The historical roots of the priesthood in the Christian tradition are rooted in Jewish tradition, the New Testament, especially the letter to the Hebrews and the letter of Peter, and the Christian experience in the circum-Mediterranean world during the first few centuries of Christianity.
The Jewish priesthood tradition focuses on the Levites, the priestly role of Aaron and his successors, and Zadok, the High Priest appointed by King David. Although the Jewish priesthood had a variety of other elements, the focus on sacrifice and offering, in a context that mediates between God and humanity, became essential in the Christian notion of priesthood. The letter to the Hebrews reflects on Jesus as a kind of ultimate High Priest, whose personal sacrifice once and for all serves as a holy offering that mediates between God and humanity. On the other hand, the New Testament also contains reflections on the share every Christian has in the priesthood of Christ, the "common priesthood of all believers."
As early as the first church detailed in the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles, there was a certain pastoral division of labor. This division of labor developed and solidified in interaction with the Greco-Roman world of antiquity and the increasing complexity of Christianity as a social organization. Thus, as overseers (episkopoi, bishops) needed help, they worked first with ministers (diakonoi, deacons), who focused on the charitable, administrative, service, and pastoral needs of the community of believers. As the community grew, the need for presiders within a single community increased as well, leading to the institution of presiding elders (presbyters, priests). By the end of the first century of the Church, the local churches had the offices of bishops, priests, and deacons.
As Christianity grew under the Roman Empire, it borrowed more and more from the surrounding culture. By the time Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, it had adopted the Roman sensibility of "orders" or particular gradations of rank in thinking about ordained ministry; during the centuries that followed, these gradations became fixed as porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte. There were also other orders and ministries in different times and places. The ministry and ordination of the priest came to reflect an increased emphasis on the experience of the Eucharist as a theophany or epiphany, an encounter with the divine, and less a community celebration. Consistent with this focus, the Latin word sacerdos and the Greek hiereus came to be seen as equivalent to the ministry of the presbyter. Thus the focus came to be more on the specialized, sacred role of the ministerial priesthood as someone set apart to help offer the bloodless sacrifice of the Mass.
Since 1972, the Catholic Church has ordained those who meet canonical requirements and are approved for ordination to the three classic orders: diaconate, priest, and bishop, corresponding to the deacon, elder, and overseer of the early Church. The Catholic ministerial priesthood (as opposed to the common priesthood of all the faithful) is thus one of these three orders. The ordained, or ministerial priesthood, as distinct from the common priesthood of the faithful through baptism, has three key dimensions: ministry of the word, of sacraments, and of community leadership. In these ministries, the priest shares in the work of the bishop, which is the fullest expression of the Sacrament of Holy Orders in the Catholic Church. As an expression of the universality and shared communion of Church life, all priests serve for a particular diocese (or eparchy in the case of the Eastern Churches) or religious institute or province or other division of a religious institute under a bishop (or eparch) or religious superior. This is referred to as "incardination." Diocesan (or eparchial) priests are ordained for a diocese (or eparchy). Religious priests are vowed members of religious institutes who are ordained for service to their religious community. Most diocesan priests serve parishes (some 18,962 parishes are in the U.S.); most religious priests do not.
Priests are formed in seminaries, an institution created at the time of the Council of Trent (Cum Adolescentium Aetas, 1563) that called for each diocesan bishop to establish a college to train poor youth for the priesthood in a way that would permit access to proper schooling and training. The Second Vatican Council (Decree on Priestly Formation, 1965) directed each national hierarchy to devise its national program of priestly formation. The most recent edition of the U.S. Program of Priestly Formation was published by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1993. Priesthood formation is now relatively more consistent across the country and around the world, with relatively high goals in the areas of academic, spiritual, pastoral, and personal formation. More than ever, too, standards are more similar in the formation of religious and diocesan priests. Consistent with longstanding tradition, a major seminary entails some six years of formation: two years of philosophy (in the United States, this is generally completed as the equivalent of undergraduate coursework considered as prerequisites to graduate study of theology in Catholic seminaries) and four of theology and pastoral preparation, completed in a M.Div. program at an approved seminary.
The spirituality of priests varies with their spiritual tradition in the case of religious priests, who draw on the rich traditions of their particular religious institutes and form of life, which emphasizes community and spirituality. In the case of diocesan priests, a key aspect of spirituality consists in the recitation of the liturgy of the hours, typically individually, and some spirituality that helps them relate to their ministry in the world, such as Ignatian apostolic spirituality. However, the nature of diocesan priesthood is unlike that of religious life; instead of a focus on a family or communal orientation, a diocesan priest may find a certain grace in a more "hermetical" form of spirituality. Hermits, after all, may be found both in remote, isolated places and in the middle of crowds—including parish crowds. To the degree that this expresses the reality priests experience, it informs their spirituality.
The number of Catholic priests in the United States peaked in about 1968 with some 37,500 diocesan priests (who primarily serve parishes) and 22,500 religious order priests (who primarily work outside of parishes). Ordinations in that year were 1,500, but steeply declined thereafter, particularly among religious order priests. At the same time, the number of resignations increased from fewer than 100 in 1964 to an average of about 300 per year, with a high point of 675 in 1970. Today, there are some 30,880 diocesan and 16,939 religious order priests. About one in four priests are over 70 years of age. Currently, about 450 priests are ordained each year in the United States, and about three in four of these are ordained to the diocesan priesthood. Assuming that the number of ordinations continues unchanged for the next 50 years, there will be no more than 16,875 diocesan priests and 5,625 religious priests under the age of 75 in the United States in 2050, perhaps many fewer if the trend of ordaining men later in life continues. In 1998, for example, almost 60 percent of those studying for the priesthood at graduate schools of theology were over 30. However, it should also be noted that significant increases in seminary enrollments have been noted over the past few years, and that any projection of the number of priests in the future depends on a variety of assumptions unlikely to hold that far into the future.
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