Priesthood (Catholic Church)

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Ordination to the Catholic priesthood (Latin rite). Devotional card, 1925.

The ministerial orders of the Roman Catholic Church are those of bishop, presbyter (more commonly called priest in English), and deacon. The ordained priesthood and the common priesthood (or priesthood of all the baptized) are different in function and essence.[1][2]

Unlike usage in English, "the Latin words sacerdos and sacerdotium are used to refer in general to the ministerial priesthood shared by bishops and presbyters. The words presbyter, presbyterium and presbyteratus refer to priests in the English use of the word or presbyters".[3]

In late 2008, there were 409,166 Catholic priests (presbyters) of the Latin Church and the eastern Catholic Churches worldwide.[4][5]

The state of consecrated life or monasticism is neither clerical,[6] and members of institutes of consecrated life, or monks, can be either clergy or laity (all nuns are lay). Those monastics who are clerics constitute what is called the religious or regular clergy, distinct from the diocesan or secular clergy, those ordained who are not members of an institute of consecrated life, and most often serve as priests to a specific church or in a specific diocese.[7]



The Old Testament (NIV)«» describes how God made his people "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,"[8] and within the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi was chosen to be set apart for the liturgical service of offering sacrifice as priests.[9] The priest was understood as a mediator between God and human beings who offers sacrifices and intercedes for the people.

The New Testament depicts Jesus as the "great high priest" of the New Covenant who, instead of offering the ritual animal sacrifices prescribed by the Jewish Law, offers himself on the cross as the true and perfect sacrifice.[10] The Catholic priesthood is a participation in this priesthood of Christ, and therefore traces its origins to Jesus Christ himself. Thus, the New Testament says that as high priest, Jesus has made the Church "a kingdom of priests for his God and Father."[11] All who are baptized are given a share in the priesthood of Christ; that is, they are conformed to Christ and made capable of offering true worship and praise to God as Christians. "The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly."[12]

The ministerial priesthood of Catholic priests and bishops — what most people think of as "the Catholic priesthood" — has a distinct history. This ministerial priesthood is at the service of the priesthood of all believers and involves the direct consecration of a man to Christ through the sacrament of orders, so that he can act in the person of Christ for the sake of the Christian faithful, above all in dispensing the sacraments. It is understood to have begun at the Last Supper, when Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist in the presence of the Twelve Apostles, commanding them to "do this in memory of me." The Catholic priesthood, therefore, is a share in the priesthood of Christ and traces its historical origins to the Twelve Apostles appointed by Christ. Those apostles in turn selected other men to succeed them as the bishops ("episkopoi", Greek for "overseers") of the Christian communities, with whom were associated presbyters ("presbyteroi", Greek for "elders") and deacons ("diakonoi", Greek for "servants"). As communities multiplied and grew in size, the bishops appointed more and more presbyters to preside at the Eucharist in place of the bishop in the multiple communities in each region. The diaconate evolved as the liturgical assistants of the bishop and his delegate for the administration of Church funds and programmes for the poor. Today, the rank of "presbyter" is typically what one thinks of as a "priest", although technically both a bishop and a presbyter are "priests" in the sense that they share in Christ's ministerial priesthood and offer sacrifice to God in the person of Christ.[13]

Theology of the priesthood

Passover and Christ

The theology of the Catholic priesthood is rooted in the priesthood of Christ and to some degree shares elements of the ancient Hebraic priesthood as well.[14] A priest is one who presides over a sacrifice and offers that sacrifice and prayers to God on behalf of believers. The ancient Jewish priesthood which functioned at the temple in Jerusalem offered animal sacrifices at various times throughout the year for a variety of reasons.

In Christian theology, Jesus is the Lamb provided by God himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Before his death on the cross, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples (the Last Supper) and offered blessings over the bread and wine respectively, saying: "Take and eat. This is my body” and "Drink from this all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:26b-28 Jerusalem Bible). The next day Christ's body and blood were visibly sacrificed on the cross. Catholics believe that it is this same body, sacrificed on the cross and risen on the third day which is made present in the offering of each Eucharistic sacrifice which is called the Eucharist. However, Catholicism does not believe that the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist involves a change in the 'accidental' features: i.e., scientific analysis of the Eucharistic elements would indicate the physical properties of wine and bread.

Thus Catholic priests (and bishops who are “high priests”) in presiding at the Eucharist join each offering of the Eucharistic elements in union with the sacrifice of Christ.[15] Catholic ordained ministers are known as priests because by their celebration of the Eucharist, their offering makes present the one eternal sacrifice of Christ.

Catholicism does not teach that Christ is sacrificed again and again, but that "The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.".[16] Instead, the Catholic Church holds the Jewish concept of memorial in which "..the memorial is not merely a recollection of past events....these events become in a certain way present and real." and thus "...the sacrifice Christ offered once and for all on the cross remains ever present."[17] Properly speaking, in Catholic theology, expressed by Saint Thomas Aquinas, "Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers."[18] Thus, Catholic clergy share in the one, unique, Priesthood of Christ.[19]


The Canon law of the Catholic Church holds that the priesthood is a sacred and perpetual vocational state, not just a profession, and regulates the formation and studies of clerics. In the Latin rite, this legislation is found in canons 232–264. As a general rule, education is extensive and lasts at least five or six years, depending on the national Programme of Priestly Formation.[20]

Regardless of where a person prepares for ordination, it includes not only academics but also human, social, spiritual and pastoral formation. The purpose of seminary education is ultimately to prepare men to be pastors of souls.[22] In the end, however, each individual bishop is responsible for the official call to priesthood, and only they may ordain. Any ordinations done before the normally scheduled time (before study completion) must have the explicit approval of the bishop; any such ordinations done more than a year in advance must have the approval of the Holy See.

Rite of ordination

The Rite of Ordination is what "makes" one a priest, having already been a deacon and with the minister of Holy Orders being a validly ordained bishop.[23]

The Rite of Ordination occurs within the context of Holy Mass. After being called forward and presented to the assembly, the candidates are questioned. Each promises to diligently perform the duties of the Priesthood and to respect and obey his ordinary (bishop or religious superior). Then the candidates lie prostrate before the altar, while the assembled faithful kneel and pray for the help of all the saints in the singing of the Litany of the Saints.

The essential part of the rite is when the bishop silently lays his hands upon each candidate (followed by all priests present), before offering the consecratory prayer, addressed to God the Father, invoking the power of the Holy Spirit upon those being ordained.

After the consecratory prayer, the newly ordained is vested with the stole and chasuble of those belonging to the Ministerial Priesthood and then the bishop anoints his hands with chrism before presenting him with the holy chalice and paten which he will use when presiding at the Eucharist. Following this, the gifts of bread and wine are brought forward by the people and given to the new priest; then all the priests present, concelebrate the Eucharist with the newly ordained taking the place of honour at the right of the bishop. If there are several newly ordained, it is they who gather closest to the bishop during the Eucharistic Prayer.

The laying of hands of the priesthood is found in 1 Timothy 4:14:

Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate."

Clerical celibacy

Early Christianity

The earliest Christians were Jews and Jewish tradition has always deemed the married state as more spiritual than the celibate state.[24] Christian tradition places a high valuation on chastity as a special gift of God. The life of a priest involves being conformed to Christ. It is known that the Apostle Peter had a spouse from Gospel stories of Peter's mother-in-law sick with fever (Matt 8:14, Mark 1:29, Luke 4:38)[25] and from Paul's mention that Peter took along a believing wife in his ministry (1 Cor 9:5).

From its beginnings, the idea of clerical celibacy has been contested in canon courts, in theology, and in religious practices. Celibacy for Roman Catholic priests was not mandated under canon law for the universal church until the Second Lateran Council in 1139.[26]

The Council of Elvirain Spain (approximately 305-306) was the first council to call for clerical celibacy. In February 385, Pope Siricius wrote the Directa decretal, which was a long letter to Spanish bishop Himerius of Tarragona, replying to the bishop’s requests on various subjects, which had been sent several months earlier to Pope Damasus I.[27] It was the first of a series of documents published by the Church's magisterium that claimed apostolic origin for clerical celibacy and reminded ministers of the altar of the perpetual continence required.

After the Great Schism

A married Ukrainian Catholic priest at a church in the United States (His ring appears on his right hand as per Slavic tradition).

Within a century of the Great Schism of 1054, the Churches of the East and West arrived at different disciplines as to abstaining from sexual contact during marriage. In the East, candidates for the Priesthood could be married with permission to have regular sexual relations with their wives, but were required to abstain before celebrating the Eucharist. An unmarried person, once ordained, could not marry. Additionally, the Christian East required that, before becoming a bishop, a priest separate from his wife (she was permitted to object), with her typically becoming a nun. In the East, more normally, bishops are chosen from those priests who are monks and are thus unmarried.

In the West, the law of celibacy became mandatory by Pope Gregory VII at the Roman Synod of 1074.[28][29] This law mandated that, in order to become a candidate for ordination, a man could not be married. The law remains in effect in the West, although not for those who are Eastern Rite Catholic clergy, who remain under the ancient Eastern discipline of sexual abstinence before celebration of the Liturgy, as do Eastern Orthodox priests. The issue of mandatory celibacy continues to be debated, though successive popes have declared that the discipline will not change.

Priestly personality profiles

Research in 1999 in the United Kingdom showed Catholic priests to have personality profiles which were generally masculine in the area of psychoticism (used in its technical sense: "more toughminded than men in general") and feminine in terms of introversion and neuroticism.[30]

Duties of a Catholic priest

Three main aspects to the Priesthood: offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, hearing confessions, and counselling.[31] Whilst continuing to hold the importance of these two aspects of Priesthood, today the Church has a significantly broader understanding.

Priests are also responsible for daily recitation of the principal and minor offices of the Liturgy of the Hours.[32] Catholic priests are the only ministers of the Sacrament of Penance[33] and Anointing of the Sick.[34][35] They are the ordinary ministers of Baptism and witnesses to Holy Matrimony.[36]

Catholic priest: East and West

Although the Catholic Church is frequently referred to as the "Roman Catholic Church" this is a misnomer as it encompasses not only the Latin/Roman branch (i.e. the Western Church) but also twenty-two Eastern Churches (sui iuris). Thus, the disciplines, liturgical practices and ordering of the Catholic Priesthood inevitably vary to some extent among the particular Churches which make up the Universal Church.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Lumen Gentium 10
  2. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1547
  3. ^ Woestman, Wm., The Sacrament of Orders and the Clerical State St Paul's University Press: Ottawa, 2006, pg 8, see also De Ordinatione
  4. ^ Holy See
  5. ^
  6. ^ Code of Canon Law, canon 588
  7. ^ Cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 266
  8. ^ Ex 19:6; cf. Isa 61:6.
  9. ^ Cf. Num 1:48-53; Josh 13:33.
  10. ^ Hebrews 5:1-10; Catechism of the Catholic Church #1546.
  11. ^ Rev 1:6; cf. Rev 5:9-10; 1 Pet 2:5,9.
  12. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church #1546
  13. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church #1547-57; Aidan Nichols, Holy Order: The Apostolic Ministry from the New Testament to the Second Vatican Council
  14. ^ 1913 Encyclopedia
  15. ^ Taylor Marshall, The Crucified Rabbi: Judaism and the Origins of the Catholic Christianity, Saint John Press, 2009 ISBN 978-0-578-03834-6 page 91-2
  16. ^ Catechism paragraph 1367
  17. ^ Catechism paragraphs 1363 & 1364
  18. ^ Catechism para 1545
  19. ^ Vatican II Decree on Ministry and Life of Priests para.22
  20. ^ can. 242.1 CIC 1983
  21. ^ can. 235.1, CIC 1983
  22. ^ Presbyterorum ordinis 4
  23. ^ canon 1012 of the Code of Canon Law
  24. ^ Encyclopedia Judaica, second ed, vol 4, 2007, New York: Thomson Gale, 537
  25. ^ Audet, Jean, Structures of Christian Priesthood, New York: doubleday 1961
  26. ^ The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Washington, DC: Catholic University of America: Washington, vol 3, 366
  27. ^ apostolic origins ex -
  28. ^ John Trigilio, Kenneth Brighenti. Catholicism for Dummies, page 221 (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011). ISBN 978-1-118-07778-8
  29. ^ Helen Parish, Clerical Celibacy In The West: c. 1100-1700, page 100, footnotes 45 and 46 (Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010). ISBN 978-0-7546-3949-7
  30. ^
  31. ^  "Priesthood". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  32. ^ Congregation for Divine Worship, Institutio generalis de Liturgia horarum Feb. 2, 1971
  33. ^ Canon 965
  34. ^ Canon 1003.1
  35. ^ Canon 901.1
  36. ^ Canons 861.1; 1072

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