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

The ministerial orders of the Catholic Church includes the orders of bishops, deacons and presbyters, which in Latin is sacerdos.[1] The ordained priesthood and common priesthood (or priesthood of the all the baptized) are different in function and essence.[2]

A distinction is to be made between "priest" and "presbyter." In the 1983 Code of Canon Law, "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] and presbyters"[3]

The Priesthood in the Catholic Church includes the priests of both the Latin Rite and the Eastern Rites. As of May 2007, the Vatican website stated that there were some 406,411 priests serving the Church worldwide.[4]

Whilst the consecrated life is neither clerical or lay by definition,[5] clerics can be members of institutes of consecrated, or secular (diocesan), life.[6]


The Priesthood is understood to have begun with the Last Supper, when Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist. While the threefold ministry is recorded in the New Testament, it is believed that in many assemblies this complete articulation did not take place until the second century.[7] Until then, most small communities were led by an episkopos (overseer or bishop) or a presbyteros (elder or priest), hence in Catholic theology they are referred to as presbyter-bishops in this period. As communities grew in size and needed more ministers, the bishops became the highest level of minister in the Church with priests assisting them in presiding at the Eucharist in the multiple communities in each city. The diaconate (deacon means 'servant') evolved as administrators of Church funds and programmes for the poor.

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.[8] 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 and offered blessings over the bread (matzoh) 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 became visible in his sacrifice 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 Mass. However, Catholicism does not believe that the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is one in which Christ's Body and Blood are seen and tasted in the same way as human flesh and blood; thus scientific analysis of the Eucharistic elements would indicate wine and unleavened bread (or leavened bread in the case of Eastern Rite Catholics).

Thus 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. Catholic ordained ministers are known as priests because by their celebration of the Eucharist, they offer in a new moment in time 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.".[9] 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."[10] Properly speaking, in Catholic theology, expressed by Saint Thomas Aquinas, "Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers."[11] Thus, Catholic clergy share in the one, unique, Priesthood of Christ.[12]


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.[13]

  • Most frequently in the United States, priests must have a four-year university degree (which is usually in philosophy) plus an additional four to five years of graduate-level seminary formation in theology.
  • In Scotland, there is a mandatory year of preparation before entering seminary for a year dedicated to spiritual formation, followed by several years of study.
  • In Europe, Australasia and North America, seminarians usually graduate with a Master of Divinity or a Master of Theology degree, which is a four-year professional degree (as opposed to a Master of Arts which is an academic degree). At least four years are to be in theological studies at the major seminary.[14]
  • In Africa, Asia and South America, programmes are more flexible, being developed according to the age and academic abilities of those preparing for ordination.

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.[15] 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, with the minister of Holy Orders being a validly ordained bishop.[16]

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 the 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."

Note that the word for presbyter or elder is from the same Greek word as priest. Imposition of hands or filling of hands, or semicha, in Hebrew, was necessary for the installation of Joshua, and rabbis

Clerical celibacy

Before A.D. 1054

The First Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, which took place at Nicaea in A.D. 325, included in its legislation a discipline of the Priesthood known as clerical continence. This was the requirement of all priests and bishops to refrain from sexual contact with their wives and with all other women; for a married man to become a priest, his wife had to agree to abstain from sexual relations with him. This discipline was reinforced in the legislation of various local councils, such as the Council of Elvira in Spain; the date of this council cannot be determined with exactness, but is believed to be in the first quarter of the fourth century. While priests were required to refrain from all sexual contact by virtue of their presiding at the Eucharist, this was an exceedingly difficult discipline to maintain. As the priests of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem were required to abstain from sexual contact (in order to achieve ritual purity) briefly before the periodic performance of the sacrifices of the temple, so several Early Church priests of several areas were required, by ecclesiastical law, to abstain from sexual contact. However, because they presided at the sacrifice of the Eucharist on every Sunday and the annual feasts of the various martyrs, the Christian calendar did not afford them periods in which they could be sexually active with their wives.

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.[17] 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

Within a century of the schism of 1054, the Churches of the East and West arrived at different disciplines as alternatives to the very difficult practice of abstaining from sexual contact during marriage. In the East, candidates for the Priesthood could be married with permission to have a 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), she 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 was universally required by the 11th century. 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.

Duties of a Catholic priest

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia published at the beginning of the 20th century, there are two main aspects to the Priesthood: offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and forgiving sins.[18] Whilst continuing to hold the importance of these two aspects of Priesthood, today the Church has a significantly broader understanding.

Among the duties of a Catholic priest are the celebration of Holy Mass, during which he acts as a vessel for Christ, (in persona Christi')' or as a concelebrant. Indeed, the priest is called to make Christ present during every moment of his life.[19] The role of the Catholic priest is primarily to be seen in terms of service to all people, and the priest's actions must ultimately be measured against those of Christ Himself.[20] When he leads worship, or performs a sacramental act such as blessing, the priest acts in the name of the whole Church,[21] for "they are consecrated in order to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful as well as to celebrate divine worship as true priests of the New Testament."[22] They are to preach God's word in-and-out of season, are to be people of deep and regular prayer, be steeped in sacred Scripture, educators in the faith and work tirelessly for the glory of God through service to His People.[23] In order to fulfil these roles, a priest must be familiar with the lives of those to whom he ministers[24] and be ever-more-closely united to Christ.

Priests are also responsible for daily recitation of the principal and minor offices of the Liturgy of the Hours.[25] Catholic priests are the only ministers of the Sacrament of Penance[26] and Anointing of the Sick.[27] They are the only ones who can celebrate the Eucharist in the Catholic Church [28] (not to be confused with distribution of Communion by deacons or extraordinary ministers). They, together with deacons, are the ordinary ministers of Baptism and witnesses to Holy Matrimony.[29]

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.

Fiction and Literature Portraying Priests

  • Abby
  • Alice, Sweet Alice
  • Angels with Dirty Faces
  • Anthony Adverse
  • Behold a Pale Horse
  • The Bells of St. Mary's
  • Boys Town
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey
  • Brother Sun, Sister Moon
  • The Cardinal
  • Change of Habit
  • Come to the Stable
  • The Confession
  • Conspiracy of Hearts
  • The Decameron
  • The Devil is a Woman
  • The Devils
  • The Devil's Playground
  • Divorce, Italian Style
  • 8 1/2
  • The Exorcist
  • Exorcist II: The Heretic
  • Fighting Father Dunne
  • The Fighting 69th
  • The Flowers of St. Francis
  • The Garden of Allah
  • Going My Way
  • House of Mortal Sin
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • I Confess
  • Intolerance
  • The Keys of the Kingdom
  • Kid Galahad
  • Kid Monk Baroni
  • The Left Hand of God
  • Les Miserables
  • Lilies of the Field
  • The Longest Day
  • Men of Boys Town
  • The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima
  • The Miracle of the Bells
  • Monsieur Vincent
  • Mother Joan of the Angels
  • A Nun at the Crossroads
  • The Nun of Monza
  • The Nun's Story
  • The Omen
  • On the Waterfront
  • The Pillars of the Earth
  • Pope Joan
  • The Private War of Major Benson
  • Robin and Marian
  • Rome, Open City
  • Sally and Saint Anne
  • Satan Never Sleeps
  • Say One for Me
  • Scandal at Scourie
  • School of the Holy Beast
  • Sea Wife
  • The Shoes of the Fisherman
  • The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine
  • The Song of Bernadette
  • The Sound of Music
  • Stigmata
  • To the Devil a Daughter
  • Trouble Along the Way
  • Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
  • Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows!
  • World Without End
  • The White Sister

See also


  1. Catechism 1547
  2. Lumen Gentium 10
  3. Woesteman, 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. can. 588, CIC 1983
  6. can. 266, CIC 1983
  7. Catholic Encyclopedia 1913 Edition
  8. 1913 Encyclopedia
  9. Catechism paragraph 1367
  10. Catechism paragraphs 1363 & 1364
  11. Catechism para 1545
  12. Vatican II Decree on Ministry and Life of Priests para.22
  13. can. 242.1 CIC 1983
  14. can. 235.1, CIC 1983
  15. Presbyterorum ordinis 4
  16. canon 1012 of the Code of Canon Law
  17. apostolic origins ex -
  18.  "Priesthood". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  19. Catechism para.1548,1549
  20. Catechism para.1551
  21. Catechism para.1552,1553
  22. Catechism para.1564
  23. Decree on Ministry and Life of Priests paras.4,5,6
  24. Vatican II Declaration on the Ministry and Life of Priests para.3
  25. Congregation for Divine Worship, Institutio generalis de Liturgia horarum Feb. 2, 1971
  26. Canon 965
  27. Canon 1003.1
  28. Canon 901.1
  29. Canons 861.1; 1072

External links

  • VISION Vocation Guide information about Roman Catholic priesthood and religious life with directory of men's religious communities and diocesan links.

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