Frequently Asked Questions About the Priesthood
What Does a Priest Do All Day?
Most diocesan priests are parish priests. They celebrate Mass on Sundays and during the week with their people, hear their confessions, anoint them when they are sick, baptize, marry and bury them. They preach the Word of God from the pulpit and teach it in classrooms and discussion groups. They listen to their people’s joys and sorrows and often take the initiative to promote works of charity and justice. They may work with groups of the elderly, with teen or young adult groups and with parents.
A diocesan priest may also work full-time with the patients and staff of a hospital or with students in a high school or college as chaplain or teacher. He may be asked to work with inmates and staff in a jail or prison. Some priests are released from service in the dioceses in order to be chaplains to our men and women in the armed forces.
Basic to the ministry of any priest is preaching the Word of God, celebrating the sacraments and being available to God’s people. It’s a busy, rewarding life that demands stamina and spiritual maturity.
What is the difference between a diocesan priest and a religious order priest?
A religious order priest belongs to a community of men bound together by faith and the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Poverty means that they do not own things individually but rather as a group; chastity means that they refrain from sexual activity and do not marry; obedience means that, after any appropriate consultation, they do what their elected superiors ask them to do. It is not necessary to be a priest to be a member of a religious order; those who are not priests are called brothers. Even for religious order priests, the heart of their religious vocation lies, not in the priesthood, but in their belonging to their religious community. The priests and brothers of a religious community may engage in any kind of work for the Church and the good of humanity; they often specialize in certain kinds of work such as education, work with the sick or poor and service in the foreign missions.
A diocesan priest belongs to the body of priests (called the presbyterate) of a local diocese, which is a particular territory within a state or country. The Archdiocese of Denver, for example, comprises the northern third of Colorado from Kansas and Nebraska across to Utah–including most of the Denver metro area. The Diocese of Raleigh covers the entire state of North Carolina. A diocesan priest normally serves within the boundaries of his diocese under the authority of his bishop.
A diocesan priest does not make the solemn vows that religious priests (and religious brothers and sisters) make but he does make promises that are discussed in subsequent questions. Perhaps the most striking difference between him and a religious order priest is that the diocesan priest lives a life more like that of his people: he buys his own clothes and car, he pays taxes, he may own personal property. That is why a diocesan priest is sometimes called a secular priest (from the Latin saeculum, a word that means roughly “this world of time and space in which we live”).
Do you have to pray a lot as a priest?
You’d better or your well will run dry! You cannot be a faithful priest, useful to the Lord, if you try to go it alone. You need the help and support of brother priests and other people but most of all you need God’s grace. You dispose yourself to receive His help by turning to Him frequently in prayer. The priests who are truly happy and effective among God’s people are the priests who are faithful to prayer.
Surprisingly, a diocesan priest must often fight for the time for personal prayer. He is often called upon to lead others in public prayer, especially the Mass and the other sacraments of the Church. These are genuine times of prayer for him as well as them — but like every Christian, the priest needs some time each day to spend alone with the Lord. His busy ministry sometimes makes this very difficult but it is something he must strive to keep fresh in his life, lest he lose sight of the One who called him to be a priest in the first place and the One who alone can sustain him.
Do you lose your freedom as a priest?
The short answer is NO. Sensible people do not try to live free of all responsibilities and obligations to others. Otherwise, for what has Christ set us free from sin and death? Certainly not to live a self-centered life. We have to make choices about how we will use the freedom we have.
Because they want to serve God within the Church, diocesan priests make a formal promise of obedience to their bishop. Their personal integrity is on the line in this promise. It binds them to do what needs to be done, as seen through the eyes of the bishop who is responsible for the entire diocese; they renounce the exaggerated freedom to do always and everywhere what they like or want to do.
On the other hand, diocesan priests can testify that there is great freedom to be creative in the priesthood. Bishops rely on priests along with the laity to suggest necessary pastoral initiatives. A bishop also tries to match his priests with the work that needs to be done. Ordinarily, a priest ends up doing work for which he is well enough suited. The bottom line, however, is service, not pleasing oneself.
Why don’t Catholic priests marry?
It is not because they despise marriage or family life, as many priests would tell you. Rather, they are so attracted to serving Christ and His people as priests that they are willing to be celibate (that is, willing to forego their natural right to marry and have a family) in order to enter the priesthood. And so they make a promise of celibacy before they are ordained to the transitional diaconate.
But why is celibacy asked of Catholic priests while it is not asked of Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis? While celibacy was not always asked of priests and, even today, exceptions have been made for ordained ministers who convert to the Catholic faith and wish to be ordained priests, the Church has seen the wisdom of choosing her priests from among those men who believe the Lord has also given them the capacity to live a chaste celibate life.
Jesus himself lived a celibate life — and a priest, unlike a minister or rabbi, represents Jesus in a unique way in his very person. Celibacy for the sake of God’s Kingdom (rather than because one is simply not attracted to marriage or in fact looks down on it) shows the priest’s total dedication to serving God and God’s people, just as Jesus’ celibacy spoke of his total dedication to doing the will of His Father. Celibacy tells the Catholic people that their priest is available to them to a degree other religious leaders cannot be because of their legitimate family responsibilities.
There are additional reasons for asking a celibate commitment of a priest. In a world caught up in what it can see, hear and touch, the priest’s celibacy witnesses to the priority of God and the spiritual life even in the midst of the wonderful creation God has given us to live in. In a Western world preoccupied by sex, the priest’s celibacy says it is possible, with God’s help, to see sexuality in perspective and to find joy and have satisfying friendships without going to bed with a person.
In no way does celibacy do away with a priest’s sexuality. But God’s grace is sufficient for him. Celibacy is not easy to live at times, any more than obedience is. A solid prayer life, healthy lifestyle, good friends and prudent judgment about persons and situations are all necessary to live a celibate life well. The remarkable thing is not that some priests at times have problems with celibacy but that so many live it so well. “With God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).
Do you earn any money as a diocesan priest?
Yes, diocesan priests receive a modest salary from the parish or other institution they serve. Since priests are ordinarily provided with room and board and a limited expense account as well, their salary (which is taxable) is sufficient for their personal expenses. Out of it they buy their clothes, automobile, pay for vacations and contribute to the charities of their choice. While diocesan priests do not take the vow of poverty that religious order priests take, they are encouraged to live a simple lifestyle and to be generous to the poor. The black clerical clothes typical of priests are an outward sign of this modest life.
Do priests get any time off?
The Lord took his apostles apart for some rest after they had worked very hard preaching and healing (Mark 6: 31-32). Diocesan priests work hard, too, and the Lord takes them apart from time to time to rest. In the Archdiocese of Denver, priests get one day off each week and have up to a month off each year for vacation. It is also wise for them to have hobbies and special interests to turn to for relaxation in the course of a normal day of priestly work, just as they should make time for prayer.
Just as importantly, diocesan priests are asked to make an annual retreat alone or with fellow priests to experience, in the calm and quiet of the retreat atmosphere, the loving touch of their Lord. These times of retreat are blessed times of spiritual renewal for the priest, just as they are for other believers.
Why doesn’t the Catholic Church ordain women to the priesthood?
The constant belief of the Church has been that God in His sovereign will has plans for women that do not include the priesthood. From the beginning of the Church, women have played significant roles in its life: Mary, the Mother of the Lord, Mary Magdalene, the first proclaimer of His resurrection, the women martyrs like Cecilia, Agnes and Edith Stein who witnessed to their faith with their blood, the women like Monica who witnessed to their pagan husbands of their faith in Christ, the innumerable women who raised their children in the faith, the women like Scholastica and Clare who entered or founded monastic communities of women, the wise women like Catherine, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux who taught the Church about following Jesus. Without women the Church would be immeasurably poorer. Yet none of the above women or any other has ever been ordained a priest in the history of the Church.
The reason why neither Jesus, his Apostles nor any Catholic bishops in succession to the Apostles have ordained women as priests is because of the nature of the priesthood. Priests represent the person of Jesus in his headship of the Church. Because through their priestly ordination they become personally identified with Jesus, whose body was essential to the true humanity he assumed in the Incarnation, priests can do for the good of His people what only Jesus could do: change bread and wine into His Body and Blood and absolve people from their sins. Essential to this representational character of the priesthood is the gender of the priest. Unlike racial and ethnic factors, culture and social background – all of which have a fluidity, all of which could be radically different with enough time – gender is an unalterable biological feature of the human landscape. “He made them male and female” (Genesis 1:27). Gender is the clearest distinction among human beings at the level of their human nature and the only one that is absolutely necessary to their existence through multiple generations. It is for good reason that the first question the parents of a newborn child often hear is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Gender, then, is not peripheral but central to each person’s identity.
More than that, a sound human instinct recognizes that when one person is representing another person, not representing a group (as in the U.S. Congress) or acting only in an ambassadorial capacity, that representational role is strengthened by having the gender of the representative be the same as the one represented. That is why, in an advance over ancient times and even those of Shakespeare, women today play the roles of women in plays, movies and on TV while men play the roles of men. We sense that it is more fitting for a man to represent a male character and a woman to represent a female character, even though men could say the female characters’ lines and vice versa. A Catholic priest, it should be noted, does more than simply represent Jesus in a play or movie: he actually does what Jesus did when celebrating the sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance. It is all the more fitting, then, that in his body with its visible, audible and tangible gender characteristics, the priest bear resemblance in this fundamental way to the Jesus he represents to the Church. As we say about other things, “it helps to look the part.” All the more so when a man must actually be the part.
The Church’s understanding about the priesthood is not easy for some people to accept. Sometimes the Church begins with an instinctual grasp of a truth that only later it can more fully explain. We have all had the experience of recognizing someone whose name we cannot remember but whom we are sure we have met. Later we remember the person’s name and details about his or her life. Our initial recognition was right but it needed to be fleshed out more. Perhaps the Church’s teaching on whom may be ordained is like that. But the key lies in the priest’s personal representation of Christ, not simply in the functions he performs.
It is unfortunate that so often, in the heat of debate, the special roles that God gives women in his Church are lost sight of. Women are still being called along with men to marry and raise children for eternal life. Women are still being called to embrace vowed religious life in religious communities. Other women are being called to the consecrated life in the world and not as part of religious communities. Women in great numbers work professionally for the Church and in even greater numbers, give freely of their time and energies to myriad of Church activities. The Church could not do without them. Today’s women are challenged to respond wholeheartedly to the Gospel of Jesus and bring Him to the world, just as women have done in the past. That is most certainly still in God’s plan for them and that will never change.
How long does it take to become a priest?
This depends on when and where one starts. A young man who enters college seminary immediately or shortly after high school will spend the traditional four years there, getting a sound foundation in philosophy and the other liberal arts, then move on to the theological seminary (called a theologate) for four more years of specialized study in Scripture, Theology, Church History and related fields. He would spend a total of eight years in the seminary after high school, comparable to another young man who goes to law school or gets an M.B.A. or goes to medical school.
Some men begin their preparations for the priesthood after already obtaining a college degree (and even graduate or professional degrees). Usually they need a substantial amount of philosophy and preliminary level theology before moving on to graduate level theology. Therefore, they enter a one-year or more often two-year program called Pre-theology. Once prepared in this way they enter the usual four-year theologate. They spend a total of five or six years in the seminary.
There are a few seminaries in the United States that have special four-year programs for older candidates. Many diocese use such programs when a man’s age and background indicate them.
Along with formal training in philosophy and theology, the spiritual life and practical skills for priesthood, some diocese have seminarians spend some summers as pastoral interns in a parish and sometimes this is extended for an entire year where it would be useful. Seminarians also participate in special summer programs to deepen their spiritual life or their appreciation of the Spanish language and Hispanic culture.
Since the priesthood is not just a career but a whole way of life and service, priestly formation takes in the entire person: spiritual, intellectual, human and pastoral. The specific needs of each candidate are continually evaluated and every effort is made to give him the assistance he needs. The candidate must also “take the reins” of his own priestly formation, rather than being a passive subject.