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This article is about religious workers. For other uses of the word, see priest (disambiguation).
Roman Catholic priest LCDR Allen R. Kuss (USN) aboard USS Enterprise
Roman Catholic priest LCDR Allen R. Kuss (USN) aboard USS Enterprise

A priest or priestess is a holy man or woman who takes an officiating role in worship of any religion, with the distinguishing characteristic of offering sacrifices.

Priests have been known since the earliest times and in the simplest societies (see shaman and oracle). There are priests in some branches of Christianity, Shintoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and many others, 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 he or she ascribes to, 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 many other 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 Judaism

The position of a Kohen's hands when he raises them to bless a Jewish congregation
The position of a Kohen's hands when he raises them to bless a Jewish congregation

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 sacrifices, such as the priesthood of the Jewish Temple, or the priests of pagan gods. The Epistle to the Hebrews draws a distinction between the two types of priesthood; it teaches that atonement by Jesus Christ has made the hiereus or sacerdotal priesthood redundant, in terms of the sacrifices the Jews previously offered. Thus, Christ himself is the only hiereus for Christians. Catholics and Orthodox believe that there is a new priesthood in the sense of the presbyteros, which offers the one sacrifice of Jesus in the form of the Eucharist.

At some point after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (A.D. 70), however, Greek-speaking Christians also began using hiereus to refer to presbyters, but still making a distinction between the old priesthood and the new. Thus, in Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Anglicanism generally a priest is also called a "presbyter" or elder. Priests are considered clergy and can only be ordained by a bishop.

Catholic & Orthodox

The most significant liturgical acts reserved to Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic priests are the administration of the Sacraments, including the celebration of the Mass or Divine Liturgy (see also Eucharist), Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a rite of Repentance, also called Confession. 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 both 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 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.

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 congregations, 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 a sacrificial mass. 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.


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. In form it varies considerably–even within individual traditions–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.
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