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A priest or priestess is a holy man or woman who takes an officiating role in worship, with the distinguishing characteristic of offering sacrifices or performing other duties not permitted believers at large. Their office or position is the priesthood, a term which may also apply to such persons collectively. There are priests in some branches of Christianity,, though each culture has a local denomination for the priestly office. Priests are generally regarded as having good contact with God, and other believers will often turn to a priest for advice on spiritual matters. In many denominations, being a priest is a full time assignment, ruling out any other career.The term "priestess" is often used for female priests; however, in some denominations such as Anglicanism, female priests are simply called priests without regard for gender.

In Judaism[]

In Judaism, the Kohanim (singular Kohan or Kohen, whence the family name Cohen) are hereditary priests through paternal descent. These families are from the tribe of the Levi'im (Levites) (whence the family name Levy), and are traditionally accepted as the descendants of Aaron. During the times of the two Jewish Temples in Jerusalem, they were responsible for daily and special Jewish holiday offerings and sacrifices within the temples known as the korbanot. Since the demise of the Second Temple, it has been the rabbis who became the most important members of the Jewish clergy.

However, the role of the Kohen is still extant, although much less important than in Biblical times. In Israel, the Kohanim bless their congregations on the sabbath and festivals. In Jerusalem, they give their blessing every day as part of the morning prayer service. Outside of Israel, especially in the Ashkenazi orthodox tradition, they only do so in the synagogues during morning prayers on the Jewish holidays.

In Christianity[]

In the Christian context, some confusion is caused for English speakers by two different Greek words traditionally translated as priest. Both occur in the New Testament, which draws a distinction not always observed in English. The first, presbyteros (πρεσβυτερος), Latin presbyter, is traditionally translated priest and the English word priest is indeed etymologically derived from this word; literally, it means elder, and is used in neutral and non-religious contexts in Greek to refer to seniority or relative age. The second, hiereus ('ιερευς), Latin sacerdos, refers to priests who offer sacrifice, such as the priesthood of the Jewish Temple, or the priests of pagan gods. The New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews draws a distinction between the Jewish priesthood and that of Christ; it teaches that the sacrificial atonement made by Jesus Christ has made the Jewish priesthood redundant. Thus, for Christians, Christ himself is uniquely hiereus. Catholic and Orthodox Christians, however, believe that presbyters (and bishops) share in the one priesthood of Christ and are therefore empowered to offer the one sacrifice of Jesus in the form of the Eucharist which, though Hebrews says is offered "once for all" is (because God is outside of time) the very sacrifice of the Cross. Through the offering of the Eucharist, the priest who presides and the congregation which is present are enabled to participate in Christ's redemptive work of the Cross, both for themselves and on behalf of all for whom they pray. At some point after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (A.D. 70), possibly as early as A.D. 90 (see The Didache), Greek-speaking Christians began using hiereus to refer, first, to bishops and then, by extension, to the presbyters under them, but still making a distinction between the Jewish priesthood, pagan priesthoods, and the priesthood of Christ. Thus, in Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Anglicanism, the terms "presbyter" and "priest" are virtually interchangeable (although, technically, bishops are also priests in this sense, and are sometimes called "high priests"). Priests, like deacons, are clergymembers and can only be ordained by a bishop. In the case of the ordination of a bishop, three or more bishops are normally required to perform the consecration. they can operate a small church or chapel.

Catholic and Orthodox[]


Roman Catholic priest LCDR Allen R. Kuss (USN) aboard USS Enterprise

The most significant liturgical acts reserved to Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic priests are the administration of the Sacraments, including the celebration of the Mass or Divine Liturgy as well as the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a rite of Repentance, also called Confession. Holy Baptism is also normally administered by a priest, as is, in the Eastern Rites, chrismation, which corresponds to confirmation in the West. Additionally, priests in both East and West administer the other sacramental mysteries, including the anointing of the sick and marriage. The only sacrament which is always reserved to a bishop is that of ordination. The presence and ministry of a priest is required for a parish to function fully. This activity is known in Roman Catholicism as the cure of souls.

In these traditions, only men who meet certain requirements may become priests. In Catholicism the canonical minimum age is twenty-five. Bishops may dispense with this rule and ordain men up to one year younger; dispensations of more than a year are reserved to the Holy See (Can. 1031 §§1, 4.) A Catholic priest must be incardinated by his bishop or his major religious superior in order to engage in public ministry. In Orthodoxy the normal minimum age is thirty (Can. 9 of Neocaesarea) but a bishop may dispense with this at need. In neither tradition may priests marry after ordination. In the Latin rite of the Roman church, they must be celibate and there are special rules for married clergy converting from certain other Christian confessions. Married men may become priests in Eastern Orthodoxy and the Eastern Rites of the Roman church but in neither case may they marry after ordination even if they become widowed. It is also important to note that candidates for the episcopacy are only chosen from among the celibate.

Some Catholic churches, not in communion with the Roman Church, do ordain women as well as men as priests; such churches include some Old Catholic communities, as well as some Independent Catholic Churches. These churches also generally permit the ordination of married people.


Most Protestant denominations do not use the term "priest" to describe the individual who has an officiating role because of its association with the idea of the Eucharist as sacrifice. In these denominations leaders of congregations are instead typically called "ministers" or "pastors" and are not necessarily believed to possess any special sacramental charism by virtue of their office. Lutheranism uses "priest" in Scandinavia and the Baltics and in churches deriving from there, but not in Germany and churches deriving from there.

Anglican Communion[]

The churches of the Anglican Communion universally refer to three orders of ordained ministry: bishops, priests and deacons. Priestly celibacy was abolished during the Reformation, although Anglican priests in religious orders normally are celibate. In a growing number of provinces of the Communion both men and women can be ordained priests. Anglican priests, whether serving as vicar, rector, curate or parson, in general function in ways which are similar to the priests of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.


Quakerism does not grant a special priestly role to any individual, partly because Quakers do not practice any special sacraments that require priestly mediation, and partly because they believe that the priesthood of all believers grants the potential of a spiritual and ministerial role to all individuals within the denomination, regardless of sex or status within the faith.


In most Christian traditions, priests wear clerical clothing, a distinctive form of street dress. Even within individual traditions it varies considerably in form, depending on the specific occasion. In Western Christianity, the stiff white clerical collar has become the nearly universal feature of priestly clerical clothing, worn either with a cassock or a clergy shirt. The shirt may be worn with or without a jacket, and occasionally a pectoral cross is worn with either the cassock or the shirt. The collar may be either a full collar or a vestigal tab displayed through a square cutout in the shirt collar. Eastern Christian priests mostly retain the traditional dress of two layers of differently cut cassock: the rasson (Greek) or podriasnik (Russian) beneath the outer exorasson (Greek) or riasa (Russian). Pectoral crosses are worn only if they are awarded.

Distinctive clerical clothing is less often worn in modern times than formerly, and in many cases it is rare for a priest to wear it when not acting in a pastoral capacity, especially in countries that view themselves as largely secular in nature. There are frequent exceptions to this however, and many priests rarely if ever go out in public without it, especially in countries where their religion makes up a clear majority of the population.

Every Christian tradition that retains the title of priest also retains the tradition of special liturgical vestments worn only during services. Vestments vary so widely that there is little that can be said in general about them. Garments traceable in origin to the ancient Roman dalmatic, such as the alb, surplice or stikharion, are very common, as is the stole, but these are not worn universally. Priests of denominations that are more minimalist in their approach might wear nothing more elaborate than an academic gown.

See also[]

External links[]

  • Description of the problem of Roman Catholic and Old Catholic reunion with respect to the female priesthood.

This article was forked from Wikipedia on March 28, 2006.

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