For most of us, our experience of “church” (with a small ‘c’) is our local parish community, whether that means Mass on Sunday, religious education sessions, social justice activities or the parish picnic. We understand Church (with a capital ‘C’) as the Body of Christ to which all baptized Catholics belong.

Many families, especially here in the Diocese of Trenton, maintain a deep connection to a parish elsewhere because they have moved from New York, Brooklyn, North Jersey, etc.  It is not unusual to hear people refer to “my parish” and mean a church different from the one where they participate in Mass each week.

As important as this local connection is to our faith life, we also need to stay aware that the Catholic Church exists everywhere, with the mission to spread the Word of God universally. Occasionally we are reminded that the Church is much bigger than our parish community.  At the same time, these reminders may merely be a blip on the radar of our already information-overloaded lives. 

One such reminder that should not be so quickly overlooked occurred at the end of 2022. On December 31st we learned that Pope Emeritus Benedict the XVI had passed away peacefully at the age of 95.  He was called Pope Emeritus, remember, because he resigned from office, the first successor of St. Peter to do so in more than 600 years. 

Because Benedict’s successor (Pope Francis) has already been chosen there will not be a “papal conclave” at this time. However, Benedict being called home to God is a good opportunity to teach children about the role of the pope and how the universal Church is structured.

Like every human person, who is a composite of physical nature and a spiritual nature (we all are both body and soul), the Church has a spiritual purpose that requires a physical presence in the world to accomplish its mission.

This presence/structure, called “the hierarchy,” is headed by the pope, and includes all the bishops in the world, all the priests, deacons and religious brothers and sisters – and all of us.  Each local Catholic Church is called a diocese, led by a bishop or archbishop. Each diocese comprises a number of parishes. Pope Francis is called the Supreme Pontiff – the Bishop of Rome but also first among equals.

Here are a few suggestions for you and your family to learn more about the Church, its mission and how it is structured:

  • Look for the content on Church structure in your child’s religious education books and review it as a family.
  • Watch “The Search – Why a Church?” together as a family: (subscription to FORMED required. Check with your parish to see if it has a subscription that gives parishioners free access).
  • Watch “Shoes of the Fisherman” – a classic 1969 film that has an excellent scene right in the middle demonstrating how a new pope is elected (check media outlets for rentals).

Mark G. Russoniello serves as director of religious education in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.

Faith at Home is a monthly column coordinated by the Diocese of Trenton’s Departments of Catechesis, Evangelization and Family Life, and Youth and Young Adult Ministry.  For additional Faith at Home resources, visit