Priestly People: A look at holy orders, celibacy, training, other topics

Fr. Cornelius Cleary, may he rest in peace, summed it up best: "Nobody says Mass like a priest."

And when all is said and done, it's the Eucharist that lies at the heart of this sacrament we call Holy Orders.

A Bit of History

Where do priests come from? The Catholic Church proudly traces its priesthood back to the New Testament, even though the word "priest" does not occur there. Jesus breathed on his apostles at the Last Supper, bestowing on them his Spirit and the power to forgive sins. The Letters of Paul to Timothy and Titus tell us that a "hierarchy" had developed as early as a generation after the death of Jesus. Paul speaks of deacons, presbyters, and bishops who served and oversaw the activities of the community.

By the third century, there was a formal rite for ordinations. The Apostolic Tradition recorded the prayers and rubrics for the ordination of deacons, priests, and bishops. Its eucharistic prayer on the occasion of the ordination of a bishop is essentially the one we know today - seventeen centuries later - as "Eucharistic Prayer II."

In these early centuries, the priesthood was in transition. There were definitely women deacons and married bishops and priests. There were women who oversaw communities. But by the ninth century priesthood settled essentially into the form we know today: celibate male clergy who preside at the eucharist and serve the people.

What a Priest Is

Briefly, a priest is a sacrament of Christ the priest. He symbolizes for us the self-sacrifice of Christ that won redemption for the world. He is also a sacrament of the church. He symbolizes for us the church at prayer, worshiping God. Over the years, the priest has become much more a counselor, a reconciler, an administrator, a janitor, and a cheerleader. What gives his work unity is the eucharist. There he gathers the prayer of the church. There he shares the bread of life. He is shepherd. He is servant.

The Other Orders

The deacon is ordained to preach the gospel, to do works of charity, and to assist at the liturgy. The bishop is the primary teacher of the faith and the one who oversees the work of the church in a diocese. Priests assist the work of the bishop.


"Priests can't get married," is the saying most people hear. In a culture where unhealthy sexual oppression has given way to healthy sexual expression, celibacy remains the most astonishing aspect of priesthood and religious life. Many priests struggle with their vow to sexual abstinence, and the struggle is aggravated by the sinking realization that so many people miss the point. "Why bother? Why don't they just get married?"

Why bother? Well, there are many reasons. Some are weak, quite frankly, but others are rather good.

First, the weak ones.

1. Ritual purity: There was a time when any sexual expression was suspect. Many thought that for a sacrifice to be pure, the priest should be pure. If sex rendered one impure, then it was best to abstain. And if priesthood was a daily job and a lifetime job, permanent abstention was the only way to guarantee ritual purity.

2. Signs of the Resurrection. Paul encouraged people to remain single (1 Corinthians 7:32), and Jesus (Matthew 22:30) suggests that no one will need sex in the heaven. Yes, heaven will be better than sex. To be single, then, is to be a sign of what resurrected life will be like. It's a beautiful argument, but too philosophical for most people's tastes.

3. Discipline of the Church. The Church wants priests to be celibate. If you want to be a priest, you have to be celibate. This isn't the best way to walk into the job, but many priests have honestly accepted celibacy on these grounds.

4. Availability. If a priest is single, he'll have more time for his people. Practically, this may be true. But it's clear from observing every other denomination that their clergy seem to manage family and ministry together rather well. Besides, if celibacy was intended to make one available, it's first for God, not for the people. (Sorry, folks.)

5. Economics and Orders. It's cheaper to hire single people, and they're easier to control. Again, practically, this may be true. But it's not the spirituality upon which great churches will continue to thrive.

There are some stronger reasons for celibacy. They have to do with the spiritual life.

1. Imitation of Heroes. Several key figures from the New Testament were celibate: John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Paul, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus himself. Celibacy was a new concept in the history of spirituality. That these great people chose to live this way is a clue that something must be good about it.

2. Simplifying Life. Celibacy is choosing not to pursue one good thing (sexual relationships) for the good of something else (a simple life). "Simpler" doesn't mean "easier". It just means less complex. This is the same reason why religious choose poverty, chastity, and obedience; why we fast before eucharist; why we abstain from meat on Fridays of Lent; and why we stay up late for midnight Mass. We deprive ourselves of one good thing to simplify life and find God more directly. It's the same reason so many people don't spend hours and hours practicing the piano. They give it up to pursue something else that seems more important.

3. Spiritual Exercise. Celibacy is exercise for the spirit. It "tones" the spirit so it will be prepared to fight temptation. Hopelessly addicted joggers will go running even in the bitter cold and snow. It tones their body and spirit. They're ready for whatever else may happen during the day.

Will there ever be a married clergy? There is now. Deacons may be married men. The Oriental Rites have married priests. Married ministers of certain other denominations who are received into the full communion of the Catholic Church may be ordained priests and keep their spouses.

Will the rules change? Possibly, but there's no indication that they will soon. In any event, there is some good behind celibacy after all.

Male Priests

Catholic priesthood is limited to male applicants. The cry for admission of women to the priesthood was loud enough in 1976 to force a formal reply from Rome. In a word, the answer was, "No." The argument was based on the Incarnation. Since a priest is a sacrament of Christ, and since Christ the Word was made flesh as a male, a priest should be male. The argument is not leak-proof and the debate is destined to continue for many years to come. Could Rome give approval for women priests? Yes, it could. Will it happen soon? There's no indication that it will. But there's every indication the discussion will be kept alive.

Training Priests

An applicant for priesthood spends his formation in seminary. A seminary is part school, part spiritual greenhouse.

Today an applicant completes a college degree in philosophy, psychology, or theology. Then he goes on for four or five years of theological study and internship. The experience gives priests a sense of bonding.

Sometime in his seminary career, the applicant receives the lay ministries of lector and acolyte in a formal ceremony with the bishop. He also declares his "candidacy" for orders, and then is ordained first a deacon and then a priest.

Newly ordained priests may be twenty-six years old or younger. But many candidates are older men in second careers.

Leaving the Priesthood

Once a priest, always a priest. Priesthood is like baptism and confirmation. Once received, it doesn't run off. But sometimes a priest will pursue another vocation and change his lifestyle. Here are several ways this happens.

1. Sabbaticals. A sabbatical is a time for study, prayer, and rest. A priest remains every inch a full functioning priest. He's getting updated so he can serve better.

2. Leave of Absence. Sometimes a priest needs a break to figure out if he's in the right place. He may take a leave of absence for a period of time. During this time he generally does not continue priestly ministry, but he's still a priest on the register.

3. Resignation. If a priest determines he cannot continue in priestly service, he may resign his ministry. He will no longer function as a priest. But if he were shipwrecked on a desert island with a dying Catholic who wanted to go to confession, he could give absolution.

4. Removal of Faculties. A priest works in a diocese because he has "faculties" or "permission" to do so. A bishop may remove those faculties for a serious reason; e.g., the priest suffers a mental disorder or commits some heinous crime.

5. Suspension. This is an imposed resignation. For example, if a priest does not resign, but marries, he will be suspended.

6. Laicization. An inaccurate term, but it refers to the process in Rome that frees a priest of his duties. If a priest submits his resignation, he may ask for laicization. A laicized priest is in full communion with the Church. Laicization is a long process.

7. Dispensation from Celibacy. This is similar to laicization but specifically gives a laicized priest permission to marry in the church.

The Shortage of Priests

The number of priests in service to the Church has dwindled in recent years, and the need for priestly service remains. The life of a priest is challenging. Priests are counter-cultural in their lifestyle and in the message they preach. But the life is rewarding. A priest who wins the trust of his people and cradles their broken spirits will come to know the meaning of life and quake at the presence of God.


Holy Orders is a sacrament that helps us see God. As Con Cleary's insight proved, the eucharist is our union with God and priesthood is at the service of the eucharist. Those who choose orders have accepted the challenge to reveal that deep union between God and the Church.

[This article first appeared in The Catholic Key, 21/25 (July 30, 1989), pp. 10-11.]

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