“What do priests do?” is a question people often ask. They know priests celebrate Mass and hear confessions, but that is not usually what they refer to. They want to understand how priests live their lives. While the most straightforward explanation may be to provide an example of what a priest does hour by hour, this question is more complicated because a priest’s life can be marked by many factors, such as the promises or vows that he makes. For this reason, one must first explain what “types” of priests there are. We will try to do that without getting lost in the details because, trust me, it can get complicated quickly.
Bishops and presbyters
If we want to get technical, the first and most significant difference we may find among priests is a difference by degree. Presbyters are the ones we usually call “priests.” But strictly speaking, bishops are also priests, or “high priests,” – meaning they possess the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders.
What does that mean? Since ancient times, the Church has exercised this ministry instituted by Christ in three degrees: bishops, presbyters, and deacons. Only the top two (bishops and priests) participate in the ministerial priesthood of Christ; deacons are ordained to a degree of service that supports them.
Put simply, deacons assist mainly in distributing Holy Communion and other sacraments and rites, such as marriages, baptisms, and burials. Presbyters receive the power to consecrate the Eucharist and absolve sins in confession. Bishops receive the extra power to ordain.
As you can imagine, the lives of priests and bishops can differ significantly. A priest may oversee a parish, but bishops usually lead whole dioceses.
Types of presbyters
Among the men ordained to the priesthood (presbyterate), we find differences in how they live out that vocation by virtue of their promises, vows, or rites – not by degree, since they possess the same degree of Holy Orders. Here are some of the most common ‘types’ of presbyterates you may encounter.
Secular (or Diocesan) Priests
The most common type of priests – whom we usually call “diocesan”– have historically been categorized as “secular” not because they separate their public life from their faith life but because they live in the world, do not make public vows, and are not bound by a rule of life. In other words, they are not religious priests who are part of a religious order, such as the Dominicans or Franciscans.
However, they promise to live celibate lives, obey their bishop, and are affiliated with a particular diocese. They do not make a vow of poverty, which means they can possess their own property like laymen, even though they are expected to observe a certain degree of simplicity consonant with the people they serve.
They serve at a local parish as pastors or vicars, though they can be given other assignments within the diocese.
What makes things a bit confusing is that some priests who are technically “secular” priests live more like religious priests.
This is the case, for example, of priests belonging to societies of apostolic life. They are not religious priests because they do not make religious or public vows. However, they live in a community, follow a specific manner of life through their constitutions, and often make extra promises. In practice, they live more like religious priests, although they typically dress like diocesan priests… or not. They are consecrated but not religious. In other words, you may never know precisely what they are unless they tell you and take the time to explain it.
One may also encounter Catholic priests in the Latin Rite who converted from other non-Catholic Christian churches in which they were priests – such as former Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Lutherans. As a “pastoral provision,” the Church allowed them to be validly ordained to the priesthood once they converted to Catholicism, despite already being married. It is a rare exception but a valid one the Church can make.
As previously mentioned, religious priests belong to a religious order. They live in a community and profess vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Some members of religious orders become priests, but not all.
The way a religious priest lives out his vocation depends on the rules and charism of his religious order. Some are contemplative, while others follow a more active life. Benedictines, Franciscans, and Dominicans are some of the most common ones. You will spot them by their distinctive habit, though some religious orders have adopted clerical attire.
Religious priests can be assigned a wide variety of responsibilities by their religious superiors based on the order’s charism – from teaching to serving the poor to leading apostolates.
Some religious orders and societies of apostolic life may also oversee a parish in a diocese. Thus, you are bound to find Dominicans, Franciscans, or other religious priests running a diocesan parish in communion with the local bishop.
Priests from Different Rites
You will also find priests who belong to an Eastern Catholic church and live out their priestly vocation quite differently. Our one Catholic Church is composed of 24 different Catholic churches, all truly Catholic. Most of us are familiar with the Latin (or Roman) Catholic Church; the other Catholic Churches are called the Eastern Catholic Churches. They have kept their own traditions and forms of the liturgy but are in communion with the Pope.
Some Eastern Catholic churches include the Maronite, Coptic Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Ruthenian Catholic, Ukrainian Catholic, Syro-Malabar Catholic, and Russian Greek Catholic churches. They observe different rites, such as the Byzantine, Alexandrian, West Syrian, Armenian, and East Syrian rites.
Each of these churches enjoy their own discipline while sharing the same Catholic faith. It is part of their discipline to allow married men to become priests. This is an ancient discipline that differs from that of celibacy in the Latin Church. In Eastern Catholicism, a married man can become a priest, but a priest cannot marry after ordination. Nonetheless, celibacy is still highly valued, as seen by the ancient practice of only choosing celibate priests to become bishops.
While this is not an exhaustive list or explanation of the different “types” of priests, it may help us to know that the way a priest lives out his vocation depends on many factors, from his promises and vows to his rite. But above all, let us constantly pray for them and the fruit of their work.