Becoming a Priest

After talking with friends and family, visiting a few religious communities, speaking with your pastor or priest, and attending vocation retreats, you’ve finally decided that the priesthood is the path you choose to follow for your career and your life.

Like most people who choose to follow God’s calling in their life, you will endure heartache and immense joy. There’s little denying that the priesthood is a radical life. It requires sacrifices, like obedience, simplicity, and celibacy that many perceive to be unreasonable. Priests can’t marry, they cannot have sex or their own children, they choose to live simply with few worldly possessions, don’t own a car, and they (like most men and women of God) listen to other people’s problems without care for their own.

So why would anyone want to become a priest?

The faithful expect only one thing from priests: that they be specialists in promoting the encounter between man and God. The priest is not asked to be an expert in economics, construction or politics. He is expected to be an expert in the spiritual life.” 

– Pope Benedict XVI

The ministerial orders of the Catholic Church are those of bishop, priest, and deacon. The Catholic Church teaches that when a man (if you are a woman, you are still not allowed to become a priest) is a participant in the priesthood. All men who, through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, have become priests participate in Christ’s priesthood; they act in the person of Christ, the Head of His Church.

Catholic priests are either religious order priests, whose affiliation is with a specific religious order, such as the Dominicans, Jesuits, Franciscans, Benedictines, and Augustinians, or diocesan priests who belong to the diocese where they are located. Typically, a parish priest is a diocesan priest. It is believed that at ordination, a priest’s soul undergoes an ontological change, which permanently marks his soul forever. In other words, once a priest, always a priest.

What do Priest’s do?

In the Catholic Church, a priest (also sometimes called a pastor) is chosen by the Bishop to oversee a local body of believers. Priests live together in the same house, which is usually located next to or adjacent to the church. This arrangement encourages them to pray, work and lean on each other for support and inspiration.

Parish priests celebrate daily Mass. They also:

  • Hear confessions
  • Offer advice regarding marriage
  • Counsel
  • Provide spiritual direction
  • Visit shut-ins and parishioners in the hospital
  • Teach catechism to adults and children
  • Baptize
  • Marry
  • Perform funerals
  • Present daily Holy Communion
  • Attend diocesan meetings
  • Pray, baptize, feed the poor, visit prisons
  • Read and research scripture for Mass
  • …and every once and a while attend retreats

Some parishes still have parochial schools connected to the church. Priests (and nuns) are often expected to teach class, advise, and counsel school children during the day, leaving little free time each evening for prayer or preparing for Mass. There is little question, the life of a priest is busy, yet rewarding.

How to Become a Priest

According to Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti (Ten Steps to Priestly Holiness: Our Journey into Joy), of the 2,441 priests around the United States surveyed, an astounding 92.2% said they were happy as priests; 88.6% said their morale was good; 93.2% said they feel a sense of closeness to God; and 94.8% said they feel a joy that is a grace from God.

Typically, to become a priest, you’ll need to get both a physical and psychological exam, provide proof of graduation from high school, college transcripts, letters of recommendation, and complete an interview with the vocation board of your parish. When complete, you’ll probably sit with your bishop or provincial to decide which seminary you’ll attend.

Seminary

In the US, there are two kinds of seminaries in the U.S. – minor and major. The minor seminary is the equivalent of a four-year, undergraduate college. The major seminary is graduate school, where students begin work on their Masters of Divinity (M.Div.) The M.DIV degree is required for priestly ordination by American bishops. Students pursuing an M.DIV are required to earn a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent to enter full-time seminary. Some dioceses require students earn a Master of Arts in Theology (M.A.) instead, especially if they intend to pursue a higher degree after ordination to the priesthood.

The document, The Program of Priestly Formation (PPF), lays out the American bishop’s blueprint for seminary training and provides academic requirements for earning an M.DIV, as well as the intellectual, spiritual, human, and pastoral qualities expected of a seminarian.

Most programs require 36 hours of philosophy coursework prior to beginning your master’s degree. If you haven’t already taken 36 hours of philosophy, you can earn these credits in two ways:

Minor Seminary

  • Must have graduated from high school
  • Takes four years to complete
  • If you have a degree in another field, your bishop may instead opt to send you to Major Seminary

Pre-Theology Program at a Major Seminary

  • All of your philosophy requirements of the Pre-Theology Program (PPF) are covered in a two-year program
  • You will also take coursework in Catechism, Spirituality, Latin/Greek, Western traditions, and homiletics
  • Some programs are non-credit
  • Some programs award a B.Phil at the successful end of the program
  • Once completed, you may move onto the M.Div program

In both programs, you will participate in a ‘formation program,’ where you actively are involved in preparing for priestly service.

Now that you have the required philosophy credits, you can begin your M.Div studies. During your first year, you will be a First Theologian or T1. You will study a wide variety of subjects, such as pastoral theology, homiletics, moral theology, scripture, and dogmatic theology.  Depending upon the program, you may study a variety of other subjects, but most of them will require a great deal of writing and reading.

Each seminary is supported and established by the local bishop. He may be called the Director of Students, also called a Student Master in the Dominican Order. He reports on each seminarian progress to the major superior and local religious community. You will be assigned a priest-formator who acts as your advisor. You will also be asked to choose a spiritual director or advisor.

What is the Priestly Formation program?

The Priestly Formation or PPF has four dimensions:

  • Human
  • Spiritual
  • Intellectual
  • Pastoral

Each of these dimensions is designed to develop your gifts and reinforce the sacrificial nature of priesthood.

Human Formation: The human formation focuses on the cultivation of moral virtues, like temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude. Your formation advisor will challenge your along the way with the basics of conversational skills, grooming, good manners, and more. After all, a priest must be a good communicator and emphatic guide to his congregation.

Spiritual Formation: The spiritual dimension will focus on developing your relationship with God and Jesus Christ. You will participate in the liturgical activities of the seminary, especially Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours-Morning and Evening Prayer. Priests should be faithful spiritual fathers to their congregations so you will be guided by your spiritual advisor in developing a healthy spiritual mindset that focuses on your position as a mediator between God and His people.

intellectual Formation: The purpose of intellectual formation is to ensure you have learned Church scripture and tradition, in addition to earning good grades. While good grades are important and an indicator of your success, they are only a part of your formation.

Pastoral Formation:  The pastoral formation brings all of the other formations into practical focus, as any inadequacy in these dimensions will affect your ability to minister to your people. It asks the question, ‘can this man pastor and lead people to Christ?’ All these dimensions prepare you to answer this question. Your advisor will look for leadership qualities, like setting goals, diligence, and initiative. You may be challenged to provide leadership for your classmates in initiating or completing projects.

No seminary can fully prepare you for all the contingencies of pastoring in the real world. However, seminary does initiate your development and self-discovery of all you can be in Christ’s service. Once a year, your formation advisor will present your progress to your bishop or major superior and his fellow formation advisors.

At the end of your second year, diocesan seminarians will petition for candidacy for ordination. If you are recommended by the formation team, your bishop will accept your petition, at which time you will be admitted to candidacy, usually during a special Mass. The summer following your second year, you will be enrolled in a clinical pastoral education (CPE) program, which is an intensive program where you work as a chaplain-trainee in a hospital.

At the end of your penultimate year, you will petition for ordination to the diaconate. If you receive a favorable recommendation from the formation team, your bishop (or major superior) will accept your petition and schedule your ordination date. Some potential priests will serve an internship for six months before they return to the seminary to finish their final year, while others fulfill this internship concurrent with their final year.

In your final year, you will be a transitional deacon. It is during this time that you will petition for ordination to the priesthood. Once again, the formation team will vote to recommend or not recommend you for priestly ordination. If the vote is affirmative and your bishop or major superior agrees, you will be scheduled for ordination to the priesthood. Congratulations.

Becoming a priest is not like becoming a lawyer or doctor. It is entirely dependent on your personal relationship with God as His minister. And, your journey does not end with ordination. It merely changes as you grow and develop into a servant of God to His people. It is a lifetime commitment and not to be taken lightly. It takes dedication, maturity, and devotion.

Men become priests because the world needs men of God to look up to. Priests make Christ present to more people. They forgive sins, are a living icon of Christ, they preach and teach the word of God, and minister to His people by serving them in their churches and in the community.

God doesn’t promise you’ll be rich, nor does he promise a ‘happily ever after’. But, he does promise a life of abundance and riches far greater than all the money in the world. He also promises a fraternal relationship with other priests and nuns, respect, hard work, and eternal life. The work of a priest is challenging but rewarding to those who devote their lives to the church.