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The Role of Priests in the Catholic Church

In the Catholic Church, a parish priest (also known as a pastor) is a priest appointed by the bishop to represent him to the local parish, which is a collection of neighborhoods in one small region of a county within a given state. A given city may support a number of parishes, depending on the Catholic population.

The pastor is helped by a parochial vicar (formerly known as a curate or an assistant pastor) and/or a permanent deacon, religious sister, or lay parishioners — all known as pastoral associates. The parish council and finance committee, which are made up of lay parishioners for the most part, advise and counsel the pastor but don’t have administrative or executive authority.

Distinguishing types of priests

Catholic priests are either diocesan priests who belong to the diocese they’re located in or religious order priests, whose affiliation is with a particular religious order. The typical parish priest is usually a diocesan priest. He makes a promise of obedience to the local bishop and a promise of celibacy.

Living the life of a diocesan priest

A diocesan priest gets a modest monthly salary from the parish. In addition, the parish or diocese normally provides room and board (meals and lodging) and health insurance, but only a few dioceses also provide car insurance. Diocesan priests live in parishes alone or with another priest, but basically have their own living quarters inside the rectory — the house where the parish priests live. They do their own work and usually just share one meal together.

Diocesan priests are responsible for buying and maintaining their own automobiles as well as personal property — clothing, books, computers, televisions, stereos, and so on. The individual diocesan priest pays his federal, state, and local taxes, including Social Security taxes.

Priests may receive honoraria and gifts from baptisms, weddings, and funerals, but it’s important to note that a priest never charges any fees for his services. Free-will offerings are often made to him or to the parish, but it’s sinful, sacrilegious, and rude for any cleric to ask for money while performing his sacred ministry.

Sharing the life of a religious, or regular, priest

Religious priests are known as order priests after the religious order they belong to, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, Benedictines, and Augustinians.

They wear particular habits (religious garb) and take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They don’t own their own cars or have personal possessions. They may use a community vehicle that everyone in the order shares along with the community television, stereo, computer, and so on. They own the clothes on their back and little else. They normally live together with three or more members of the community in the same house, which encourages them to recreate together, because they must also live together, pray together, and work together.

[Credit: PhotoDisc/Getty Images]
Credit: PhotoDisc/Getty Images

Members of a religious order don’t get salaries like diocesan priests but are given an extremely modest monthly allowance to buy toiletries and snacks, as well as to go out for dinner or a movie once in a while. If they need to buy something expensive or want to take time off for vacation, they must ask permission of the superior.

Staying busy

A parish priest celebrates daily Mass, hears confessions every week, gives marriage counseling, provides prenuptial counseling, gives spiritual direction, anoints and visits shut-ins and the sick in hospitals and nursing homes, teaches catechism (a book that contains the doctrines of Catholicism) to children and adults, baptizes, witnesses marriages, performs funerals and burials, attends numerous parish and diocesan meetings, prays privately every day, does spiritual and theological reading, and finds time to relax now and then with family and friends. And once a year, he’s expected to make a five-day retreat in addition to doing his regular spiritual direction and daily prayer. Yeah, busy job.

Making the parish church a meeting place

The parish church is where the priest does his job and where the parishioners attend Mass Saturday evening or Sunday morning. The parish church is also where most Catholics get baptized, go to confession, receive Holy Communion, are confirmed, get married, and are buried from.

A few American parishes still have a parochial school connected to them, and even fewer have a convent of nuns who staff the school. Economics, demographics, and declining numbers of religious sisters and brothers have resulted in the consolidation and closing of many parish schools.

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