• Norway!

    Norway: Sunnylvsfjord. Go Now!

    Known for its natural beauty, Norway is home to isolated villages, fjords, and mountains that create a culture and landscape without compare. Begin Your Journey!

  • Palau!

    Palau: "70 Islands!" Go Now!

    Few people have even heard of this small Micronesian country, but those who have often return with stories of beauty unmatched elsewhere, such as view of the "70 Islands" (pictured). Go Now!

  • Spain!

    Spain: Guell Park and Gaudi architecture. Go Now!

    Fusion foods, lively music, historic ruins, and cultural events like the Running of the Bulls and La Tomatina make Spain and Barcelona (pictured) a favorite tourist destination. Explore Spain!

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    Mexico: Sunrise over the mountains in Puerto Vallarta. Go Now!

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Catholicism & the Catholic Church


According to one definition in the Catholic tradition, a church is any gathering of people that believe Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior. In this way, the Catholic Church is truly an institution of people united by faith no matter their location or purpose for gathering. Despite the rather vague definition of "church," in another way the church is highly organized with a distinct hierarchy, specific doctrines, liturgy rituals, and traditions. This structure, the doctrines, and the rituals offered during Catholic masses and in Catholicism in general are determined by the Holy See, which is the governing body of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church is the largest Christian faith in the world with over 1 billion members. The church believes it was divinely founded by Jesus Christ and the faith's core belief system is in line with the Nicene Creed (below).

Doctrines of the Faith

The basic beliefs of the Catholic faith are outlined in the Nicene Creed, one version of which is:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father. Through Him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day He rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures; He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.


The Catholic Church also believes that the church, as is stated above, is rooted in the trinity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. God is the maker of all things, while Jesus is the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit united God with human in the form of conceiving Jesus in the Virgin Mary. Much of the faith is based on the life and teachings of Jesus, which are told in the Gospels, of which there are many, but the Catholic Church generally only uses those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The holy book of the Catholic faith is the Bible, which includes both the Old Testament and the New Testament. These books are the base and root of the faith, but much of the focus is on the New Testament's Gospels, which describe the life of Jesus on earth.

The Virgin Mary is an important and central figure in the church, but Mary is human, she is not God and should not be worshipped. Mary is viewed as pure and as the mother of God in her role as the mother of Jesus. She is honored in this role, but also as a saint who grants kindness and healing.

Also stated in the Nicene Creed is the "the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come." Catholics believe that after physical death on earth each person's soul will be judged based on their actions on earth. Their Final Judgment will determine if they go to Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell. Heaven is for those who lived a good life and are united with God for eternity, while Hell, or Final Damnation, is only for those who reject God. The Catholic Church believes anyone can ask for forgiveness of sins and receive forgiveness, but the rejection of God is cause for Final Damnation. Purgatory is for those with sins who must still be purified prior to entering Heaven.

Ideally, one lives a life with Jesus Christ as their model; in this way, social service is encouraged by the church, although there is no true requirement to undertake service regularly. This mission has led to numerous forms of education, primarily found in Catholic schools, healthcare (commonly found in the case of hospitals and clinics), and other forms of service and volunteerism.


The sacraments in the Catholic Church are of utmost importance and generally begin shortly after birth with Baptism. This initiation sacrament washes away original sin (the sin all people are born with, originating with the sins of Adam and Eve) and welcomes the person into the church. Although many people are baptized shortly after birth, a person can be baptized at any age.

The next sacrament, also an initiation sacrament, is often times Eucharist or First Communion (although Reconciliation can take place prior to this sacrament). Receiving the Eucharist or Communion is taking the bread and wine at church, which is the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is among the most important aspects of the Catholic faith as it is union with Jesus and hence the root of the faith. Eucharist is typically first taken as a young child at about the age of 5-10, but again can first occur at any age. While baptism only takes place once in a Catholic's life, Eucharist is a sacrament that should be undertaken regularly throughout life.

The third initiation sacrament is Confirmation, which usually takes place when a Catholic becomes a young adult, or, if being baptized as an adult, immediately after baptism. This sacrament confirms a person's membership in the church and again only takes place once in a Catholic's life.

The next sacrament is Reconciliation or Penance, which is the asking for the forgiveness of sins. In some churches this sacrament first takes place after Eucharist, while in others it first takes place prior to that of Eucharist because it is believed to purify a person prior to receiving Jesus in the form of Eucharist. Reconciliation, like Eucharist, is intended to be undertaken on a regular basis for one's whole life, but usually is first undertaken as a child of about 5-10 years old. In some churches only the people who undertook the sacrament of Penance receive communion in the same week.

Marriage or Holy Orders can be undertaken, but not both (unless a married man becomes widowed or the man is becoming a deacon). Marriage is the union of two people in the eyes of the Catholic Church and this sacrament must be done in a church; legal marriage doesn't replace the Catholic sacrament. Holy Orders is the consecration of an individual into the church as a priest or deacon. Deacons are limited in the sacraments they can administer, while priests can administer all of them. Both of these sacraments are voluntary and can only be taken once in an individual's life. Marriage within the church can only take place more than once if an individual is widowed or if an annulment of the previous marriage is made; however, the church is hesitant to annul a marriage except in the case of specific circumstances.

The final sacrament in the Catholic Church is Anointing of the Sick (formerly known as Last Rites). This sacrament is given to those who are sick and may not survive. It is intended to forgive a person of sins and prepare them for the next life, as well as to mentally, spiritually, and even physically heal a person if it is God's will.


There is a great deal of symbolism in Catholic churches and in Catholicism in general. This symbolism can often be found before even entering a church as many churches are laid out in the shape of a cross when viewed from the sky. Churches also have further symbolism in that the floor represents hell, the walls the scriptures (often portrayed in stained glass), which are the path to the heavens above, the ceiling. The stained glass also allows light to enter, symbolizing the light of God found in the scriptures.

Two of the most common and popular symbols in Christianity in general are the fish and cross; both can often times be found in churches. The cross represents the cross on which Jesus died and can be found as a physical cross, but also in the sign of the cross, which in Catholicism is for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The fish's ties to Christianity actually began with the Greek word for fish (ιχθύς), which happens to be an acronym for Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, which means "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior."

Another symbol that originates with the Greek is the letters chi (χ) and ro (Ρ) over one another, in Greek these are the first two letters for the word "Christ." The first and last letters in the Greek alphabet are also a common theme, the alpha (α/Α) and omega (ω/Ω), which are for "the first and the last," a quote from Revelations.

Keys are also commonly found in Catholic Churches; they represent the keys to the gates of heaven, or St. Peter's Gate, which are also found on the Vatican Coat of Arms and Flag. Other common symbols are the lamb, representing Jesus, a dove is the Holy Spirit, the serpent or dragon is the devil, the lily is the Virgin Mary, and grapes represent either unity or the apostles, while the vine represent God and the church.

Catholic Mass & Liturgy

Catholic mass is the center of organized Catholic worship and liturgy. Mass is usually overseen by a priest and consists of numerous prayers and actions. The most common rite presented in the Catholic Church is known as the "Roman Rite," but others also exist. A rite is simply an established tradition of prayer or worship and can be as simple as a single prayer to the entire order and structure of a mass, which is the case with the Roman Rite.

The mass done using the Roman Rite begins with the introductory rites, which are usually accompanied by a song and the procession of the priest and others into the church. This is followed by a number of readings from the Bible, ordinarily two readings, plus a reading from one of the Gospels, which is followed by a Homily. The Homily is the priest's further explanation of the reading, how it relates to modern life, or the like. After this the Nicene or Apostles' Creed, which is a profession of faith, is recited by the congregation. This is then followed by the Lord's Prayer (Our Father) and a peace offering to those seated nearby. Next comes the most important part of the Catholic mass, the Eucharist or communion, which is the reception of bread and wine, which is believed to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The mass then ends with a final prayer and the departure of the participants. Of course there are numerous other aspects of the Roman Rite, which includes numerous songs, prayers, and readings.

The Eucharist is the most important part of the mass because the bread and wine are believed to be the body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine are converted to the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ through a process called transubstantiation and it is believed that Jesus Christ is present in this process. Because of this, non-Catholics are not allowed to receive communion, although people of all faiths are welcome to attend a Catholic mass.

Vatican City & the Holy See

The Holy See is the seat of the Catholic Church, which is centered in Vatican City and is headed by the pope. The Holy See is the organization that heads the church as a whole, which is both political and religious in nature. The Holy See has existed for centuries as it oversees the Catholic Church, which has existed for millennia. However, Vatican City, as an independent political entity, has only existed since 1929 and has a different governing structure.

The Vatican City State is an absolute monarchy headed by the pope, who has full control over every branch and aspect of the government (the College of Cardinals holds this power when there is no pope). The pope is assisted in running the Vatican City State by the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, the State Council, and any other person the pope assigns to help run the country.

However, the pope also oversees the Holy See. The pope is assisted in running the Holy See by the Roman Curia, which is the active administrative body that oversees the Holy See. The Roman Curia includes numerous political and religious organizations and branches, including the Secretariat of State, congregations (such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), tribunals, councils, and more. It acts as a fully functioning government for the Catholic Church with a court system, law- or doctrine-making organizations, and more. It effectively governs the entire Catholic Church no matter the location of a particular diocese or church.

In short, the Holy See oversees the church, while the Vatican City State is a self-ruled nation, although both are headed by the pope. The differing branches of the state and church may not always fall under the jurisdiction of the governing body one would think. For example, the diplomatic corps work for the Holy See, not the Vatican City State; perhaps this is rooted in the Catholic Church's long history, relationships, and missionary work from past centuries, including times when there was no political entity the church ruled over (technically the Vatican City State has no international diplomatic representatives).

Church Hierarchy

The Catholic Church is headed by the Bishop of Rome, who is more commonly known as the Pope. The pope is said to have inherited the position from St. Peter, one of Jesus's apostles and the first leader of the church. The pope is elected by the cardinals in a meeting called the Papal Conclave, which is made up of all cardinals under the age of 80. Although any Catholic can become pope, traditionally only cardinals have been elected. The pope is the head of state in Vatican City as well as the head of the Catholic Church and the Holy See.

Beneath the pope are cardinals; there are about 200 cardinals in the church who live throughout the world. The cardinals hold numerous positions, including heading a large archdiocese, being an advisor or serving on the Roman Curia, or working for the pope in some other capacity.

Next are archbishops, followed by bishops. The archbishops and bishops rule over local archdioceses and dioceses, respectively, of which there are nearly 2,800 in the world. More locally, there are parishes, which are overseen by priests; most parishes consist of a single church or religious community.

There are also deacons, who are lay people (non-clergy) that serve the church in some capacity, although the role of each individual deacon varies by the parish and priest. There are also nuns and religious sisters, who, like deacons, take on a number of roles from service to dedicating one's life to prayer and contemplation.

This page was last updated: June, 2014