Roman Catholic priests serve as either diocesan priests (sometimes called secular priests), leading individual parishes within a certain diocese, or as religious priests, living and working with other members of their religious order. The primary function of all priests is administering the church’s seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, confession, holy communion, marriage, holy orders, and anointing of the sick. Diocesan priests also visit the sick, oversee religious education programs, and generally provide pastoral care to their parishioners. Religious priests often serve as educators and missionaries, or they may be cloistered in a monastery. There are approximately 45,000 Roman Catholic priests in the United States, most of whom are diocesan priests.
History of Roman Catholic Priest Career
Priests and other clergy are part of the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Roman Catholic Church, only men can enter priesthood. This hierarchy began historically with Jesus Christ, who is believed by Catholics and other Christians to have been both God and man. Peter, the leader of the twelve apostles, is considered the priestly human successor to Jesus Christ. The spiritual successor of Peter is the pope, who is the leader of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. The pope appoints bishops who oversee a diocese, a territorial district of the church. The bishops appoint the priests, who are spiritual leaders of individual parishes. Religious priests work under the direction of the superiors of their community and their order.
The Job of Roman Catholic Priests
All priests have the same powers bestowed on them through ordination by a bishop, but their way of life, the type of work they do, and the authority to whom they report depends on whether they are members of a religious order or working in a diocese. Diocesan priests generally work in parishes to which they are assigned by their bishop. Religious priests, such as Dominicans, Jesuits, or Franciscans, work as members of a religious community and teach, doing missionary work, or engage in other specialized activities as assigned by their superiors. Both categories of priests teach and hold administrative positions in Catholic seminaries and educational institutions.
Diocesan priests are the spiritual leaders of their congregations. They are responsible for leading liturgical celebrations, especially the Mass. They also provide pastoral care for their parishioners in times of sickness, death, or personal crisis. Diocesan priests oversee the religious education of everyone in their congregation and take care of administrative duties. Some work in parochial schools attached to parish churches or in diocesan high schools. Religious priests perform similar duties but usually in monastic or missionary settings, or in such institutions as boarding schools, medical facilities, and residential homes.
All priests take time each day to nurture their own spiritual lives through Mass, private prayer, and recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours (the offices of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, etc.). They also devote time to studying the Bible, church history, and the doctrines and practices of the faith. All of this gives them the spiritual strength necessary to carry out their ministries.
Catholic clergy do not choose their own work assignments; this is done in collaboration with their religious superiors. Work assignments, however, are always made with the interests and abilities of the individual priest in mind. Every effort is made to place a priest in the type of ministry he prepares for. Priests may serve in a wide range of ministries, from counseling full-time and working in social services to being chaplains in the armed forces, prisons, or hospitals.
In response to the shortage of Catholic priests in the United States, there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of permanent deacons in the past 20 years. Deacons are ordained ministers who perform liturgical functions such as baptisms, marriages, funerals, and to provide various services to the community. Deacons do not take the same vows as priests and thus may hold other jobs, marry, and have families. Deacons are not permitted to perform the sacraments of reconciliation or anointing of the sick. Although they perform many important duties and are of great help in a parish, deacons cannot take the place of ordained priests.
Roman Catholic Priest Career Requirements
Some high schools offer preparation for the priesthood that is similar to that of a college preparatory high school. High school seminary studies focus on English, speech, literature, and social studies. Latin may or may not be required; the study of other foreign languages, such as Spanish, is encouraged. Other recommended high school courses include typing, debating, and music.
Eight years of post-high school study are usually required to become an ordained priest. Candidates for the priesthood often choose to enter at the college level or begin their studies in theological seminaries after college graduation. The liberal arts program offered by seminary colleges stresses philosophy, religion, the behavioral sciences, history, the natural sciences, and mathematics. Some priestly formation programs may insist on seminarians majoring in philosophy.
The additional four years of preparation for ordination are given over entirely to the study of theology, including studies in moral (ethics) and pastoral and dogmatic (doctrine) theology. Other areas of study include church history, scripture, homiletics (the art of preaching), liturgy (worship), and canon (church) law. In the third year of advanced training, candidates undertake fieldwork in parishes and the wider community. Because the work expected of secular and religious priests differs, they are trained in different major seminaries offering slightly varied programs.
Postgraduate work in theology and other fields is available and encouraged for priests, who may earn the master of divinity or master of arts degrees from American Catholic universities, ecclesiastical universities in Rome, or other places around the world. Continuing education for ordained priests in the last several years has stressed sociology, psychology, and the natural sciences. All Catholic seminaries offer scholarships and grants to qualified students; no one is denied the chance to study for the priesthood because he cannot afford it.
Those interested in the priesthood should possess a strong religious faith, coupled with the belief that they have received a special call from God to serve and help others. All other interests and potential vocations should be considered secondary to this call. In addition to a strong desire for helping others, priests need to be able to communicate effectively and supervise others. They must have common sense, initiative, and self-confidence in order to be able to effectively oversee a parish or mission. They must also have compassion, humility, and integrity so as to be able to set an example for others. They must be open-minded and good listeners in order to successfully interact with and help those who seek their counsel.
A vow of celibacy is required, along with vows of poverty and obedience. Some orders take a special fourth vow, often related to their community, such as a vow of stability to stay in one place or a vow of silence.
Exploring Roman Catholic Priest Career
If you are interested in the priesthood, talk with your parish priest and others involved in the pastoral work of the church to get a clearer idea of the rewards and responsibilities. Your priest or diocesan vocations office can put you in touch with a religious order if that is where you would like to serve. Aspiring priests may wish to volunteer at a church or other religious institution to become better acquainted with the type of responsibilities a priest has. Those interested in becoming a religious priest may choose to spend time in a monastery; many monasteries are open to the public for weekend or even weeklong retreats.
In both exploring the priesthood and preparing for it, you should be conscientious about living the Catholic faith as fully as you can—that is the essence of the vocation. Attend Mass and other services frequently; read about church history and doctrine; take part in parish activities. Finally, those with experience in religious ministries will tell you that the very best way to prepare for a vocation and to discern it is to pray.
While some priests serve in dioceses and others serve in religious orders, all priests ultimately serve the church. Most priests can count on a pretty conventional life in the settings they have chosen: the hustle and bustle of an urban mission, the steady work of a suburban parish or school, or the serenity of a monastery. Still, it is important to be ready and willing to serve wherever the church needs you. For example, a priest who has done an exemplary job in a small suburban parish may be called to work in a bustling urban archdiocese.
Newly ordained diocesan priests generally begin their ministry as associate pastors, while new priests of religious orders are assigned duties for which they are specially trained, such as missionary work. Both diocesan and religious priests work under the supervision of more experienced colleagues until they are deemed ready for more responsibility.
Because serving God and other people through the church is a priest’s main concern, advancing to positions of power or prestige is not an important goal. Most priests do, however, advance to positions of some responsibility or move into altogether different positions. Some may become teachers in seminaries and other educational institutions, or chaplains in the armed forces. The pulpits of large, well-established churches are usually filled by priests of considerable experience. A small number of priests become bishops, archbishops, and cardinals.
Religious priests take a vow of poverty and are supported by their orders. Any salary that they may receive for writing or other activities is usually turned over to their religious orders. Diocesan priests receive small salaries calculated to cover their basic needs. These salaries vary according to the size of the parish, as well as its location and financial status, and averaged approximately $15,290 per year in 2002, according to the National Federation of Priests’ Council. High-end salaries averaged $18,500 per year. Additional benefits usually include a monthly travel allowance, room and board in the parish rectory, car allowance, health insurance, retirement benefits, and educational allowance. Priests who teach or do specialized work usually receive a small stipend that is less than that paid to lay persons in similar positions. Occasionally, priests who do special work are compensated at the same level as a lay person. Priests who serve in the armed forces receive the same amount of pay as other officers of equal rank.
There is no such thing as a standard workweek for diocesan priests. Like all clergy, priests who function as pastors are on call at any hour of the day or night. They may be called to visit the sick or administer last rites at any time of the day or night. They may be asked to counsel families or individuals in times of crisis. Priests also must prepare sermons and keep up with religious and secular events. They may also have a great deal of administrative duties working with staff and various committees. As a result, priests encounter a significant amount of daily stress. A deep prayer life, plus the support of other priests, is necessary to reduce this stress. Parish priests usually live in quiet, simply furnished rectories with other priests. They may have a housekeeper to cook and perform cleaning duties.
Religious priests who live in monasteries devote themselves to liturgical celebration, mental prayer, and manual labor on the monastery grounds. While they do not experience the stresses of parish life, religious priests do face the challenges of the contemplative life and of living in a small, close community. Religious priests who pursue missionary work must adapt to difficult working conditions, usually in poorer countries and often in uncomfortable climates.
Roman Catholic Priest Career Outlook
There is a shortage of priests in the Roman Catholic Church. In the last 30 years, the number of priests has declined by about 25 percent because of retirement and those leaving the profession for other reasons. Opportunities for positions in the priesthood are increasing and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Currently, there are about 30,000 diocesan priests and 15,000 religious priests serving the Catholic Church in the United States. Priests are needed in all areas of the country, but the greatest need is in metropolitan areas that have large Catholic populations and in communities near Catholic educational institutions.