Roman Catholic Priests

Significant Points

  • Preparation generally requires 8 years of study beyond high school, usually including a college degree followed by 4 or more years of theology study at a seminary.
  • The shortage of Roman Catholic priests is expected to continue, resulting in a very favorable outlook.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Priests in the Catholic Church belong to one of two groups—diocesan or religious. Both types of priests have the same powers, acquired through ordination by a bishop. Differences lie in their way of life, type of work, and the Church authority to which they are responsible. Diocesan priests commit their lives to serving the people of a diocese, a church administrative region, and generally work in parishes assigned by the bishop of their diocese. Diocesan priests take oaths of celibacy and obedience. Religious priests belong to a religious order, such as the Jesuits, Dominicans, or Franciscans. In addition to the vows taken by diocesan priests, religious priests take a vow of poverty.

Diocesan priests attend to the spiritual, pastoral, moral, and educational needs of the members of their church. A priest’s day usually begins with morning meditation and mass and may end with an individual counseling session or an evening visit to a hospital or home. Many priests direct and serve on church committees, work in civic and charitable organizations, and assist in community projects. Some counsel parishioners preparing for marriage or the birth of a child.

Religious priests receive duty assignments from their superiors in their respective religious orders. Some religious priests specialize in teaching, whereas others serve as missionaries in foreign countries, where they may live under difficult and primitive conditions. Other religious priests live a communal life in monasteries, where they devote their lives to prayer, study, and assigned work.

Both religious and diocesan priests hold teaching and administrative posts in Catholic seminaries, colleges and universities, and high schools. Priests attached to religious orders staff many of the Church’s institutions of higher education and many high schools, whereas diocesan priests usually are concerned with the parochial schools attached to parish churches and with diocesan high schools. Members of religious orders do much of the missionary work conducted by the Catholic Church in this country and abroad.

Employment [About this section]  Index

According to The Official Catholic Directory, there were approximately 47,000 priests in 1998; about two-thirds were diocesan priests. There are priests in nearly every city and town and in many rural communities; however, the majority is in metropolitan areas, where most Catholics reside.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Men exclusively are ordained as priests. Women may serve in church positions that do not require priestly ordination. Preparation for the priesthood generally requires 8 years of study beyond high school, usually including a college degree followed by 4 or more years of theology study at a seminary.

Preparatory study for the priesthood may begin in the first year of high school, at the college level, or in theological seminaries after college graduation. Nine high-school seminaries provided a college preparatory program in 1998. Programs emphasize English grammar, speech, literature, and social studies, as well as religious formation. Latin may be required, and modern languages are encouraged. In Hispanic communities, knowledge of Spanish is mandatory.

Those who begin training for the priesthood in college do so in one of 87 priesthood formation programs offered either through Catholic colleges or universities or in freestanding college seminaries. Preparatory studies usually include training in philosophy, religious studies, and prayer.

Today, most candidates for the priesthood have a 4-year degree from an accredited college or university, then attend one of 47 theological seminaries (also called theologates) and earn either the Master of Divinity or the Master of Arts degree. Thirty-five theologates primarily train diocesan priests, whereas 12 theologates mostly educate priests for religious orders. (Slight variations in training reflect the differences in their expected duties.) Theology coursework includes sacred scripture; dogmatic, moral, and pastoral theology; homiletics (art of preaching); Church history; liturgy (sacraments); and canon (church) law. Fieldwork experience usually is required.

Young men are never denied entry into seminaries because of lack of funds. In seminaries for diocesan priests, scholarships or loans are available, and contributions of benefactors and the Catholic Church finance those in religious seminaries—who have taken a vow of poverty and are not expected to have personal resources.

Graduate work in theology beyond that required for ordination is also offered at a number of American Catholic universities or at ecclesiastical universities around the world, particularly in Rome. Also, many priests do graduate work in fields unrelated to theology. Priests are encouraged by the Catholic Church to continue their studies, at least informally, after ordination. In recent years, the Church has stressed continuing education for ordained priests in the social sciences, such as sociology and psychology.

A newly ordained diocesan priest usually works as an assistant pastor. Newly ordained priests of religious orders are assigned to the specialized duties for which they have been trained. Depending on the talents, interests, and experience of the individual, many opportunities for additional responsibility exist within the Church.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

The shortage of Roman Catholic priests is expected to continue, resulting in a very favorable job outlook through the year 2008. Many priests will be needed in the years ahead to provide for the spiritual, educational, and social needs of the increasing number of Catholics. In recent years, the number of ordained priests has been insufficient to fill the needs of newly established parishes and other Catholic institutions and to replace priests who retire, die, or leave the priesthood. This situation is likely to continue, as seminary enrollments remain below the levels needed to overcome the current shortfall of priests.

In response to the shortage of priests, permanent deacons and teams of clergy and laity increasingly are performing certain traditional functions within the Catholic Church. The number of ordained deacons has increased five-fold over the past 20 years, and this trend should continue. Throughout most of the country, permanent deacons have been ordained to preach and perform liturgical functions, such as baptisms, marriages, and funerals, and to provide service to the community. Deacons are not authorized to celebrate Mass, nor are they allowed to administer the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. Teams of clergy and laity undertake some liturgical and nonliturgical functions, such as hospital visits and religious teaching.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Diocesan priests’ salaries vary from diocese to diocese. According to the National Federation of Priests’ Council, low-end cash only salaries averaged $12,936 per year in 1998; high-end salaries averaged $15,483 per year. Average salaries, including in-kind earnings, were $30,713 per year in 1998. In addition to a salary, diocesan priests receive a package of benefits that may include a car allowance, room and board in the parish rectory, health insurance, and a retirement plan.

Diocesan priests who do special work related to the church, such as teaching, usually receive a salary which is less than a lay person in the same position would receive. The difference between the usual salary for these jobs and the salary that the priest receives is called "contributed service." In some situations, housing and related expenses may be provided; in other cases, the priest must make his own arrangements. Some priests doing special work receive the same compensation that a lay person would receive.

Religious priests take a vow of poverty and are supported by their religious order. Any personal earnings are given to the order. Their vow of poverty is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service, which exempts them from paying Federal income tax.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Young men interested in entering the priesthood should seek the guidance and counsel of their parish priests and diocesan vocational office. For information regarding the different religious orders and the diocesan priesthood, as well as a list of the seminaries that prepare students for the priesthood, contact the diocesan director of vocations through the office of the local pastor or bishop.

Individuals seeking additional information about careers in the Catholic Ministry should contact their local diocese.

For information on training programs for the Catholic ministry, contact:

  • Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057.
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