Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What's a Primate???


Fr. Adrian Fortescue lived in early 20th century England.  He was a historian, theologian, musician, linguist, and adventurer.  He wrote books on everything from the Roman Liturgy, to the Lesser Eastern Churches.  He even contributed a considerable amount to the Catholic Encyclopedia.  So if you've read any of the articles on the Roman Liturgy in the CE, you are already familiar with Fr. Fortescue's writing.

I personally became aware of Fr. Fortescue before I shipped overseas.  To keep me company and save space, my dear wife gave me a Nook!  In the search for free books on Church History, we stumbled upon Fr. Fortescue and downloaded four of his books.  The Orthodox Eastern Church, The Lesser Eastern Churches, The Greek Fathers, and Donatism.

On my flight over I read The Greek Fathers and Donatism.  They were the shortest of the four.
So naturally, I started there.

While reading The Greek Fathers, a book filled with short stories about the lives of the various Greek Fathers, I discovered something about our Church that I never knew!  The hierarchy in our Church is much more robust than Priest, Pastor, Bishop, Pope!  Here, a Catholic of 24 years, I had imagined that an Archbishop was merely presiding over a large See, a metropolitan was a man from the city, and a patriarch was another word for the pater familias.

Not so.


Everyone knows who the top dog is, whether they acknowledge it or not.  So at the top we've got the ol' Pontifex Maximus, the Pope, the supreme pontiff, the servant of sevants. 

He has authority over the Universal Church regarding Faith and Morals, and certain matters of discipline. 
The Pope is also the Patriarch of the Latin Church.  The definiton of a Patriarch differs depending on who you ask, and when.  Not to complicate matters or offend anyone, but you can boil down the definition of a patriarch to two kinds.

Within the Latin Church we have historically used the title of Patriarch as an honorific.  The title bestows little more than improving where you sit at a Council, or stand in a procession of Bishops.

On the other hand, in the Universal Church there initially developed 3 Patriachs: Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria.  Over time, two more were added, Constantinople, and Jerusalem.  I'm not going to get into the whole history, it is very complicated, and I have not studied enough to fully understand it myself!  Suffice it to say that these Patriarchs had authority over the canons and liturgy of their autonomous particular Churches.  Even though the Pope is the only Patriarch that has never fallen in schism with . . . well, himself, there do exist today Eastern Catholic Patriarchs.  For example, the Melike Patriarch of Antioch, who came back into communion with Rome in 1724.

You can find more about this on wikipedia or the catholic encyclopedia.


After the Pope, our Patriarch, there are these creatures called Primates.  A Primate is usually the bishop who presides over the first diocese founded in a given country or territory.  The Primate used to have the ability "to call and preside at national synods, the jurisdiction to hear appeals from metropolitan tribunals, the right to crown the sovereign of the nation, and presiding at the investiture (installation) of archbishops in their sees."

Today there is little more to being a Primate than the holding of an honorary right of precedence.  Meaning, if all bishops were processing into a Church, or we're reading out loud the names of bishops in a formal gathering we'd start with the Pope, go to the Patriarchs, then the Primates, and then Metropolitans etc.


I keep mentioning Metropolitans.  A metropolitan was something I'd never heard of until reading the book by Fr. Fortescue.  So what are Metropolitans?? 

Metropolitans are Archbishops, but not all Archbishops are Metropolitans.  Being a Metropolitan Archbishop means you have a certain degree of authority over, and some degree of privilege within your suffragan dioceses.  One of those privileges?  The Metropolitan gets to wear his pallium when celebrating Mass in any diocese in his province.  I like to think of a pallium as the Archbishop's liturgical equivelant of a tie.  I'm sure the more knowledgeable might take umbrage to such an equation, but can you blame me?  

NB: Suffragan dioceses are just dioceses within an Ecclesiastical Province, and that fall under a metropolitan diocese. As a note of interest, there are 34 Metropolitan Diocese in the US, with Metropolitan Archbishops presiding.

I hope all that made sense!  The hierarchy of the Church and the relationships between different positions within that hierarchy are a fascinating topic!  I've not even scratched the surface here.  If you're interested on learning more, I suggest you click on the links.  They'll bring you to websites with more information on the individual terms, and will help you get started on your own study of our Church's hierarchy!

(photo of the primate from


  1. Wow! This is really interesting. I didn't know much more than the fundamentals of the hierarchy before reading this.

    Curious: where did you find those free e-books?

  2. Oooh! I love this, keep going with it. Just last night someone asked us if there were three Popes at once in the early days. I didn't I do. My husband had an idea about it and got very close to what you wrote. He loves hierarchy!