“I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more nor be dismayed” (Jer. 23.4)
In Protestant and Catholic communities alike, there are individuals who boldly take up the task to lead their people in the name of Christ. These men and women – referred to as Pastors, Preachers, Reverends, Ministers, or Priests – are entrusted with the tasks of fostering Christ’s message within their communities and bringing that message forth to the world. These all are truly incredible ministries, but in only one has there been an unbroken chain of authority passed down by the Twelve Apostles, whom Christ Himself chose. That ministry is the Catholic priesthood.
The Catholic priesthood is clearly no ordinary career choice, but rather is somehow special, set apart from any other role a Catholic man could fulfill. But what is it about this vocation that makes it so unique? What exactly does it mean to be a priest in the Catholic Church? And what is it about this ministry that could make it worth living celibately, giving up a career and family, in order to fulfill?
What Does it Mean to be a Priest?
Priests, in the general sense of the term, have existed for as long as human civilization. Simply put, a priest is someone who performs the sacred rituals of a religion, offers sacrifice to deities, and acts as a mediator between humanity and the divine. Men and women from Ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, Mayan, Aztec, Roman, Greek, and a number of other civilizations’ religions have taken the title of priest and the role of leading people to their respective gods throughout history. The Catholic priesthood is no exception in the basic role of leading rituals and offering sacrifices to God, but this ritual is Mass and the sacrifice is the Eucharist. Before getting into all of that, though, first let’s look at the basics of the Catholic priesthood.
At its most basic level, a Catholic priest is a baptized male who has received the sacrament of Holy Orders. The process begins when a man, through prayer and spiritual direction, discerns a call from God to the priesthood. After a long period of reflection and prayer, he then enters the seminary, which is analogous to college for the clergy. He spends a period of roughly four to six years in the seminary learning about the Catholic faith, studying such things as theology, Church doctrine, philosophy, morality, Church history, the Bible, and whatever else might be included in a nearly exhaustive study of Catholicism. In lieu of a graduation, his studies at the seminary culminate in his ordination, at which point, through intervention of the Holy Spirit, he is entrusted with the mission of serving the Church as a Catholic priest.
What Does a Priest Do?
“The priest, by virtue of the consecration which he receives in the sacrament of orders, is sent forth by the Father through the mediatorship of Jesus Christ, to whom he is configured in a special way as head and shepherd of his people, in order to live and work by the power of the Holy Spirit in service of the Church and for the salvation of the world.”
Pope St. John Paul II succinctly summarizes the priesthood in the above quotation, explaining that a priest is the “head and shepherd of [Jesus’] people” and lives and works “for the salvation of the world.” Can you imagine being asked at a cocktail party what do you do and responding, “I work for the salvation of the world”? This sounds totally bizarre and at the same time is kind of fantastic.
A Catholic priest’s job is literally to act “in persona Christi,” in the person of Christ, here on earth, and therefore he is entrusted with many tasks which laymen and laywomen cannot perform. The priest’s main task is to celebrate the Eucharist and to proclaim the Word of God, and he does so in a variety of ways. One important way he accomplishes this is through the celebration of the sacraments, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist at Mass. Only a priest can consecrate the Eucharist at Mass, where, by virtue of his ordination, Christ acts through the priest to change the bread and wine into His Body and Blood, which is the source and summit of the Catholic Faith. The priest also is entrusted with celebrating the sacraments of Reconciliation, Baptism, and Anointing of the Sick, as well as acting as a witness to the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.
Beyond this, there are a variety of roles that a priest may fulfill. The majority of diocesan priests serve in parish assignments, acting as the head of parishes throughout the world. However, this is not the only way a priest may live out his vocation. Some priests may serve as hospital chaplains, prison ministers, high school or college chaplains, canon lawyers, military chaplains, etc. All of these ministries contribute greatly to the Catholic Church’s ability to carry out her mission of spreading the gospel.
Where Did the Priesthood Come From?
The priesthood is deeply rooted in the history of the Church. In the Old Testament, the term “priest” was used to refer to a member of the community who was set apart as a “minister of the Lord” (Joel 1:9). A priest’s role was to act as a mediator of God’s presence and to be in charge of worship. Overseeing the duties associated with sacrifices and offerings to God was one of the primary roles of the priest of the Old Testament, as this was an important way in which the Israelites worshipped God. The priest had very specific instructions on how to conduct these and other religious ceremonies, as outlined in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, and was very concerned with seeing to the people’s adherence to the law and proper ritual sacrifices.
After Christ was sent to earth, the priesthood took on a slightly different role. The priests of today are the descendants of the Apostles, those twelve men Jesus chose to be his closest followers and friends, in the sense that the Apostles passed their authority onto successors who passed the authority of the priesthood on in an unbroken chain leading to today’s priests, a concept which is referred to as Apostolic Succession. The Apostles, after following Jesus for years and witnessing his death and Resurrection, were sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost – their ordination day one might say – to give them the grace they needed to become true witnesses to the gospel, the first Catholic priests.
Can Women be Catholic Priests?
Though this is a hotbed issue, the answer to this question is no, women cannot become priests in the Catholic Church. In an age of female empowerment, this may seem sexist and backward and definitely is not easy to digest for some. However, this doctrine is no slight against women or their abilities to bring others to Christ. So, why can’t women be priests?
Going back to the history of the priesthood, Jesus himself selected the Apostles and none of them were female. Perhaps this may seem just customary of the time, but on multiple occasions Jesus displayed an attitude towards women that challenged, if not rejected, the social norms of the first-century Middle East. Rather than stemming from local custom, this doctrine is rooted in the nature of the ministry. The priest acts as Christ on earth and, like Christ, he takes the Church as his Bride, joining himself to the Church in a union as intimate and complete as matrimony. Just as a man cannot fulfill the role of a mother by giving birth to a child, a woman cannot fulfill the role of a bridegroom to the Church by becoming a priest.
Can Priests Get Married and Have Families?
Today priests in the Roman Catholic Church take a vow of celibacy, thereby forfeiting their ability to get married and have children. Interestingly, though, this is a Church tradition and not a Church doctrine. The difference? A Church doctrine, such as that women cannot become priests, cannot ever be changed. A tradition, on the other hand, is just as it sounds: a tradition. It has become the norm for priests to be unmarried because this has been the practice since the twelfth century. In early Church history, however, priests did marry and have children; in fact, many of the Apostles were husbands and fathers. Because it is not a doctrine that priests should be celibate, this practice could and perhaps will change sometime in the future.
There are a few exceptions to the tradition, however. In the Eastern Rite Catholic Church, priests can marry and have families, but only celibate priests can become bishops. Additionally, a Lutheran or an Anglican minister who is married and converts to the Roman Catholic Church is allowed to keep his wife, as the Church does not allow for a divorce. Finally, if a Catholic man is married and his marriage is annulled or his spouse passes away, he can become a priest. In fact, in my home parish of St. Mary’s in Dedham, MA, our priest, Fr. Mark Storey, was married twice and has a daughter, but after both wives passed away, he became ordained as a priest.
“Without Priests the Church Would Not be Able to Live …”
Pope St. John Paul II made the bold assertion above at the beginning of his apostolic exhortation (which is basically a fancy name for a papal address) Pastores Dabo Vobis, which for all you non-classics concentrators means “I will give you shepherds.” That is exactly the gift God has given to the Catholic Church in the ministry of the priesthood: shepherds to watch over his flock, the Church. And truly the Church would not be able to live today, nearly two thousand years after Christ’s life, if not for the amazing priests who have guided Her throughout history in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
 I would like to especially thank William Sexton, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Boston and a good friend, for his help with this article.
 Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2nd Edition. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012. Print.
 John Paul II. Pastores Dabo Vobis. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1992. Print.
 Priesthood. CatholicPriest.com. Web. 5 March 2015.
 Bonfiglio, Ryan. Priests and Priesthood in the Hebrew Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. 2015. Web. 5 March 2015.
 Evert, Jason. “Why Can’t Women Be Priests?” Catholic Education Resource Center. Catholic Answers, 2010. Web. 5 March 2015.
 John Paul II. Pastores Dabo Vobis. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1992. Print.
Haley Curtin ’18 lives in Adams House and as a staff writer for the Ichthus.