As a theologian, I recently developed an interest in understanding the hierarchy of the Catholic Church nuns after interacting with them on various missions. I am especially intrigued to find out what rank is higher than a nun. I recently embarked on a mission of research to learn more and find credible information on this topic, seeking various takes from Priests and nuns residing in nearby convents. Thankfully, the research was a success as I got credible information. As a theology professor, I was teaching my college class about the hierarchy of the Catholic Church nuns. The students were excited and eager to know more, asking many questions. One student wondered which hierarchical authority is higher than a nun in a convent. Having carried out extensive research previously, I was happy to answer all their questions. So, what is higher than a nun?
Mother superior or Abbess is a higher rank than a nun. The mother superior is legally elected and is in charge of a convent. She has the most authority among the members of the convent. Another rank higher than a nun is that of a prioress. A prioress is second in command and is like the deputy of the Abbess. The mother of novices is another higher rank than a nun. She is a nun in charge of the novices. These are women that are in the beginning stages of being a nun. Lastly, we have the nun as the lowest in rank.
In this article, I invite you to join me as I elaborate on the positions present in the Catholic Church hierarchy and their functions, the highest-ranking woman in the Catholic Church, the difference between a nun and a mother, and much more!
Hierarchy of the Catholic Church
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church administration consists of the Pope, Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Deacons, and the Religious community that includes sisters and Brothers. This is the respective hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Great power comes with great responsibilities, meaning every member has a role to play. Every title has its unique functions that must be efficiently administered by every person given the mandate to hold the title.
The Pope being the rank with the most authority, is the leader of all the Catholic Churches on Earth. His main function is to guide, protect and teach the Church in religious virtues and faith. He is the vicar of Christ on earth. The Pope is the supreme teacher of the Catholic faith, and his authority is highly respected. He is also the bishop of the Diocese of Rome.
He is like the king of all the Catholic Churches. The Pope, by the power of Jesus Christ, has the will to speak infallibly on topics concerning religious morals and faith. The Pope is the head of Christians all over the world, and his authority comes from Jesus Christ. The Pope is selected using democracy, which includes an electoral process. This election is controlled by Cardinals of the Church that forms the conclave, and they vote. The candidate with the greatest number of votes is then selected as the Pope.
Cardinals have the second rank in the Catholic Church hierarchy. Their function is to vote and elect the Pope and also help the Pope in liturgy, provide counsel to the Pope, and assist in affairs involving the Church administration. Cardinals are prestigious bishops who have been awarded the right to be the next Pope. These bishops can be selected from large or well-known dioceses. The Pope is the one who selects them. In case a Pope dies, a cardinal who was selected to assist the Pope can be elected as the next Pope.
Bishops have the third rank in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. There is the Archbishop and the bishop. The function of the Archbishop is to govern the archdiocese and bishops in a close-range region. He also has the duty of briefing the Pope on the progress of the archdiocese he governs. The function of the bishop is to manage his diocese as he is the head pastor.
Auxiliary bishops are nominated by the Archbishop, and their function is to help the Archbishop in overseeing the archdiocese. There also is the Coadjutor bishop, who is a nominated successor of the bishop, together with the bishop, they oversee their diocese.
Priests have the fourth rank in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Their function is to assist the archbishops and bishops in performing religious rituals like mass, marriage, and taking confessions. This is because archbishops govern archdioceses which are large and have many parishes; they simply give authority to priests to do so since they cannot attend every parish and serve everybody. The bishops are the chief pastors of their domains but give priests the authority to perform some duties in their place.
Furthermore, there is the Episcopal vicar, a priest who is enabled to act in place of a bishop. His job description is defined and determined by the bishop in charge at nomination. A vicar general is a priest who has general authority to act in place of a bishop in a diocese. It is required that every archdiocese have 1 vicar general.
A pastor is a priest whose function is to teach the word of God and promote spiritual welfare to people. A pastor has an assistant pastor who helps him in whatever way is needed. A diocesan priest is ordained to serve a specific archdiocese; he answers to the concerns of the local ordinary. Lastly, we have religious order priests who work to serve specific causes within the Church.
Deacons have the lowest rank in the Catholic Church hierarchy. Their function is to help the bishop or the priest. Same as a priest, a deacon can perform some religious rituals such as witnessing a marriage, conducting a funeral, and baptism. Mass is the only excluded ritual that they cannot conduct.
There are distinct types of deacons, the first is the transitional deacon, who are deacons about to climb up in rank and become priests. They are in the last stages of training to join the priesthood. Permanent deacons are the other type of deacons. They are married and can only be ordained to become priests in case where they become widowers.
Religious communities are not part of the clergy, but they play a big role in the Catholic Church. They are also included in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. This is because we have groups of ordained and lay people that help in particular causes and works of the Catholic Church. Sisters are part of the religious communities. The function of the sister’s function is to participate in whatever causes and works of their respectful female religious order. These are women that have taken the vows of female religious orders.
Brothers are part of the religious communities. Brother’s function is to participate in whatever causes and works of their religious order. These are men that have taken the vows of male religious orders.
What are the ranks of Catholic Nuns?
The Catholic nuns have 4 typical ranks consisting of the mother superior or Abbess, the prioress, the mother of novices, and lastly, nuns. These ranks can vary according to the religious order.
The mother superior or Abbess is the highest rank of a nun in a convent. The mother superior is democratically elected and is the head of a convent. She has the most authority among the members of a convent, she schedules and oversees all activities taking place in a convent.
The second rank is that of a prioress. A prioress is second in command and is the assistant of the Abbess. Her role is to help the mother superior run things smoothly at the convent. She is left in charge whenever the Abbess is not around.
The Mother of Novices
The mother of novices is the third rank. A mother novice is the head of all novices. She mentors’ novices helping them adjust well to their new journey and new life. She makes sure all novices are okay and following the set rules. She is a nun in charge of all the novices. Novices are the new members of a convent. Women who are in the beginning stages of being a nun.
Lastly, we have the nun. The nun is the lowest in rank and makes the majority in a convent. These are women who have taken special vows to commit their lives to the service and worship of God. A nun is referred to as a sister by other nuns of higher or the same ranks. Nuns are normal sisters who do not have additional responsibilities other than the ones allocated to them.
When is a Nun a Mother instead of a Sister?
A nun can be called a mother instead of a sister if she is elected as the mother superior. This comes usually after elections are completed and officiated. The elected nun now is addressed as mother and no longer sister. This title helps to differentiate her from other nuns and also to show that she has superior authority. The title mother simply identifies her as the head of the convent. By calling her mother, it shows that other nuns respect her as she teaches and guides them in faith and morals.
Another instance where a nun can be called a mother instead of a sister is when she is the mother novice. The mother novice is the head of all novices. The novices can call their mother as she is their mentor and assists them adapt to their new lifestyles. She takes care of them and teaches them the religious order way of life. Just like a mother teaches and nurtures her children. She is their counsel in matters of faith, spirituality, and prayer.
Who’s the highest-ranking woman in the Catholic Church?
The highest-ranking woman of the Catholic Church is the Virgin Mary, who all Catholics revere. However, in terms of holding the highest-ranking office, the secretary general of the office governing Vatican City state, who is a woman, has the highest rank in the Catholic Church. She was appointed by the Pope and holds the highest rank among women in the Catholic Church. The Virgin Mary is referred to as the Queen of Heaven by Catholics. She holds the highest rank in the Catholic Church because she was chosen by God. She is the mother of God, the son in flesh, Jesus Christ. She is the mother of the Church as she brought into this world the one who established the Catholic Church.
As a devout Christian, I have always been passionate about the Christian faith. This inspired me to pursue a degree in Religious studies and a Masters in Theology in college. I have also been privileged to teach 4 Christian courses in a college and university. Since I am dedicated to spreading the word of God, I am actively involved in the Church. Additionally, I share his word online and cover diverse topics on the Christian faith through my platform. You can read more about me on the about us page.