Sunday, March 11, 2012
A priest or priestess is a person having the authority to perform and administer religious rites. Their office or position is the priesthood, a term which may also apply to such persons collectively.
Priests have been known since the earliest times and in the simplest societies. There are priests in some branches of Christianity, Shintoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and many other religions, though each culture has a local denomination for the priestly office. Priests are generally regarded as having good contact with the deities of the religion to which he or she ascribes, and other believers will often turn to a priest for advice on spiritual matters. In many (but not all) religions, being a priest is a full-time assignment, ruling out any other career. In some religions it is a position inherited in familial line. The term "priestess" is often used for female priests in historical and modern paganism, neopagan religions such as Wicca and various reconstructionist faiths; however, in Christian churches such as those of the Anglican COmmunion, female priests are simply called priests without regard for gender.
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, 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.
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.
Catholic priests currently number over 400,000 worldwide. Of these, approximately 65% are considered diocesan priests (assigned to specific parishes within geographic regions) and 35% are considered religious priests (not necessarily assigned to a specific church community). It is now estimated that there are over 1 billion Roman Catholics in the world, representing over 17% of the global population. Although there is no church wide census, and there are various criteria for determining membership, scholars now estimate that Roman Catholics comprise nearly fifty percent of all "Christians" in the world. In 2001, there were approximately 63.7 million Roman Catholics in the United States