ON THE PRIESTHOOD
article is an attempt to clarify what we mean by priests and why an
ordained priesthood is necessary for the Church. It will also
describe the history and rationale for mandatory celibacy in the Latin
Rite, and its preferred status in the Eastern rites.
I. WHAT IS A PRIEST?
priest is a minister ordained by the Church to act in the person of
Christ for the purpose of bringing His presence to the rest of humanity.
Certainly all people are called to be witnesses of Christ. See,
e.g., Matt. 5:13-16. However, in addition to calling all people
to holiness, Jesus specifically selected twelve men, called apostles,
and later St. Paul, to begin and lead His church and have special authority
to confer God's saving power on earth. Those men in turn understood
that they had to power to appoint successors, such as Saints Matthias
and Barnabas, who would join in their full apostolic authority.
See, e.g., Acts 1:15-26, 14:1-4; 1 Cor. 9:4-6; Gal. 2:9; Eph. 4:11.
These leaders in turn appointed others, who would eventually be called
presbyters (Latin for priests) and deacons to help them in their ministry.
See Acts 6:1-7, 14:23, 15:2, 20:17; 1 Tim. 3:1-13, 5:17-23; Titus 1:5.
The successors to the apostles, who would be called episcopi in Latin,
and bishops in English, were clearly in the leadership role, with authority
over the church in whole regions, or (as with Saints Paul and Barnabas)
in special large missions. And they could in turn and did appoint
priests and deacons, as Saint Paul instructed early the bishops Saint
Timothy and Titus to do in his letters to them. The deacons would
be assisting the bishops and their appointees in charitable work, teaching,
preaching and sacraments. Priests had the special ministry of
carrying out the role of these successors of the apostles without authority
to lead the church in whole areas or appoint other priest or deacons.
The way we phrase this today is to say that the bishops are successors
to the apostles with the fullness of the priesthood. Priests are
co-workers of the bishops in this apostolic role in acting in the person
of Christ and thus bringing His power to earth. And deacons are
specially ordained assistants to the bishop and, under his authority,
to the priests. See Catechism 1555-71.
people object that there is a "priesthood of all believers," especially
quoting from the First Letter of Peter, in which he says "You are
a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation." 1 Pet. 2:9.
The Catholic Church does not disagree, and affirms that all the faithful
are called to this priesthood of all believers. See Catechism
1546-47. The much misunderstood sacrament of Confirmation
is especially associated with this priesthood of all believers, giving
the power of the Holy Spirit to believers as occurred at Pentecost,
to make them more conformed to Christ and witnesses to Him before all
the world. See Catechism 1302-05. However, as St. Paul says
over and again, there are different roles in the Church, which complement
each other. See, e.g., Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; Eph. 4:7-16.
There are married couples; there are people consecrated in single life;
and there are ordained ministers. Jesus instructed the twelve
Apostles to celebrate the Mass, teach the faithful and lead the Church
for all time and unto the ends of the world. Accomplishing this
permanent and world-wide mission implied the need for a special ordained
ministry would continue this special apostolic minsitry to all the world
and continue until the end of time. See, e.g., Matt. 28:16-20;
Luke 22:19-20; Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 11:23-26. Bishops and priests
act in the person of Christ to continue this ministry of bringing that
forgiving, teaching, and sanctifying mission of Christ to all the world
and unto the end of time, with deacons as their assistants.
II. THE VOWS OF A PRIEST
next consider the seven solemn promises a priest makes that he be fitted
for this glorious role. A man makes two of these promises, of
celibacy and obedience, when he is ordained a transitional deacon.
For priesthood, he repeats the promise of obedience and makes five more
be ordained a deacon in preparation for the priesthood (called a transitional
deacon) a man in the Latin rite promises perpetual celibacy. This
promise allows him to be fully consecrated for the kingdom of God in
imitation of Christ and of the saints in heaven, who have risen beyond
earthly marriage to celebrate the heavenly wedding feast. See
Matt. 22:23-33. Jesus took the Church as His mystical bride and
the priest, acting in imitation of Him, does the same, giving up earthly
marriage to be more fully a mystical husband to the church. See
Eph. 5:21-33; Rev. 19:7-9, 21:2. Priests do not consider earthly
marriages to be unworthy any more than a man who marries one woman disparages
the marriages of other men to other women; but a man has only one heart
to give and a priest gives that love to the Church. It follows
from the fact that priests act with the masculinity of Christ and become
mystical husbands of the Church that only men can be priests.
On the complementary side, religious sisters, on behalf of the Church,
are mystically espoused to Christ. This issue is of such controversy
and misunderstanding that part IV of this article will address it at
deacon also makes a solemn promise to respect and obey his bishop (or
religious superior in the case of a religious order cleric), and that
vow is repeated at priesthood. A priest receives extraordinary
power through his ordination. He receives power to call Christ
down from heaven in the sacraments and especially in the Eucharist,
power to proclaim the word of God and speak for the Church, and power
to guide people in their spiritual and moral lives and thus on the path
to heaven. As a strong army or the waters of mighty rivers must
be ordered lest they be chaotic and destructive, even more so this army
of heaven, this supernatural power that flows from the celestial realms,
must be united and ordered to bring glory to God's kingdom.
In the Bible, the book Acts of the Apostles shows the power of a united
church under the Apostles, led by St. Peter, to take on the world.
Likewise, the priests of each diocese must be united under a bishop,
the priests of each religious order under a superior, and all under
the Pope, the successor of St. Peter, to form this united army of God.
Governance decisions in the church can be mistaken, and a priest may
disagree with a decision of a bishop or the Pope; but, like those in
the military, they promise to carry them out faithfully, assuming that
they are not contrary to moral and church law. Otherwise, divisions
would weaken the effort and have each group go off on its own, as we
have seen in the divisions among even our noble Protestant brothers
the priests of each diocese and religious order are bound together in
what the Vatican II Council called a "sacramental brotherhood."
To forge this brotherhood, priests also make a promise to be co-workers
with the bishop and fellow priests in the presbyteral rank. Priests
thus do not act as lone rangers, but more as Knights of the Round Table,
together promoting and defending the kingdom of God on earth.
Before being ordained
a deacon, a man promises to maintain and deepen a life of prayer, including
praying the Liturgy of the Hours each day. He then renews this
promise before being ordained a priest. Everyone should pray regularly,
but a full life of deep prayer is particularly important for a priest.
There is an ancient saying, "No one can give what he has not received."
In order to remain a faithful and effective ambassador of Christ, as
St. Paul says a minister is, a priest must remain near Christ; and that
demands regular prayer. See 2 Cor. 5:20; Eph. 6:20.
A required part of this regular prayer is for priests and deacons to
pray each day the Liturgy of the Hours, which is also called the Divine
Office. This liturgy is a series of prayers, centered on the Psalms
and other canticles of the Bible, that a diocesan priest prays five
times a day. The particular prayers are: The Office of Readings,
which has longer readings from Scripture and church writings, Morning
Prayer, Daytime Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer. (Monks
and nuns usually pray three Daytime Prayers.) These prayers give
a regular, steady order to the day and unite prayer of each individual
with those psalms, canticles and other prayers that the people of God
have been offering throughout the centuries and will offer until the
end of time. As the instructions to the Divine Office state,
this liturgy, like with all continual prayer, promotes "the sanctification
of the day and the whole range of human activity."
ordination, a priest also promises to "celebrate the mysteries of
Christ faithfully and religiously" as the Church has given them for
God's glory and the people's holiness. The mysteries of Christ
are the sacraments and other liturgies of the Church, such as burials
and Eucharistic adoration. They are mysteries because they express
and convey in visible form the invisible and mysterious grace, glory
and power of the kingdom of God. The sacraments and other liturgies
are not simply private devotions. They are the prayer of Jesus
Christ through the Church and, as such, unite the Church throughout
space and time and between heaven and earth. See Catechism
1139-40. For, as the Vatican II Council said, the liturgies of
the Church reflect on earth the celestial prayers of the angels and
saints in heaven, as especially described in the Book of Revelation.
See Sacrosanctum Concilium 8; Catechism 1137-39.
The sacraments in particular send forth the power of heaven to earth
in different forms; and a priest, in being given the authority to celebrate
these sacraments, receives the ability to open the floodgates of heaven
that its graces may come down to earth. Because these liturgies
are not the priest's own possession, but rather the Church's inheritance
entrusted to the priest, he promises to celebrate them exactly according
to the instructions handed on by the Church. These instructions
preserve unity, accuracy of faith, and reverence whenever the rites
ordination, a priest promises to "exercise the ministry of the word
worthily and wisely, preaching the Gospel and explaining the Catholic
faith." In describing the roles of priest, the Vatican II Council's
said in Presbyterorum Ordinis, "The People of God finds its
unity first of all through the Word of the living God, which is quite
properly sought from the lips of priests. . . . Priests owe it
to everybody to share with them the truth of the Gospel in which they
rejoice in the Lord." Before ordination, all seminarians solemnly
affirm that they believe and will proclaim faithfully all of the Catholic
Church's doctrines. At ordination, a priest promises to do so
"worthily and wisely," which in turn means that he will both learn
more and more about the faith and put great effort into teaching it
well. This teaching role comes in many forms. For example,
parish priests: preach homilies during Mass, especially on Sundays;
teach in parish school and religious education programs; help couples
prepare for marriage; meet with people to discuss their preparation
for other sacraments such as confirmation and the baptism of their children;
field questions from many people, Catholic and otherwise, about the
faith; write articles; and teach Bible studies, classes for adults who
are preparing to enter the Church, and other educational sessions such
as this parish's summer Wednesday night presentations on the faith.
Some priests are also specifically assigned to teach in such places
as high schools, universities, or seminaries. In order to carry
out this teaching role effectively, seminarians have at least six years
of training, not only academically but in also formation in such fields
as public speaking, classroom presentations, and one-on-one or group
discussions. Furthermore, as any professional, such as a doctor,
lawyer, teacher, or engineer, should upgrade his education continually,
all the more is a priest called continually to study theology, the world
around him, and the means of conveying the faith more effectively.
conveying the faith through teaching has a very limited effect if a
priest's life does not support that teaching. As St. Charles
Borromeo, the great sixteenth bishop of Milan, wrote to his clergy "Prepare
diligently and study well. But be sure that you first preach by
the way you live. If you do not, people will notice that you preach
one thing and live otherwise, and your words will bring only cynical
laughter and a derisive shake of the head." And so a priest,
because he is called to teach by word and example and because of his
sacred calling to make Christ present through prayer and sacraments,
also promises "to consecrate [his] life to God for the salvation of
His people and unite [himself] more closely each day to Christ the High
Priest who offered Himself for us to the Father as a perfect sacrifice."
A priest is called, not only to live out the moral law, but to go further
and make his life, in the words of St. Paul, "a living sacrifice,
holy and acceptable to God," to act as Christ in the world.
See Rom. 12:1. Chaucer's description of an ideal parish priest,
which is still in Catholic prayer books to this day concludes, "He
taught the lore of Christ, and His apostles twelve/ But followed it
III. HOW DID CELIBACY
BECOME REQIRED FOR PRIESTS
the Apostles, the first priests and bishops, St. Peter was at some time
married, while St. John was clearly single. The Bible does not
say whether the other Apostles were married, nor whether St. Peter's
wife was still living when Jesus called him. But the Bible does
not mention of any living wife of an Apostle; the Gospels describe only
St. Peter's mother-in-law. Furthermore, the Apostles certainly
did not act as married men. As Cardinal Gibbons, the great nineteenth
century Archbishop of Baltimore, argued in his classic Faith of Our
Fathers, when St. Peter said to Christ, "We have left everything
to follow you," see Matt. 19:27, he must have included giving up married
life; otherwise the phrase "all things" would hardly be true.
Thus, it seems that the Apostles were unmarried, or at least lived as
such, a state that Jesus lived and endorsed for those consecrated by
God. See Matt 19:10-12, 29.
the early Church, married clergy were permitted because most young men
were married, and the rapidly growing Church needed priests. However,
St. Paul recommended celibacy for the sake of total service to God and
instructed that clergy may be married only once. 1 Cor. 7:32-35;
1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6. He did not mean that bishops and priests
could have only one wife at a time, for that was true for all Christians.
The meaning was clearly that, if a cleric's wife died, he would not
remarry, for the celibate state was preferred. And it has been
the Church's consistent rule that, once a man becomes a deacon, priest,
or bishop, he is consecrated to the Church and cannot marry after that
the Christianity was legalized in 312-313, two different traditions
developed. In the Western Roman Empire, from which the Latin rite
of the Church grew, there was generally a requirement that all bishops,
priests, and often deacons to be single, or live apart from their wives.
For example, in 305, the Spanish bishops required priestly celibacy,
and St. Jerome, the greatest Latin Scriptural commentator, described
it as the common rule. The areas of the Church further East had
a preference for single priests. However, as an accommodation,
they admitted married men into the priesthood. Bishops were always
unmarried, and priests never married after ordination. Those areas
of the Church would become the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church,
as well as the Orthodox churches, who still generally permit married
the faith came to barbarian lands, the Latin rite sometimes relaxed
the requirement of celibacy in order to have more native priests among
the recently pagan. However, such permission was never considered
ideal, and it led to a certain worldliness and lack of flexibility among
the priests. The missionaries, such as St. Patrick, St. Augustine
of Canterbury, St. Boniface, and the brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius,
who brought the faith to the Slavic nations, were consistently celibate.
In response to the decadence of the late ninth and tenth centuries,
the Popes of the eleventh century sponsored reforms to make the Church
stronger and the clergy more dedicated. And the great reformer
Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) confirmed celibacy as required for all
priests in the Latin rite, a rule that has lasted for almost a millinium
and which the Vatican strongly upholds, even though it has allowed some
married Anglican priests and occasionally Protestant ministers who converted
to Catholicism to become priests.
IV. WHY IS CELIBACY REQUIRED
Presbytorum Ordinis, the Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests,
the Vatican II Council gave four reasons for this priestly celibacy:
(1) living in imitation of Christ; (2) freedom for an unencumbered dedication
to ministry and spiritual fatherhood; (3) the ability to take the Church
as a priest's mystical spouse; and (4) the ability to live in imitation
of the saints and angels.
priest is, above all else, a man consecrated to bring Jesus Christ into
the world, through sacraments, teaching, prayer, charity and sacrifice.
Christ was unmarried, for He is totally consecrated in His saving and
sanctifying mission to all people. If a priest is to act as another
Christ in the world, it makes sense for him to live as much as possible
like Christ and thus to be consecrated in celibacy as well.
On a related point, celibacy makes a priest more free to serve, as Jesus
did, all those who come to him. In marriage a man is consecrated
first to his wife and children, and, in the case of a Catholic marriage,
to making his family what the Vatican II Council called a "domestic
church." See Vatican II Council, Decree on the Apostolate
of the Laity 11. But a priest, like Christ, should be able
to serve all people as they come, to be a father to a whole parish or
other group, generous in time, prayer and effort. It is noteworthy
that the great Catholic missionaries were almost all single, and that,
in the Latin rite, people expect priests to be much more available to
the public and event at parish events than would be expected in the
Eastern rites. Celibacy thus gives the freedom for the universal
generosity fitted for a priest.
a third point, celibacy gives a greater freedom for total love of the
Church, the love that Jesus Christ lives as He takes the Church for
His mystical spouse. See Eph. 5:32-33; Rev. 21:2, 9-10.
A husband and father should have a passionate and ennobling love for
his wife and likewise a protective and generous love for his children.
A priest should also have a passionate love, but here for a beautiful
woman, Holy Mother Church and for the Mass and for wisdom and theology.
He should see all of his people as his children and have a father's
love for them. Although it is possible to have such a passionate
love for both a specific family and for the Church, as in the case of
many Eastern rite priests, there is a division and competing loves.
Precisely because the Church considers marriage, as well as priesthood
and religious life, to be a full and total vocation, she does not wish
for this division.
priests are meant to be an image of the holiness and joy of the saints
and angels in heaven. The saints, like the angels, are not married
for they join completely in the wedding feast of the Lamb. See
Matt. 22:30. And priests, trying to imitate their life as closely
as possible, find celibacy a means of doing so. Before Mount Sinai,
the people were to remain celibate for three days in order to experience
the great theophany there; and priests of the Old Covenant refrained
from conjugal relations for at least a day before conducting liturgies
in the Temple. See Ex. 19:15; Lev. 15:18; 1 Sam. 21:5.
Every day a priest celebrates the Mass, of which even the theophany
of Mount Sinai was but an image, entering into the final Temple the
sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. Cf. Heb. 12:18-24. If even
the Levitical priests remained celibate for a day to join in a glorious
but lesser worship on occasion, it makes sense that the priests maintains
continual celibacy to join with the angels and saints each day and draw
the power of the Cross and Resurrection to world.