The Roman Catholic Church consists of an ecclesiastical hierarchy that comprises the Pope, at the top, and beneath him, cardinals, bishops, priests and deacons. Each member of the hierarchy operates under a different level of authority. According to the Vatican, the administrative center of the Catholic Church, Christ is made visible to its body of believers through the ordained ministry of the Church. "In the ecclesiastical service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his Body," according to the Roman Catechism, paragraph 1548. The Roman Catechism, also called the Council of Trent, was published in 1566 to help improve the theological understanding of clergy.
The Pope is the chief pastor of the entire Catholic Church and is considered the representative of Christ on earth. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Pope has “chief control of every department of the Church's life.” He is the supreme teacher of the Church and has supreme legislative and judicial authority within the Church. He can interpret and even change the laws that were made by himself and his predecessors in the papacy. In addition, the Pope is supreme governor of the Church, and thus has authority over every appointment to its public offices. This includes the ability to transfer bishops to different sees and the power to approve new religious orders. In March 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected to be the 266th Catholic Pope with the title Pope Francis. He is the first pope ever elected from the Jesuit order and the first non-European elected in nearly 1,300 years.
Cardinals are high-ranking officials in the Roman Curia, which is the name of the papal bureaucracy. Sometimes called princes of the Church, Cardinals are responsible for electing new popes and often serve as papal envoys. As papal envoys, they are sent out as special representatives of the Catholic Church to meet with officials outside the church -- similar to the role played by ambassadors in the world of politics.
Bishops oversee the clergy within their own diocese. A diocese is a district, or group of churches, that is under the supervision of a bishop. Bishops are responsible for confirming and ordaining new members of the clergy. Encyclopedia Britannica says that bishops also use the help of lesser bishops, such as suffragans, assistants and auxiliaries, to aid them in the supervision their local diocese.
Members of the priesthood in the Catholic Church are responsible for the spiritual needs of their parishioners. They prepare and administer weekly mass, deliver sermons, handle sacraments and administer communion at their local church. The priest is also responsible for counseling parishioners and sometimes for educating their children. Priests maintain routine office hours when they are available to parishioners to offer guidance and help them through any problems.
- Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News/Getty Images