COLLEGE COMPASS -- Occupational Overview

Roman Catholic Priests

Nature of the Work

Roman Catholic priests attend to the spiritual, pastoral, moral, and educational needs of the members of their church. They deliver sermons, administer the sacraments, and preside at liturgical functions such as marriages, baptisms, and funerals. They also comfort the sick, console and counsel those in need of guidance, and assist the poor. Some priests are involved in nonliturgical concerns such as human rights and social welfare.

A priest's day usually begins with morning meditation and mass and may end with an individual counseling session or an evening visit to a hospital or home. Many priests direct and serve on church committees, work in civic and charitable organizations, and assist in community projects.

The two main classifications of priests diocesan (secular) and religious have the same powers, acquired through ordination by a bishop. The differences lie in their way of life, their type of work, and the church authority to whom they are immediately subject. Diocesan priests commit their lives to serving the people of a diocese and generally work in parishes assigned by the bishop of their diocese. Religious priests generally work as part of a religious order, such as the Jesuits, Dominicans, or Franciscans. They may engage in specialized activities, such as teaching or missionary work, assigned by superiors of their order.

Both religious and diocesan priests hold teaching and administrative posts in Catholic seminaries, colleges and universities, and high schools. Priests attached to religious orders staff a large proportion of the church's institutions of higher education and many high schools, whereas diocesan priests are usually concerned with the parochial schools attached to parish churches and with diocesan high schools. The members of religious orders do most of the missionary work conducted by the Catholic Church in this country and abroad.

Catholic priests who are part of a religious order may specialize in teaching.

Working Conditions

Priests spend long and irregular hours working for the church and the community.

Religious priests are assigned duties by their superiors in their particular orders. Some religious priests serve as missionaries in foreign countries, where they may live under difficult and primitive conditions. Some live a communal life in monasteries, where they devote themselves to prayer, study, and assigned work.

Diocesan priests are on call at all hours to serve their parishioners in emergencies. They also have many intellectual duties, including study of the scriptures and keeping abreast of current religious and secular events in order to prepare sermons and teach effectively. Diocesan priests are responsible to the bishop of the diocese.


There were approximately 53,000 priests in 1992, about two-thirds of them diocesan priests, according to the Official Catholic Directory. There are priests in nearly every city and town and in many rural communities. The majority are in metropolitan areas, where most Catholics reside. Large numbers of priests are located in communities near Catholic educational and other institutions.

Training and Other Qualifications

Preparation for the priesthood generally requires 8 years of study beyond high school in one of about 230 seminaries. Preparatory study may begin in the first year of high school, at the college level, or in theological seminaries after college graduation. Today, most candidates for the priesthood take a 4-year degree at a conventional college or university. After graduation from college, candidates generally receive 2 years of Pre-theology preparatory study (philosophy, religious studies, and prayer) before entering the seminary. Theology coursework in the seminary includes sacred scripture; dogmatic, moral, and pastoral theology; homiletics (art of preaching); church history; liturgy (sacraments); and canon (church) law. Fieldwork experience usually is required; in recent years, this aspect of a priest's training has been emphasized. Diocesan and religious priests attend different major seminaries, where slight variations in the training reflect the differences in their duties. Priests commit themselves to celibacy, remaining unmarried. Only men are ordained as priests; women, however, may serve in many other church positions.

Alternatively, high school seminaries provide a college preparatory program that emphasizes English grammar, speech, literature, and social studies. Latin may be required, and modern languages are encouraged. In Hispanic communities, knowledge of Spanish is mandatory. Candidates may also choose to enter a seminary college that offers a liberal arts program stressing philosophy and religion, the study of humankind through the behavioral sciences and history, and the natural sciences and mathematics. In many college seminaries, a student may concentrate in any one of these fields.

Young men never are denied entry into seminaries because of lack of funds. In seminaries for secular priests, scholarships or loans are available. Those in religious seminaries are financed by contributions of benefactors.

Postgraduate work in theology is offered at a number of American Catholic universities or at ecclesiastical universities around the world, particularly in Rome. Also, many priests do graduate work in fields unrelated to theology. Priests are encouraged by the Catholic Church to continue their studies, at least informally, after ordination. In recent years, continuing education for ordained priests has stressed social sciences, such as sociology and psychology.

A newly ordained secular priest usually works as an assistant pastor or curate. Newly ordained priests of religious orders are assigned to the specialized duties for which they are trained. Depending on the talents, interests, and experience of the individual, many opportunities for greater responsibility exist within the church.

Job Outlook

The job outlook for Roman Catholic priests is expected to be very favorable through the year 2005. Many priests will be needed in the years ahead to provide for the spiritual, educational, and social needs of the increasing number of Catholics. In recent years, the number of ordained priests has been insufficient to fill the needs of newly established parishes and other Catholic institutions, and to replace priests who retire, die, or leave the priesthood. This situation is likely to continue even if the recent modest increase in seminary enrollments continues as an increasing proportion of priests approach retirement age.

In response to the shortage of priests, certain traditional functions increasingly are being performed by permanent deacons and by teams of clergy and laity. Presently about 10,300 permanent deacons have been ordained to preach and perform liturgical functions such as baptisms, distributing Holy Communion, and reading the gospel at the mass. The only services a deacon cannot perform are saying mass and hearing confessions. Teams of clergy and laity undertake nonliturgical functions such as hospital visits and religious teaching. Priests will continue to perform mass, administer sacraments, and hear confession, but may be less involved in teaching and administrative work.


Diocesan priests' salaries vary from diocese to diocese. Based on limited information, salaries averaged about $9,000 in 1992. In addition to a salary, diocesan priests received a package of benefits that could include a car allowance, free room and board in the parish rectory, health insurance, and a retirement plan. Including fringe benefits, the total value of a priest's compensation package averages about $29,000 a year.

Religious priests take a vow of poverty and are supported by their religious order. Any personal earnings are given to the order.

Priests who do special work related to the church, such as teaching, usually receive a partial salary which is less than a lay person in the same position would receive. The difference between the usual salary for these jobs and the salary that the priest receives is called contributed service. In some of these situations, housing and related expenses may be provided; in other cases, the priest must make his own arrangements. Some priests doing special work receive the same compensation that a lay person would receive.

Related Occupations

Roman Catholic priests advise and counsel individuals and groups regarding their religious as well as personal, social, and vocational development. Other occupations involved in this type of work include social workers, clinical and counseling psychologists, teachers, and counselors.

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Reprinted with Permission of U. S. Department of Labor

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