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This word (etymologically "elder", from presbyteros, presbyter) has taken the meaning of "sacerdos", from which no substantive has been formed in various modern languages (English, French, German). The priest is the minister of Divine worship, and especially of the highest act of worship, sacrifice. In this sense, every religion has its priests, exercising more or less exalted sacerdotal functions as intermediaries between man and the Divinity (cf. Hebrews 5:1: "for every high priest taken from among men, is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God, that he may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins"). In various ages and countries we find numerous and important differences: the priest properly so called may be assisted by inferior ministers of many kinds; he may belong to a special class or caste, to a clergy, or else may be like other citizens except in what concerns his sacerdotal functions; he may be a member of a hierarchy, or, on the contrary, may exercise an independent priesthood (e.g. Melchisedech, Hebrews 7:1-33); lastly, the methods of recruiting the ministers of worship, the rites by which they receive their powers, the authority that establishes them, may all differ. But, amid all these accidental differences, one fundamental idea is common to all religions: the priest is the person authoritatively appointed to do homage to God in the name of society, even the primitive society of the family (cf. Job 1:5), and to offer Him sacrifice (in the broad, but especially in the strict sense of the word). Omitting further discussion of the general idea of the priesthood, and neglecting all reference to pagan worship, we may call attention to the organization among the people of God of a Divine service with ministers properly so-called: the priests, the inferior clergy, the Levites, and at their head the high-priest. We know the detailed regulations contained in Leviticus as to the different sacrifices offered to God in the Temple at Jerusalem, and the character and duty of the priests and Levites. Their ranks were recruited, in virtue not of the free choice of individuals, but of descent in the tribe of Levi (especially the family of Aaron), which had been called by God to His ritual service to the exclusion of all others. The elders (presbyteroi) formed a kind of council, but had no sacerdotal power; it was they who took counsel with the chief priests to capture Jesus (Matthew 26:3). It is this name presbyter (elder) which has passed into the Christian speech to signify the minister of Divine service, the priest.

The Christian law also has necessarily its priesthood to carry out the Divine service, the principal act of which is the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the figure and renewal of that of Calvary. This priesthood has two degrees: the first, total and complete, the second an incomplete participation of the first. The first belongs to the bishop. The bishop is truly a priest (sacerdos), and even a high-priest; he has chief control of the Divine worship (sacrorum antistes), is the president of liturgical meetings; he has the fullness of the priesthood, and administers all the sacraments. The second degree belongs to the priest (presbyter), who is also a sacerdos, but of the second rank ("secundi sacerdotes" Innocent I ad Eugub.); by his priestly ordination he receives the power to offer sacrifice (i.e. to celebrate the Eucharist), to forgive sins, to bless, to preach, to sanctify, and in a word to fulfil the non-reserved liturgical duties or priestly functions. In the exercise of these functions, however, he is subject to the authority of the bishop to whom he has promised canonical obedience; in certain cases even he requires not only authorization, but real jurisdiction, particularly to forgive sins and to take care of souls. Moreover, certain acts of the sacerdotal power, affecting the society of which the bishop is the head, are reserved to the latter — e.g. confirmation, the final rite of Christian initiation, ordination, by which the ranks of the clergy are recruited, and the solemn consecration of new temples to God. Sacerdotal powers are conferred on priests by priestly ordination, and it is this ordination which puts them in the highest rank of the hierarchy after the bishop.

As the word sacerdos was applicable to both bishops and priests, and one became a presbyter only by sacerdotal ordination, the word presbyter soon lost its primitive meaning of "ancient" and was applied only to the minister of worship and of the sacrifice (hence our priest). Originally, however, the presbyteri were the members of the high council which, under the presidency of the bishop, administered the affairs of the local church. Doubtless in general these members entered the presbyterate only by the imposition of hands which made them priests; however, that there could be, and actually were presbyteri who were not priests, is seen from canons 43-47 of Hippolytus (cf. Duchesne, "Origines du culte chretien", append.), which show that some of those who had confessed the Faith before the tribunals were admitted into the presbyterium without ordination. These exceptions were, however, merely isolated instances, and from time immemorial ordination has been the sole manner of recruiting the presbyteral order. The documents of antiquity show us the priests as the permanent council, the auxiliaries of the bishop, whom they surround and aid in the solemn functions of Divine Worship. When the bishop is absent, he is replaced by a priest, who presides in his name over the liturgical assembly. The priests replace him especially in the different parts of the diocese, where they are stationed by him; here they provide for the Divine Service, as the bishop does in the episcopal city, except that certain functions are reserved to the latter, and the others are performed with less liturgical solemnity. As the churches multiplied in the country and towns, the priests served them with a permanent title, becoming rectors or titulars. Thus, the bond uniting such priests to the cathedral church gradually became weaker, whereas it grew stronger in the case of those who served in the cathedral with the bishop (i.e. the canons); at the same time the lower clergy tended to decrease in number, inasmuch as the clerics passed through the inferior orders only to arrive at the sacerdotal ordination, which was indispensable for the administration of the churches and the exercise of a useful ministry among the faithful. Hence ordinarily the priest was not isolated, but was regularly attached to a definite church or connected with a cathedral. Accordingly, the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIII, cap. xvi, renewing canon vi of Chalcedon) desires bishops not to ordain any clerics but those necessary or useful to the church or ecclesiastical establishment to which they are to be attached and which they are to serve.

The nature of this service depends especially on the nature of the benefice, office, or function assigned to the priest; the Council in particular desires (cap. xiv) priests to celebrate Mass at least on Sundays and holydays, while those who are charged with the care of souls are to celebrate as often as their office demands.

Consequently, it is not easy to say in a way applicable to all cases what are the duties and rights of a priest; both vary considerably in individual cases. By his ordination a priest is invested with powers rather than with rights, the exercise of these powers (to celebrate Mass, remit sins, preach, administer the sacraments, direct and minister to the Christian people) being regulated by the common laws of the church, the jurisdiction of the bishop, and the office or charge of each priest. The exercise of the sacerdotal powers is both a duty and a right for priests having the care of souls, either in their own name (e.g. parish priests) or as auxiliaries (e.g. parochial curates). Except in the matter of the care of souls the sacerdotal functions are likewise obligatory in the case of priests having any benefice or office in a church (e.g. canons); otherwise they are optional, and their exercise depends upon the favour of the bishop (e.g. the permission to hear confessions or to preach granted to simple priests or to priests from outside the diocese). As for the case of a priest who is entirely free, moralists limit his obligations, as far as the exercise of his sacerdotal powers is concerned, to the celebration of Mass several times a year (St. Alphonsus Liguori, l. VI, no. 313) and to the administration of the sacraments in case of necessity, in addition to fulfilling certain other obligations not strictly sacerdotal (e.g. the Breviary, celibacy). But canonical writers, not considering such a condition regular, hold that the bishop is obliged in this case to attach such a priest to a church and impose some duty on him, even if it be only an obligatory attendance at solemn functions and processions (Innocent XIII, Constitution "Apostolici ministerii", 23 March, 1723; Benedict XIII, Const. "In supremo", 23 Sept., 1724; Roman Council of 1725, tit. vi, c. ii).

As to the material situation of the priest, his rights are clearly laid down by canon law, which varies considerably with the actual condition of the Church in different countries. As a matter of principle, each cleric ought to have from his ordination to the sub-diaconate a benefice, the revenues of which ensure him a respectable living and, if he is ordained with a title of patrimony (i.e. the possession of independent means sufficient to provide a decent livelihood), he has the right to receive a benefice as soon as possible. Practically the question seldom arises in the case of priests, for clerics are ordinarily ordained with the title of ecclesiastical service, and they cannot usefully fill a remunerated post unless they are priests. Each priest ordained with the title of ecclesiastical service has therefore the right to ask of his bishop, and the bishop is under an obligation to assign him, a benefice or ecclesiastical office which will ensure him a respectable living; in this office the priest has therefore the right to collect the emoluments attached to his ministry, including the offerings which a legitimate custom allows him to receive or even demand on the occasion of certain definite functions (stipends for Masses, curial rights for burial, etc.). Even when old or infirm, a priest who has not rendered himself unworthy and who is unable to fulfil his ministry remains a charge on his bishop, unless other arrangements have been made. It is thus apparent that the rights and duties of a priest are, in the concrete reality, conditioned by his situation. (See BENEFICE; PASTOR; PARISH PRIEST; PRIESTHOOD.)


See bibliography to ORDERS, HOLY, and PRIESTHOOD; consult also PHILLIPS, Droit ecclesiastique (French tr., Paris, 1850), 36; MANY, Proelectiones de sacra ordinatione (Paris, 1905), n. 16; and the collections of ZAMBONI and of PALLOTTINI, s.v. Presbyteri (simplices).

About this page

APA citation. Boudinhon, A. (1911). Priest. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Boudinhon, Auguste. "Priest." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Robert B. Olson. Offered to Almighty God for Fr. Jeffrey Ingham, Fr. Joseph Mulroney, Fr. Thanh Nguyen, Fr. Richard Rohrer, and Fr. John Williams and all priests ordained into the Priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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