Catholic Priesthood: In the Name of Christ

2009-2010 Year for Priests Icon

Pope Benedict XVI has declared a “Year for Priests” which began on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart on June 19, 2009, and ends on June 19, 2010 with an international gathering of priests in Rome.

When non-Catholics discuss the Catholic Church, more often than not, the discussion will turn to the priesthood.  A distinguishing feature between the Catholic Church and many Protestant or Evangelical churches is that the latter lacks a ministerial priesthood.  Instead, there is a focus on the “priesthood of all believers”.  We see this even with the LDS church (Mormons), where the priesthood is more ubiquitous among males, beginning with deacons at the age of 12.  But just what is the Catholic priesthood?  Who is a priest?  What can they do that the laity cannot?

Before the ministerial priesthood is discussed, it should be noted that Catholics do believe in a “priesthood of believers” as well.  In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read “ Christ, high priest and unique mediator, has made of the Church “a kingdom, priests for his God and Father.” The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his own vocation, in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king. Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are “consecrated to be . . . a holy priesthood.”” Indeed, the Catechism further states that there is only one priesthood of Christ, in which we participate in two different ways: the priesthood of the faithful, and the ministerial priesthood, with Jesus Christ as our High Priest.  Saint Thomas Aquinas rightly stated: “Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers“.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the sacrament of Holy Orders (by which the priesthood is conferred), as: “the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry. It includes three degrees: episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate.”

The Diaconate

Who are Deacons?

The diaconate is the lowest of the “major Orders” in the Catholic Church.  Although deacons are not technically priests, they are sacramentally ordained ministers, and have various rights and powers not available to the laity.  As in all Orders of the Catholic Church, only males may be ordained to the diaconate.  The diaconate is further divided into two major types of deacons: transitional deacons and permanent deacons.  Transitional Deacons are those deacons that are on the path to the priesthood.  Those males studying for the priesthood in seminary are ordained to the diaconate after a few years of study.  All Transitional Deacons are celibate in the Roman Catholic church, but may not be so in the Eastern Catholic churches.  Permanent Deacons are males that have no desire to be ordained to the Order of priests, and will remain deacons forever.  This type of deacon existed in the ancient Church, and fell into disuse (in favor of the transitional diaconate) until recently in the Roman Catholic church.  In fact, the permanent diaconate has become very popular throughout the Church, especially in the United States and the West, some saying to the detriment of the priesthood.  The Permanent Diaconate has always been used in the Eastern churches.  The vast majority of Permanent Deacons are married men (though they can be celibate of course), though as with the priesthood, they must be married before ordination.  Married men that desire to become deacons require the consent and participation of their wives in the process (many wives take some of the vocational courses with the discerner).  Generally, it takes about 3-4 years of study to become a deacon.

What do Deacons do?

The role of the deacon is one of service.  In fact, the word “deacon” comes from the Greek “diakonos” which has “servant” as one of its meanings.  The deacon works in three areas: the Word, the Liturgy, and Charity.  During the Mass and Divine Liturgy, the deacon reads from the Holy Scriptures, primarily proclaiming the Gospels.  Deacons can also preach, giving the Homily during Mass, as well as preaching at Baptism, Matrimony, etc.  They also lead Catechesis, organizing and leading the Catechists who guide the faithful in religious instruction.  In the Roman Catholic church, deacons are one of the ordinary ministers of Baptism, as well as Holy Matrimony, and Funeral ceremonies (without Mass)  In the Eastern Catholic churches, deacons may not celebrate any of the Mysteries (the term for Sacraments in the East).  Deacons assist the priest and bishop liturgically, and may distribute the Eucharist to those in attendance as well as the sick.  Deacons are the ordinary ministers of the Cup.  Deacons can also celebrate Adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.  Deacons also can give many of the same blessings that priests can, but not all.  Deacons work with the poor and those in need, forming various charitable services in the parishes, as well as working in the existing Catholic and non-Catholic charities throughout the world, serving all people, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, such as to AIDS patients, the elderly, the handicapped, the infirm, etc.  The very name Deacon emphasizes the serving ministry of deacons, and thus they represent the Church to the needy.

The Priesthood

Who are Priests?

According to the Catechism, priests “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”, and areco-workers of the episcopal order for the proper fulfillment of the apostolic mission that had been entrusted to it by Christ.”  Priests act in the person of Christ to confer His sacred Mysteries (Sacraments) to the people.

In the Roman Catholic church, the norm is for men to be celibate before ordination, as well as throughout their ministry.  Certain exceptions are made, such as married Protestant ministers that convert and believe they are called to the Catholic priesthood.  In the Eastern Catholic churches, married men can be ordained to the priesthood, although men cannot marry in any Catholic church after ordination.  Men study and discern the priesthood in seminary, immersing themselves in the study and living of the Catholic Faith.  Men must have a bachelors degree, as well as coursework in theology and philosophy, prior to beginning graduate study in seminary.  After college, it takes about 4-5 years of seminary to become a priest.  Some men begin this path after high school, which takes about 8-10 years (including undergraduate education).  Many priests also hold a Masters of Divinity or higher degree (sometimes conferred by the seminary).  Each diocese has associated seminaries, which seminarians should attend.  In Catholicism, the priesthood is not a profession, but is a way of life, a permanent state (whether inactive, defrocked, etc.  The Rite of ordination states: ‘You are a priest forever, like Melchizedek of old”).  Priests can be part of either the diocese, or “consecrated life”, such as a member of a religious order (Jesuits, Franciscans, etc).

What do Priests Do?

First and foremost, priests are the celebrants of the Mysteries, the Sacraments, by which we enter into special relationships, covenants, with God, receiving His grace.  The sacraments celebrated by priests include Baptism, Confirmation/Chrismation, the Eucharist, Confession, Anointing of the Sick, and Matrimony (only Bishops celebrate Holy Orders).  Priests also celebrate Funeral Masses, Adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (along with deacons), various devotional liturgies (along with deacons), etc.  Priests preach the word of God, as well as instruct the faithful on the word, in many settings, including the Mass/Divine Liturgy.  Priests also may bless people and objects.  Priests also function in many service aspects, however their primary function is to the parish (as a parish priest).  Priests (as well as deacons) are many times chaplains for the military, prisons, hospitals, etc.

The Episcopate

Who are Bishops?

Bishops hold the fullness of the priesthood of the Catholic Church.  Bishops are the successors of the apostles, and thus function in a similar role to them (indeed, the word apostle comes from the Greek “apostolos”, meaning messenger).

All bishops in the Catholic Church, whether in the Roman Catholic or Eastern Catholic churches, are celibate men.  All bishops are selected from the priesthood.  Prospective priests to the episcopate are chosen from those that meet certain requirements, such as extensive knowledge of Sacred Scripture, Canon Law, and Catholic theology (and perhaps advanced degrees in those areas), fruits of their profound faith in God, work with the parishoners, etc.  Generally, the outgoing Bishop will make this list of candidates based on observations.  The candidates are then narrowed down by the other bishops in a province.  Ultimately, the Congregation for Bishops, a group in the Roman Curia of the Catholic Church, will discern each candidate, and make a recommendation on each.  Finally, the Pope, with the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, makes the decision on the newest successor.

What do Bishops do?

Bishops generally guide and care for their dioceses, which are territorial organizations of Catholic parishes in a geographical area.  Bishops are responsible for the various aspects of diocesan life, including religious education, primary and secondary schools, the celebration of the sacraments, advising priests, deacons, and the faithful, the following of Canon Law, etc.  Sacramentally, the bishop is the ordinary minister of Confirmation in the Roman Catholic church, though he may designate priests in his diocese to celebrate it as well.  In the Eastern Catholic churches, the priest ordinarily celebrates Chrismation, using oil (chrism) consecrated by the bishop (the bishop consecrates the oil in the Roman Catholic church as well).  Because the bishop holds the fullness of the priesthood, many functions of the priests and deacons in his territory are generally conferred by him.  Because bishops are also priests, they celebrate all of the sacraments.

As we can see, the only Orders that men are ordained to in the Catholic Church are deacon, priest, and bishop.  Other offices that many are familiar with are merely titles and additional functions conferred on the above three.  For example, the “Pope” is the Bishop of Rome.  One is not ordained a Pope, since the Pope is a bishop.  Cardinals are also bishops.  Patriarchs are bishops that oversee their “particular church”, such as the Roman Catholic Church or the Ukrainian Catholic Church.  An Archbishop is a bishop of an Archdiocese, which is generally a large diocese or one with some historical significance.

Catechism of the Catholic Church-Holy Orders

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~ by onecatholic on September 20, 2009.

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