Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


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. The term "priestess" is often used for female priests, especially in neopagan religions such as the Lilian tradition, Wicca, and various reconstructionist faiths. There are priests in some branches of Christianity, Shintoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and many, many others, though each culture has a local denomination for the priestly office. Priests are generally regarded as having good contact with the gods of the religion he or she ascribes to, and other believers will often turn to a priest for advice on matters spiritual.

In Judaism, the sub-tribe of the Kohanim, the descendants of Aaron, are hereditary priests.

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.

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 a deformed pronunciation of this word; literally, it means elder. 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.

Thus, in Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism generally a priest is also called a "presbyter" or elder. Priests are considered clergy; a priest can only be ordained by a bishop and with the "axios" or affirmation of the laity of his parish. Only men may become priests; traditionally the minimum age has been 35 in many jurisdictions, although exceptions are made from time to time at the bishop's discretion. Celibacy is not required of priests in the eastern Churches, but they are not allowed to marry or remarry after their ordination, for example if their wife dies.

According to apostolic tradition, in Catholicism only men may become priests. As a general rule, priests cannot marry in the Latin rite of the Catholic church, though married men may become priests in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic church, and there are special rules for married clergy converting from certain other denominations. See clerical celibacy for more details of marriage rules in Catholic and Orthodox churches. See Presbyterorum Ordinis for the decree on the priesthood from the Second Vatican Council, i.e. for a recent statement on the nature of the priesthood within the Catholic faith.

Among the most significant liturgical acts reserved to priests are his judging and praying with laity in the Sacrament of Repentance (or Confession), and the celebration of the Mass (see also Eucharist). The presence and ministry of a priest is required for a parish to function normally.

Some branches of Christianity, often within Protestantism, do not use the term "priest" to describe the individual who has an officiating role, because they do not believe in the idea of a sacrificial mass; instead, terms like "Minister" or "Pastor" are often used in its place. Lutheranism uses the term in Scandinavia and the Baltics and in churches deriving from there, but not in Germany and churches deriving from there. In most branches of the Anglican church both men and women can become priests and there are no restrictions on marriage.

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 Judaism, the rabbi is the most imporant clergyperson. However, the role of the Kohen is still extant, although much less important than in Biblical times.

Roman Catholic, Anglican, many American Episcopalian, and some Lutheran priests and Protestant pastors and other clergy wear the stiff white clerical collar around the neck. Formally many clergy wore a clerical collar at all times; nowadays many only do so during duties at church, or in hospitals or other situations where instant recognition as a member of the clergy may be important.

See also