What is the role of a priest?

A priest first of all is a baptised man who has heard God calling him to a particular role in the Church – that of ministerial priesthood.

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When considering the role of a priest, we cannot just outline the things he does; it is what he is that matters first and foremost.

A priest first of all is a baptised man who has heard God calling him to a particular role in the Church – that of ministerial priesthood. After usually about six or seven years training he is ordained. Being ordained, or ordination, is a sacrament; that is a special blessing from God which makes an inner change in the man. Another word for this sacrament is ‘Holy Orders’.

When a man receives Holy Orders, he is configured to Christ, which means that when he carries out his ministerial work he is acting in the power of Christ, and not in his own power. We call this a special grace of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit could be described as God’s power, energy and wisdom. In the most profound way possible, ordination creates a new man, one who, if living his vocation (calling) faithfully, can say with St. Paul: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ (Galatians 2:20). He is changed not because of what he can do, but because of what he has become. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) describes Holy Orders as ‘The sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time…’ (CCC 1536).

‘Everything a priest does in his ministry flows from what he becomes at his ordination: presiding at Mass, absolving sinners, anointing the sick, proclaiming and explaining the Gospel, giving blessings, and his whole pastoral leadership of building up a local community of faith.. The priest does what he does because of what he is: a priest of Jesus Christ.’ (Diocese of Arundel and Brighton leaflet on vocations to the priesthood)

Normally priests are ordained by the bishop of the diocese they will be serving in or the religious order of which they will be a part. They are the bishop’s co-workers, and when priests are ordained, they make a promise of obedience to their bishop. Priests may be given responsibility for any of a bishop’s works or for parishes under his authority. One of the main things a priest does as a co-worker with his bishop, is to carry out the Church’s mission to: proclaim, teach, and guard the word of God found in Scripture and authentic Catholic tradition. A priest with the authority of Christ carries on the priestly ministry of Jesus in a number of ways in his parish, or local area he is looking after. Chiefly he celebrates the Mass (which is the central worship of the Church) while acting in the person of Christ. He will also celebrate some of the other sacraments; baptism, confession (often called reconciliation) marriage, and the sacrament of the sick (anointing and praying for those who are sick). He is also charged with shepherding (caring for and looking after) and governing God’s people in his parish or wherever he is placed by his bishop.

The priest, therefore, living in the midst of the people, is called to teach, sanctify and lead through service. He is called to serve others and will be involved in the many various circumstances of life. The priestly ministry is as varied as those men who are called to live this way of life. No two parishes are the same and other ministries such as university and military chaplaincies are often undertaken by diocesan priests. Like Christian marriage, the Sacrament of Holy Orders also provides a special grace (help from God) to enable the priest to carry out his vocation faithfully and successfully.

St. John Vianney ‘knew how to “live” actively within the entire territory of his parish: he regularly visited the sick and families, organised popular missions and patronal feasts (feasts of the patron saint of a church, a group, or an individual person); collected and managed funds for his charitable and missionary works, embellished and furnished his parish church, cared for the orphans and teachers of the “Providence” (an institute he founded); provided for the education of children; founded confraternities (a group of people meeting with a common aim), and enlisted lay persons to work at his side.’ (Pope Benedict XVI, Year for Priests, p. 6, Catholic Truth Society) [St. John Vianney is the patron saint of parish priests]

To pray

Lord, we thank you for our faithful priests, whose spiritual fatherhood and example of fidelity, self-sacrifice and devotion is so vital to our faith. May they be guided by the examples of Saints Peter and Paul, and all the saints. Give them hope in time of trouble and sorrow, and steadfast love for you, for their families, and for all your people. May your light shine through their lives and their good works. May they grow in holiness, knowledge and understanding of your Truth. Amen.

To read

1 Peter 5:1 – 4

Catechism of the Catholic Church 858-862, 1534-1589, 2686

Curé d’Ars by George W Rutler published by the Catholic Truth Society

To do

Pray for priests

Invite a priest for coffee or for a meal

If you want to find out more, read Pope Benedict’s letter for the Year of the Priest (which ran from 2009-2010).

This article was written in 2010 by a member of the catechetical team at the Maryvale Institute.