From Aspergillum to Zucchetto: A Glossary of 13 Obscure Catholic Words

(photo: Photo Credit: Dieter Philippi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

How's your Catholic IQ? If you're a cradle Catholic and “Et cum spiritu tuo” slides easily off your tongue, you may still find yourself challenged by some of these uniquely Catholic words. A score of 1 to 5 = postulant; 6 to 10 = novice; 11 or higher = professional Catholic.

Aspergillum.  If you've attended the Easter Vigil, you remember that the priest walked down the aisle, sprinkling everyone with holy water. He held a type of sprinkler, probably a metallic rod with a round tip, waving it over the heads of worshippers and spraying water. That, my friends, was an aspergillum. The same vessel is used other times, as well: to bless the palm fronds on Palm Sunday, and to bless candles on Candlemas. The priest may also use an aspergillum at a baptism or for other ceremonial purposes, such as blessing the entrance of a house during a house blessing.

Basilica. A church building noted for its antiquity, dignity, and historical value, and which has a significant architectural or artistic worth or significance, may be granted the status of “basilica.” In the United States, there are 69 churches which have been honored as basilicas; and worldwide, there are nearly 1,600. Unique to a basilica are two symbols: the conopaeum (See? Another new word!), a silk canopy that looks like an umbrella with yellow and red stripes, traditional papal colors; and the tintinnabulum, a bell that is mounted on a pole and carried in processions. A basilica is also permitted to carry crossed keys, a symbol of the papacy, on banners and furnishings.

Curia.  Curious about the Roman Curia? In the Catholic Church, it's the Pope, of course, who has the last word. Helping him with governance of the worldwide Church, however, is the Roman Curia—consisting of the Vatican's Secretariat of State, as well as the Curial Congregations, Pontifical Councils and Pontifical Commissions, the tribunals and other administrative offices.

Dalmatic.  Two men in liturgical vestments up at the altar during Mass? Most likely one is the priest, who is wearing a chasuble, a sleeveless garment, over his white alb. The other may be a deacon, who wears a dalmatic. The dalmatic is a long, wide-sleeved tunic; and like the priest's chasuble, it is the color of the liturgical season. (An aside: Both priests and deacons wear stoles, but the priest's stole hangs around the neck and its ends fall downward from his shoulders, while the deacon's stole crosses his body diagonally.)

Eschatology.  What happens when you die? Explained simply, eschatology is the study of “end things”: the end of an individual life, the end of the age, the end of the world, and the nature of the Kingdom of God. It's the Church's body of doctrine concerning the last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell.

Intinction. If you are a Catholic in the Melkite Rite or some other Eastern rites, you understand this term right away. Intinction is the practice by some churches, including some Eastern Rite churches, of partly dipping the consecrated bread, or host, into the consecrated wine before it is consumed by the communicant. In the Latin Rite, the bread and the wine are traditionally consumed separately.

Laicization. This is the process by which an ordained bishop, priest or deacon is relieved of his obligations and is returned to the status of a lay person. A laicized person is no longer considered “clergy” and may not exercise public ministry; however, ordination imparts an indelible mark on the soul, and laicization does not remove that mark.

Magisterium. The Magisterium is the teaching office of the Church, and is composed of the Pope and the bishops. In Luke 10:16, Jesus promised to protect the teaching of the Church: “He who hears you, hears me,” He said. “He who rejects you rejects Me, he who rejects Me, rejects Him who sent Me.” For this reason, the Catholic Church believes that Magisterial teaching is infallible, and that when the Pope or the bishops, speaking together on matters of faith and morals, issue a teaching, the Holy Spirit will always preserve them from error.

Pallium.  A stole made of lamb's wool which is worn over the chasuble by the Pope and archbishops. The pallium signifies communion of the archbishops with the Holy See.

Pectoral Cross.  A cross worn by bishops and abbots on a chain around their necks, as a mark of office. “Pectoral” refers to the pectoral (chest) muscles, over which the cross is worn.

Thurible.  A metal censer, suspended on one or more chains, which is used to hold burning incense. The thurible is swung during liturgical services. The sweet-smelling smoke from the aromatic incense rises, symbolizing our prayers rising to God.

Viaticum. Food for the journey; Viaticum refers to the Eucharist (communion) when it is given to a dying person, and is considered part of the Last Rites.

Zucchetto. The word “zucchetto” comes from the Italian for “little gourd” or “pumpkin.” It refers to the close-fitting, ecclesiastical skull cap worn by the Pope (white), Cardinals (red), and bishops (purple).