Ask a Priest

Difference between a Bishop and a Patriarch

May 30, 2014

Hi Father,

I was wondering what the difference between a Catholic Bishop/Archbishop and a Patriarch, for example, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. I was also wondering what the difference between these Patriarchs, the Othodox Patriarchs and the five that use to exist – Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria.

I’ve heard that the Catholic Patriarchs are essentially Cardinals, but I’m not sure much more than that. And also, who is the Ecumenical Patriarch that Pope Francis met in the Holy Land recently?

Any help would be great.



Asked at 03:20 am on May 30th 2014

Dear Ron:

The title of patriarch comes from the Greek “patriarches”, that means chief or head of a family. It is a title given to some metropolitan archbishops. Metropolitan comes from another Greek word meaning “mother”, so it is used to refer to dioceses that have a certain importance, either because of their size or for some historical reason.

Patriarch is a title used predominantly in the Eastern churches. There are those that used to exist, as you mention, but due to historical changes the Christian population in some of these cities ceased to exist or was reduced to a minimal presence.

A patriarch is the title of a bishop with the highest possible rank and means he is superior to all the other bishops within the area that is responsible for and is only answerable to the pope.

The five sees you mention were the five main centres of the Church in the early centuries. In 325 the Council of Nicea gave first place to the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. Later Constantinople and Jerusalem were added to the list at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, by taking away territory from Jerusalem.

The Pope was previously referred to as the Patriarch of the West, but Benedict XVI dropped this title in 2006. You can read about this here.

Currently there are a number of Patriarchs, for each one of the Eastern or Oriental rite Churches.

I think the Patriarch you refer to during the visit by Pope Francis is that of Constantinople – Bartholomew. For more on this you can read this report.

Replied at 03:04 am on May 30th 2014

Dear Father,

Thank you for your answer.

Also, why are the Patriarchs, e.g. of Jerusalem, called Patriarchs and not Metropolitan Archbishops? Are Metropolitan Archbishops, e.g. of Melbourne, considered the same rank? Since they are the highest possible rank, can they vote for the Pope?

Hope I don’t have too many questions. I have been wondering this for a while.


Replied at 02:15 pm on May 30th 2014

Dear Ron:

I think that from what i mentioned before it is clear that the title of Patriarch is given because of some special importance, either for historical reasons or because it represents a particular rite in the Church. A patriarch is a higher title than a metropolitan, but of course they only have authority within their specific area.

Only cardinals participate in a papal conclave.

Replied at 05:54 am on May 31st 2014