A priest or priestess is a person having the authority or power to administer religious rites; in particular, rites of sacrifice to, and propitiation of, a deity or deities. Their office or position is the priesthood, a term which may also apply to such persons collectively.
Priests and priestesses have been known since the earliest of times and in the simplest societies. They exist in some branches of Christianity, Shintoism, Hinduism, and many other religions, as well, and are generally regarded as having good contact with the deities of the religion to which he or she ascribes, often interpreting the meaning of events, performing the rituals of the religion, and to whom other believers often will turn for advice on spiritual matters.
In many religions, being a priest or priestess is a full-time assignment, ruling out any other career. In other cases it is an auxiliary role. For example in early Icelandic history the chieftains were entitled goði, a word that conveyed "priest", but as in the saga of Hrafnkell Freysgoði, this consisted merely of offering periodic sacrifices to the Norse gods and goddesses, and it was not a full time occupation, nor did it involve ordination. In some religions, priesthood is a position inherited in familial lines.
The term priestess is often used for women officiating in ancient religious temples and oracles and who, in some cultures, would have exceeded priests in authority.
Women officiating in modern Paganism, Neopagan religions such as Wicca, and various Polytheistic Reconstructionism faiths are referred to as priestesses, however, in contemporary Christian churches that ordain women, such as those of the Anglican Communion or the Christian Community, ordained women are called priests.
Although the historical records are fragmentary and archaeological artifacts are sometimes difficult to interpret without written records, the earliest historical records, those of Egypt indicate that the fertility cults were officiated by women for a great length of time before priests are evident.
Even into historical times there were cult centers officiated by priestesses for Isis as far away as in Brittan, transplanted by Romans and Greeks into the 600s A.D.
A similar situation seems to prevail in other Mediterranean cultures. Those of Crete show priestesses almost exclusively in what appear to be ceremonial rituals.
The Ancient Greeks recorded the predominance of priestesses in certain cults such as for Athene even after the major cultural change to male deities. Their early myths relate many mystery cults that involved large numbers of women as participants. Once the paternalistic religions of the east dominated the religions of Greece, however, the oldest oracles remained officiated by a priestess.
The religious practices of the Romans passed through similar phases and also retained the vestiges of the past at their oracles and with the Vestal Virgins retaining their official status without change.
The Yoruba people of western Nigeria practice an indigenous religion with a religious hierarchy of priests and priestesses that dates to A.D. 800-1000. Ifá priests and priestesses bear the titles Babalowo for men and Iyanifa for females. Priests and priestess of the varied Orisha are titled Babalorisa for men and Iyalorisa for women. Initiates are also given an Orisa or Ifá name that signifies under which deity they are initiated. For example a Priestess of Oshun may be named Osunyemi and a Priest of Ifá may be named Ifáyemi. This ancient culture continues to this day as initiates from all around the world return to Nigeria for initiation into the traditional priesthood.
In Judaism, the Kohanim (singular כּהן kohen, plural כּהנִים kohanim, whence the family names Cohen, Cahn, Kahn, Kohn, Kogan, etc.) are hereditary priests through paternal descent. These families are from the tribe of the Levi'im (Levites) (whence the family names Levy, Levi, Levin, Lewin, Lewis, etc.), and are traditionally accepted as the descendants of Aaron.
Since the demise of the Second Temple, and therefore the cessation of the daily and seasonal temple ceremonies and sacrifices, Kohanim in traditional Judaism (Orthodox Judaism and to some extent, Conservative Judaism) have continued to perform a number of priestly ceremonies and roles such as the Pidyon HaBen (redemption of a first-born son) ceremony and the Priestly Blessing, and have remained subject, particularly in Orthodox Judaism, to a number of special rules, including restrictions on marriage, ritual purity, and other requirements. Orthodox Judaism regards the Kohanim as being held in reserve for a future restored Temple. In all branches of Judaism, Rabbis do not perform such priestly roles as propitiation, sacrifice, or sacrament. Rather, a Rabbi's principal religious function is to serve as an authoritative judge and expositor of Jewish law. Rabbis have also generally come to perform clerical and social leadership roles such as congregational leadership and pastoral counseling. Judaism does not, however, reserve such roles to rabbis.
The second word, hiereus (Ancient Greek: ιερεύς), Latin sacerdos, refers to priests who offer sacrifice, such as the priesthood of the Jewish Temple, or the priests of pagan gods. The New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews draws a distinction between the Jewish priesthood and that of Christ; it teaches that the sacrificial atonement by Jesus Christ on Calvary has made the Jewish priesthood redundant. Thus, for Christians, Christ himself is uniquely hiereus. Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and Anglicans (especially Anglo-Catholics) therefore, believe that priests and bishops share in the one priesthood of Christ through the sacrament of Holy Orders, and are empowered to offer the one sacrifice of Jesus in the Eucharist which, as the Book of Hebrews says, is offered "once for all" being identical with the very sacrifice of the Cross: the Mass, or Divine Liturgy, as the Eucharistic celebration is known, is therefore literally a re-presentation (making present again) of Christ's single sacrifice. According to this theology, Christ himself is both the Priest and the Sacrifice. The priest does not offer Christ again in sacrifice; but rather, in the Eucharist, the Church mystically enters into that same sacrifice that was made once for all on Golgotha. Only in this sense is the priest also a sacerdos (sacrificer), and so the term appears in works of theology but is not the usual term now used for the office. These faiths teach that through the offering of the Eucharist, the priest who celebrates and the congregation which is present participate in Christ's redemptive work, for themselves, for the good of the Church, and for the whole world.
At some point in the late first century or early second century of the Christian era, Greek-speaking Christians began using hierós 'holy (person)' to refer first to bishops, and then by extension to the presbyters under them, but still drawing a distinction between the Jewish priesthood, pagan priesthoods, and the one priesthood of Christ. The Didache, for example, refers to "prophets" (13:3) as "high priests" (and later stating, in 15:2, that "bishops" are functionally equivalent to prophets, thus extending the term "priest" to them as well). The Letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, written in the late First Century CE, draws an analogy between the ministry of the Jewish priests and Christian bishops. The usual term for bishop, however, is episcopus, the Latin word from which the English "bishop" is derived, and which is itself derived from the Greek word επίσκοπος, epískopos, "overseer" or "supervisor." In Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Anglicanism, and associated Churches, the terms "presbyter" and "priest" (both words are ultimately derived from LL presbyter, from the Greek πρεσβύτερος, presbýteros, "elder") are thus virtually interchangeable (although bishops, obviously, are also included in this concept of priesthood). Priests, like deacons, are clergymembers and can only be ordained by a bishop. An Orthodox priest's wife is called presbytéra, while a deacon's wife bears no special title.
The most significant liturgical acts reserved to priests in these traditions are the administration of the Sacraments (known as the "Sacred Mysteries" by Eastern Christians), including the celebration of the Mass or Divine Liturgy (the terms for the celebration of the Eucharist in the Western and Eastern traditions, respectively), and the Sacrament of Penance, also called Confession. The sacraments of Anointing of the Sick (Unction) and Confirmation or Chrismation are also administered by priests, though in the Western tradition Confirmation is most often celebrated by a bishop. In the East, Chrismation is performed by the priest immediately after Baptism, and Unction is normally performed by several priests (ideally seven), but may be done by one if necessary. In the West, Holy Baptism can be celebrated by anyone and Matrimony may be witnessed by a deacon, but most often these are also normally administered by a priest. In the East, Holy Baptism and Marriage (which is called "Crowning") may be performed only by a priest. If a person is baptized in extremis (i.e., when in fear of immediate death), only the actual threefold immersion together with the scriptural words may be done by a layperson or deacon. The remainder of the rite, and Chrismation, must still be done by a Priest, if the person survives. The only sacrament which may be celebrated only by a bishop is that of Ordination (cheirotonia, "Laying-on of Hands"), or Holy Orders.
In these traditions, only men who meet certain requirements may become priests. In Roman Catholicism the canonical minimum age is twenty-five. Bishops may dispense with this rule and ordain men up to one year younger. Dispensations of more than a year are reserved to the Holy See (Can. 1031 §§1, 4.) A Catholic priest must be incardinated by his bishop or his major religious superior in order to engage in public ministry. In Orthodoxy, the normal minimum age is thirty (Can. 9 of Neocaesarea) but a bishop may dispense with this if needed. In neither tradition may priests marry after ordination. In the Roman Catholic Church, priests in the Latin Rite, which covers the vast majority of Roman Catholicism, must be celibate except under special rules for married clergy converting from certain other Christian confessions. Married men may become priests in Eastern Orthodoxy and the Eastern Catholic Churches but in neither case may they marry after ordination, even if they become widowed. It is also important to note that candidates for the episcopacy are only chosen from among the celibate.
The role of a priest in the Anglican Communion is largely the same as within the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Christianity, save that Canon Law in almost every Province of Anglicanism restricts the administration of confirmation to the bishop, just as with ordination. Whilst Anglican priests who are members of religious orders must remain celibate, the secular clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons who are not members of religious orders) are permitted to marry before or after ordination. The Anglican Church, unlike the Roman Catholic or Eastern Christian traditions, has allowed the ordination of women as priests in some provinces since the late 20th century. This practice remains controversial, however, and a number of provinces retain an all-male priesthood. As Anglicanism represents a broad range of theological opinion, its presbyterate includes priests who consider themselves no different in any respect from those of the Roman Catholic Church, and a minority who prefer to use the title presbyter in order to distance themselves from the more sacrificial theological implications which they associate with the word "priest". Whilst priest is the official title of a member of the presbyterate in every Anglican province worldwide, the ordination rite of certain provinces (including the Church of England) recognizes the breadth of opinion by adopting the title The Ordination of Priests (also called Presbyters).
The dress of religious workers in ancient times may be demonstrated in frescoes and artifacts from the cultures. The dress is presumed to be related to the customary clothing of the culture, with some symbol of the deity worn on the head or held by the person. Sometimes special colors, materials, or patterns distinguish celebrants, as the white wool veil draped on the head of the Vestal Virgins.
Occasionally the celebrants at religious ceremonies shed all clothes in a symbolic gesture of purity. This was often the case in ancient times. An example of this is shown to the left on a Kylix dating from c. 500 BC where a priestess is featured. Modern religious groups tend to avoid such symbolism and some may be quite uncomfortable with the concept.
The retention of long skirts and vestments among many ranks of contemporary priests when they officiate may be interpreted to express the ancient traditions of the cultures from which their religious practices arose.
In most Christian traditions, priests wear clerical clothing, a distinctive form of street dress. Even within individual traditions it varies considerably in form, depending on the specific occasion. In Western Christianity, the stiff white clerical collar has become the nearly universal feature of priestly clerical clothing, worn either with a cassock or a clergy shirt. The collar may be either a full collar or a vestigial tab displayed through a square cutout in the shirt collar.
Eastern Christian priests mostly retain the traditional dress of two layers of differently cut cassock: the rasson (Greek) or podriasnik (Russian) beneath the outer exorasson (Greek) or riasa (Russian). If a pectoral cross has been awarded it is usually worn with street clothes in the Russian tradition, but not so often in the Greek tradition.
Distinctive clerical clothing is less often worn in modern times than formerly, and in many cases it is rare for a priest to wear it when not acting in a pastoral capacity, especially in countries that view themselves as largely secular in nature. There are frequent exceptions to this however, and many priests rarely if ever go out in public without it, especially in countries where their religion makes up a clear majority of the population. Pope John Paul II often instructed Catholic priests and religious to always wear their distinctive (clerical) clothing, unless wearing it would result in persecution or grave verbal attacks.
Christian traditions that retain the title of priest also retain the tradition of special liturgical vestments worn only during services. Vestments vary widely among the different Christian traditions.
An assistant priest is a priest in the Anglican and Episcopal churches who is not the senior member of clergy of the parish to which they are appointed, but is nonetheless in priests' orders; there is no difference in function or theology, merely in 'grade' or 'rank'. Some assistant priests have a "sector ministry", that is to say that they specialize in a certain area of ministry within the local church, for example youth work, hospital work, or ministry to local light industry. They may also hold some diocesan appointment part-time. In most (though not all) cases an assistant priest has the legal status of assistant curate, although it should also be noted that not all assistant curates are priests, as this legal status also applies to many deacons working as assistants in a parochial setting.
The corresponding term in the Roman Catholic Church is "parochial vicar" - an ordained priest assigned to assist the pastor (Latin: parochus) of a parish in the pastoral care of parishioners. Normally, all pastors are also ordained priests although occasionally an auxiliary bishop will be assigned that role.