The Roman Catholic Church


The Roman Catholic Church is the largest group of Christians in the world. There are about 1 billion members, mostly in Europe, North and South America. The church goes back to about 30 A.D., to the life of Jesus Christ and his apostles. Roman Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and that he rose to heaven after being crucified.  They believe that Jesus brought salvation to all people on Earth.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church and successor of Jesus Christ on Earth is the Pope. He governs the church from the Vatican, a small state situated in the heart of Rome. The Pope selects cardinals and bishops to lead the church throughout the world.

The Roman Catholic Church has influenced history more than any other organization. It exercised its power throughout the Middle Ages. Missionaries travelled to other continents to spread Catholicism.  Great architects created churches and cathedrals, artists drew paintings and made frescoes.



The Beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church

The beliefs of Catholics are based on the Bible. Creeds are short statements of faith that Catholics believe in and recite in mass.

Roman Catholics believe that there is only a single God, who exists in three persons – the Father, Jesus Christ the son, and the Holy Spirit. Each of these people, however, personifies God. They also believe that God created the universe, the world, human beings and everything else on Earth. Believers in the Roman Catholic religion also worship the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ.

God wanted human beings to live forever, just like him. But because the first human being, Adam, did not obey God, the sin he committed was passed on to the rest of humanity. The church says that everyone is born with this original sin. God sent his son Jesus Christ to Earth to save everyone from sin. During the latter part of his life Jesus spent much time with his followers, apostles who would continue his teachings after his death. Roman Catholics celebrate two important events in the life of Jesus: Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ and Easter, the resurrection of Jesus.

According to Catholic beliefs, life does not end with death. The soul leaves its bodily form and rises to heaven, purgatory or hell. Heaven is the place where God wants everyone to be, purgatory is a place in which those who have sinned against God stay for a short time and are cleaned of their sins. A person is punished in Hell because they have not lived God’s life.

The Catholic Church teaches people to behave in certain ways. They must love God and their fellow human beings. It asks its followers to live a life as Jesus had, to follow their consciences.


There are seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. These are rituals that all good Catholics perform.

  • Baptism is an event in which a child, or sometimes an adult, is cleaned from their original sin. Water is poured over a person as a sign of cleaning and starting a new life.
  • Confirmation is usually performed at the age of 14 or 15, when a child turns into a young adult. A bishop or priest puts oil on the forehead of a worshipper as a sign of strength.
  • The Eucharist or mass is normally a Sunday celebration. It consists of prayers, hymns and texts from the Bible.  A priest turns bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. At communion worshippers eat Christ’s body in form of a host.
  • Confession is a sacrament in which Catholics tell their sins to a priest.  They promise to God that they are sorry for what they have done.
  • Holy orders are sacraments that turn young men into priests or bishops. They then lead their community in the name of God.
  • Marriage is a sacrament in which man and woman promise to live together in a family.
  • The anointment of the sick is a sacrament that is given to a person who is very ill and in danger of dying. The priest anoints a sick person with oil and frees them from sin so that they can rise to heaven.



How the Church is organized

Catholics in a small town or village are usually organized in a parish.  Priests or deacons are in charge of celebrating mass and performing other rituals in church. Today, more and more lay people have tasks in the Roman Catholic Church. They read passages from the Bible at mass and sometimes give others communion.

A diocese is a group of many parishes that is supervised by a bishop. The bishop appoints the priests who lead the parishes. He also is in charge of other religious organizations in his diocese. Bishops are responsible for teaching and guiding people in their region.

The Pope is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholics respect the Pope as Jesus Christ’s representative on Earth. He is supported by chosen bishops, called cardinals, and the Roman curia, the Pope’s administrative organization. The Curia represents the Vatican in other countries, writes documents or deals with cases of abuse within the church.


History of the Roman Catholic Church

The history of the Roman Catholic Church begins with the life and death of Jesus Christ, about 2,000 years ago. Paul, the Apostle, is often seen as the founder of the Church. He carried the word of Jesus Christ to the people. Many churches were built throughout the Roman Empire. During this time Christianity spread throughout Europe and the Middle East. The Romans, who ruled these areas had their own religion and at first persecuted and mistreated Christians. At around 300 AD Christianity became the main Roman religion. By this time there were two capitals in the empire: in Rome and Constantinople (now Istanbul).

When the western part of the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century Christianity still had a major influence in Europe. The bishops in Constantinople often disagreed with the popes of western Rome, who were becoming more and more powerful. In 1054 the church split into an eastern and a western branch. The eastern half became the Orthodox Church and the western half became the Roman Catholic Church.

During the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church was the most powerful organization in western Europe. It not only had religious power but also gained more and more political power. Popes launched Crusades to conquer back the Holy Land from Muslims. Kings and leaders in the west were very often in direct conflict with the Pope and his bishops.
In the 14th century cardinals elected a French Pope who did not want to go to Rome. For about 70 years there were two popes who fought for power, one in Avignon and one in Rome. As the Roman Catholic Church became weaker people began to break away and form new Christian churches.

Martin Luther, a German monk, began the reformation movement in the early 16th century. Central and Northern Europe became Protestant while the Mediterranean regions remained Roman Catholic. In England Henry VIII broke away from Rome and founded the Anglican Church.

Nevertheless, Roman Catholicism expanded throughout the world during the Age of ExplorationExplorers and settlers brought Catholic beliefs to the New World. Spanish, Portuguese and French missionaries set up churches and colonized areas in North and South America.

As time went on the Pope’s influence in Europe diminished and he lost much of his land. By 1870 only the Vatican City remained. The Roman Catholic Church faced changes in society as well as new theories in science, which it was mostly against. In 1962 Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council which dealt with the church’s problems and modernized many things.



Problems of the Roman Catholic Church today

Many people, especially in Europe, are turning their backs on the Roman Catholic Church for a number of reasons. They claim that the church has failed to live up to the requirements of a 21st century society. Religious experts say the church is too conservative and not open for change.
Among the most controversial issues are the celibacy, more rights for women in church, birth control and homosexuality.


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Related Topics



  • A.D. = anno Domini = after the birth of Christ
  • abuse = to treat badly
  • according to = as said by …
  • administrative = to manage things
  • adult = a grown up person
  • anoint = to put water or oil on someone’s head as  part of a religious act
  • apostle = one of the 12 people chosen by Jesus Christ  to teach and spread the Christian religion
  • based on = rely on
  • behave = here: live
  • belief = religious idea
  • billion = a thousand million
  • bodily = physical
  • branch = section, part
  • break away = to move away from and start something new
  • capital = center
  • cathedral = a very large church
  • Catholicism = the Roman Catholic religion
  • celebrate = to do something special on a certain day
  • celebration = special event
  • celibacy = a situation in which you are not married because of your religion
  • century = a hundred years
  • Christianity = the religion based on the life and beliefs of Jesus Christ
  • claim = to say that something is true
  • collapse = break down
  • colonize = to control a country and send people from your own country to live there
  • commit = do, perform
  • communion = when people eat bread and drink wine at mass
  • conscience = the part of your mind that tells you what is right and wrong
  • controversial = much discussed
  • creed = set of beliefs that are written down and often said at mass
  • crucify = to kill someone by nailing them to a cross
  • Crusades = wars led by European kings and religious leaders in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries to get back control of the Holy Land from Muslims
  • deacon = a religious official who is just below the rank of a priest
  • diminish = to become weaker
  • disagree = if two people or groups do not share the same opinion
  • empire = a group of countries controlled by one ruler
  • especially = above all
  • exercise = use
  • expand = to become bigger
  • explorer = someone who travels to new places and tries to find out more about them
  • fail = not succeed
  • fellow = other
  • follower = a person who believes in the teachings of a leader
  • forehead = the part of your face above your eyes and below your hair
  • founder = a person who started something
  • fresco = painting made on a white wall while the plaster is still wet
  • gain = get, to make something bigger
  • govern = rule
  • guide = lead
  • homosexuality = to be attracted to a person of the same sex
  • host = the bread that is used as a sign of God’s body
  • human being = a person
  • humanity = all people
  • hymn = religious song
  • influence = change
  • issue = topic
  • latter = later, last
  • lay people = not a priest; not in an official position in church
  • live up to = to do better than expected
  • mass = Catholic Sunday ceremony that celebrates the last meal that Jesus Christ ate
  • missionary = someone who goes to another country and teaches  people about Christianity and tries to make them believe in Jesus Christ
  • mistreat = treat badly
  • monk = men who live in a religious group in a special building
  • nevertheless = all the same
  • obey = to do what someone tells you
  • original sin = the sin that Adam committed and that is in all people when they are born
  • parish = an area that a priest is responsible for
  • perform = do
  • persecute = to treat someone cruelly because of their religion or what they believe
  • personify = to be in person
  • pour = to make water flow out of …
  • prayer = to say words to God
  • punish = to make someone suffer because they have done something wrong
  • purgatory = place where souls have to suffer until they are pure enough to go to heaven
  • reformation movement = religious changes in Europe in the 16th century ; the Protestant Church developed out of this movement
  • remain = stay
  • representative = someone who is chosen to do something
  • requirement = something that you need
  • respect = to have a high opinion of
  • resurrection= the return of Jesus Christ to life after his death on the cross
  • rise = go up
  • ritual = religious ceremony that is always performed in the same way
  • salvation = rescue; to be saved from bad things
  • select = choose
  • settler = someone who starts living in a place nobody has lived in before
  • sin = an action that is against the rules of God
  • situated = located
  • society = people in general
  • soul = spirit, the part of a person that is not the body
  • spirit = something that has no body
  • split = break up
  • spread = extend or move from one place to another
  • strength = power
  • successor = a person who comes after someone and continues their work
  • supervise = control
  • task = job
  • teaching = ideas
  • throughout = all over
  • turn your back on = here: leave ; go somewhere else
  • village = a very small town in the countryside
  • virgin = someone who has never had sex
  • worship = love, respect , pray to