500s by some Christians against perceived abuses in the established church (and especially the authority of the pope) and the creation by them of other, non-Catholic church organizations, called denominations. Among the most important of these were Lutherans, Calvinists (Presbyterians), Anglicans, and Anabaptists (Baptists).
A physical object remaining from earlier times, often a portion of the body of a saint.
"… all of the religious activity going on in any society: a 'marker'of current and potential religious adherents, a set of one or more organiations seeking to attract or retain adherents, and the religious culture offered by organizations." (Rodney Stark 2005 The Victory of Reason p. 198)
The restoration to life of someone who has died. The gospels speak of Jesus resurrecting Lazarus and others. Christianity holds that Jesus, having died on the cross, was subsequently resurrected and seen among the living. From early times Christianity has also held that believers will eventually be resurrected, either in a "spiritual body" or in a restored, "incorruptible," physical body, to proceed to heaven or to hell.
Roman Curia ("court")
The administrative offices of the pope, taken collectively. The curia is divided into the Nine Congregations or offices.
(1) A set of meditations and prayers recited as an act of devotion, including multiple repetitions of the hail Mary and the our Father. (2) A set of beads used as a help the memory in the recitation of the rosary. (The second sense —prayer beads— is extended to other religious traditions. Buddhist "rosaries" are normally used merely to count repetitions of mantras, for example.)
A "stage direction" printed in the text of a mass for the instruction of the priest. (From Latin ruber "red," the color in which they were printed in early mass books.)
A major ritual of the church. In the Catholic church, these are seven: baptism , penance (confession), confirmation, marriage , ordination (initiation of clergy) , extreme unction (anointing the sick, also known as "last rites") , and Holy Communion (or eucharist or mass) . Marriage is technically performed by the couple themselves by the speaking of their vows. Other sacraments require a priest.
Belief in the instrumental effectiveness of church rituals, as opposed to an interpretation of rituals as merely symbolic acts. For example, in Catholic dogma, the bread and wine used in the mass become the literal body and blood of Jesus because of the words said over them by the priest, and eating them literally incorporates Jesus' body into the body of the believer. In contrast, many Protestant groups regard their use as purely symbolic of Jesus' love of and support for his church and the acceptance of that love by the congregation.
A person of great virtue, including all souls in heaven. Although the Church has formally recognized many saints —about half during the recent papacy of John Paul II— a great many more are still unidentified. Saints are believed to have the power and motivation to intercede with God on behalf of believers who petition them. (Usage Note: Some Protestants use the term saint in recognition of the special sacredness of people recognized as such by the early church. The Mormon Church revived a different usage, technically correct, by which all pious Christians can be referred to as saints.)
Satan (or Lucifer)
A fallen angel, leader of the devils and demons that bring grief and misfortune to humans.
Division, especially between contending factions. (Pronounced SIZZ-zim or SKIZZ-zim.)
secular (non-Catholic usage)
Not relating to religion. (E.g.: "The priest also had secular interests, like photography.") But see priests, secular.
The city occupied by a major patriarch of the church. In the early church these were Jerusalem (Israel), Antioch (Syria), Alexandria (Egypt), Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey), and Rome (Italy). The see of Rome, or "Holy See," is the center of the Catholic Church, therefore also called the Roman Catholic Church.
Seven Last Words
The works spoken by Jesus after being nailed to the cross. The seven sentences recorded in the gospels have been set to music and are often sung in church on Good Friday. Click here for the text.
Shrine of the Ark of the Covenant, captured by the Philistines, located NW of the Dead Sea
(1) A place of worship, usually small and often associated with a sacred person or event. (2) A niche or container for relics or other sacred objects.
The sin of Adam and Eve, the first humans, in failing to follow God's orders, as a result of which they and all their descendents were forever to be regarded as sharing in the "sin of Adam." Christian belief holds that the Jesus' death on the cross atoned for (cancelled) that sin for those who agree to follow his teachings.
A term of reference or address for a Catholic nun.
Stations of the Cross
(1) Events during the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus. (2) Statues or other markers, usually inside the main hall of a church, commemorating these events. (3) The prayers recited at each of these markers.
The working of magic or miracles, especially in validation of claims of religious authority.
The philosophical problem of how a just or merciful god could let bad things happen to good people.
The "study of God." Specifically, reasoning about the implications of propositions about God for other philosophical propositions. A distinction is made between "natural theology" (based on what we know from nature or from reason) and "revealed theology" (based on what can be discovered from scripture). Catholic thinking also holds that theological propositions can be legitimately derived from Church tradition.
The transformation of the bread and wine offered during the eucharist into the body and blood of Christ. Catholic tradition holds that the transformation, although invisible, is physical and not merely symbolic.
Tridentine (or Tridentate)
Adjective referring to the Council of Trent (1545-1563). (The city was called "Tridentum" in Latin.)
God in three manifestations ("persons"), as Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit ("Holy Ghost" in older English). In art the Holy Spirit is represented as a dove, usually descending out of the sky.
The pope's palace in the city of Rome, and by extension all of the administrators and officers who work there. It has the international status of a national state (Vatican City State) with direct diplomatic relations with other states.
vernacular religious forms
Local belief and practice, as contrasted with centralized orthodoxy.