Priesthood Frequently Asked Questions

Why do we have priests?

Most people have some image of what a priest is, but this question goes a bit deeper than that. Our images can sometimes be superficial or incomplete. Like many of the questions in these pages, the answer to this question begins with the person of Jesus himself, and His plan for our salvation.

Jesus made it clear, both at the Last Supper and again after the Resurrection, that he wanted His work on earth to continue after He returned to the Father.  All of us as baptised Christians, led by the Spirit of Jesus, are called to be His witnesses, both in what we say and in how we live.  In that way, we literally re-present Him.  Baptism is not just something that happens to us; it is about what we become.  We become members of the body of Christ.  To use the words sometimes attributed to St. Teresa of Avila: Christ has no body now, but yours.

Priests are ordained to re-present Christ specifically through preaching the Gospel, and through celebrating the Eucharist, and the other sacraments. Through the sacrament of Holy Orders a priest, despite his own human limitations, and even his personal sinfulness, “becomes Christ” for the people. This is not just a matter of imitating Christ. We believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit, it is Christ himself who teaches, feeds, heals, and forgives His people, in the ministry of the priest. To use the language of theology a priest is configured to Christ, and all his ministry flows from his identity with Christ.

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What are Diocesan Priests?

Diocesan priests look after the day to day spiritual needs of the people of a particular diocese. They work as part of a team led by the bishop who has overall responsibility for the diocese. This is a ministry which has been going on since the time of the Apostles.

A diocese is the Christian community of a particular area which is placed under the care of a bishop. There are twenty-six dioceses in Ireland.  Most Irish dioceses were established around one of the old monastic settlements from the sixth century onward.  Some of the dioceses have double-barreled names, which is usually an indication that there were originally two dioceses, but that these have been amalgamated in more recent times.  Each diocese is made up of a number of parishes.  These are the local communities in which people live out their faith, supported by one another and by the priests and deacons who are sent by the bishop to minister among them.  Most, but not all, diocesan priests are engaged in parish ministry.  At present the diocese of Elphin has 37 parishes, a mixture of urban, suburban, and rural communities.  

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What do priests do all day?

One of the characteristics of the diocesan priesthood is the variety of ministry.  Most priests are in parish ministry. This includes the obvious things like saying Mass, celebrating funerals and marriages, and hearing confessions. There are many other elements in the ministry of a priest with which many people may be less familiar; things like visiting the sick at home and in hospital; helping young people to prepare for marriage; keeping in touch with the bereaved, and with those in prison. In many parishes the ministry of the priest includes school chaplaincy.  Most parishes have a variety of groups with which the priest would have some involvement, sometimes leading, but more often just being an encouraging presence. Building community is an essential aspect of developing faith.

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Do all priests work in parishes?

Apart from parish ministry, diocesan priests are also involved in a wide variety of specialised ministries; school and college chaplaincy, as well as chaplaincy to hospitals, prisons, and to the defense forces, are just a few of the more obvious ones. Some priests are engaged in teaching at third level, or in the co-ordination of services to young people, to those preparing for marriage, or to those who are marginalised.

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Are there other kinds of priests?

Apart from Diocesan priests there are others who belong to the religious orders or to the missionary societies. The religious orders (both men and women) mostly came into existence at a particular time in history, because of the vision of a particular person or group of people, who saw a particular need.  They each have their own particular charism, or gift, to offer to the Church.  These include contemplative monastic orders like the Cistercians and Benedictines; apostolic orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans, and orders like the Carmelites who live a mixture of active and contemplative life.

The missionary societies were set up to provide for the needs of countries where the Church is relatively new, or where the Gospel is still not widely known.  Many religious orders and missionary societies have houses in Elphin diocese, and priests from these congregations have made an enormous contribution to the ministry of the diocese.  It is important to remember, however, that work in parishes is not the primary reason for their existence, and they may not always be available to work in the diocese.

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What kind of free-time does a priest get?

In general a priest has a day off during the week.  Most priest try to take the same day each week, because it allows them to plan their work and their leisure.  Once masses are over, it is usually possible for a priest to have a good bit of free-time on Sunday also.  The daily routine of a priest is a bit unpredictable, and that can sometimes make free-time a bit unpredictable too.  The annual holiday entitlement is three Sundays, which is usually taken to mean four weeks less one day.  There is a certain give and take.  We don’t clock in and out.  In fact the biggest problem is priests not taking the time off that they should take, because there is always something to do.  Rest and recreation are an important part of being ready to do a good day’s work.

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How long do you have to study?

The normal course of preparation for the priesthood is six or seven years.  It seems like a long time, but it passes quickly enough.  This time is usually broken down into two or three years of philosophy (often as part of a B.A. degree), and four years of theology.  It is not all academic study.  Men preparing for priesthood are also given practical pastoral training, and helped to deepen their relationship with God.  They are also helped to come to a better understanding of themselves, to value their gifts, and to accept their limitations.  Many of those who opt to become priests these days already have some third-level qualification.  This is normally taken into account, and may reduce the time of preparation by as much as two years.  For more detail on the formation programme, please contact the Vocations Director for the Diocese.

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How many points do you need to get into the seminary?

The points system doesn’t apply to seminary entrance.  In order to be accepted into a seminary formation programme, an applicant is usually expected to have successfully completed the Leaving Cert.  Previous exam results are a useful indicator of a person’s academic ability, but the primary consideration is that the applicant would be able to follow the course of studies without undue difficulty.  The ministry of a priest has a lot to do with communication, so a student for the priesthood would need to have a good standard of English (and Irish if in a Gaeltacht area).  An interest in reading is a big help.  If you do have the necessary points for university entrance, you will probably be asked to do an Arts degree as part of your formation programme.  In that case, application needs to be made to the CAO in the usual way.  Applicants who have been some years out of secondary school should check to see if they can matriculate on grounds of mature age.

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What promises do diocesan priests have to make?

Most of the promises priests make are actually made when they are ordained as deacons.  This usually happens about a year before ordination to the priesthood.  Diocesan priests promise to live as celibates for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  In other words, they make a commitment not to marry, for the sake of their ministry, and as a sign that our ultimate fulfillment as human beings is not to be found even in the best of what this world has to offer.  

Diocesan priests also promise obedience to their bishop and to his successors.  In practice this promise is not about obeying orders.  The bishop is in charge, but there are very few occasions when the bishop actually tells a priest what to do.  Obedience is really an attitude of generous service, and a willingness to let go of one’s own agenda.  Obedience is probably experienced at its most difficult when the time comes to move from one appointment to another, for the good of the people and of the diocese.

Diocesan priests also promise to celebrate the liturgy of the hours (also known as the breviary, or the divine office) for the Church and for the world. It is part of the priest’s responsibility to pray for the people he serves.

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Do Diocesan priests take a vow of poverty?

Unlike members of religious orders, diocesan priests do not take a vow of poverty.  They receive an income, and are responsible for our own expenses.  This allows for a certain freedom and discretion.  It would generally be regarded as inappropriate for a diocesan priest to have a lavish life-style, or to be amassing possessions.  Their entire ministry is about helping people to place the emphasis on spiritual rather than material wealth.  If their life-style were to be very rooted in material things, it would be a contradiction in terms.

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Why are priests moved around?

There are probably two reasons why a bishop moves priests around.  The most obvious one is that, when a vacancy arises in the diocese, the bishop has to consider what kind of person he needs to fill it.  He will be trying to balance the gifts, the experience, and the age profile of the priests in a parish, or in an area.  The other reason for moving a priest is that, after a certain time most priests have given what they have to give to a particular appointment.  A change, while it can be difficult, is often good for the priest and for the parish.  When someone is moved (or dies or retires) that sets off a kind of chain reaction.  

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Can you be sent anywhere?

Diocesan priests are ordained to work within a particular diocese.  They share in the ministry of the bishop.  In principle that means that they can be given any appointment within their own diocese.  There is a good deal more consultation these days than there used to be.  Bishops recognize that it is important to try to match a priest’s appointment to his gifts.  Priests are sometimes apprehensive when they get a new appointment, especially if it involves a kind of work they have not done before.  Unless there is a very good reason not to accept an appointment, the usual expectation is that a priest would give it his best shot.  

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How do you apply to become a priest?

One possibility is to begin by having a word with one of the priests in your own parish.  Alternatively, you can contact the director of vocations directly.  The director of vocations is Deacon Frank McGuinness, St. Mary’s, Temple Street, Sligo. You can phone him on 087 9880690, or contact him by email: frank.mcguinness@elphindiocese.ie.   Fr. John Gannon is Assistant Director of Vocations, and he can be contacted at by email at eoghan1969@yahoo.co.uk

Every diocese in Ireland has a director of vocations. If you want to find out who is responsible in any particular diocese, you can refer to the information on www.vocations.ie

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What happens when you apply to be a priest?

Applications generally begin as enquiries.  People want information, and they want to know how to go about making the right decision.  Applicants who wish to pursue their enquiry in a spirit of prayerfulness and openness to the plan of God, will be invited to take part in a discernment process, which will involve regular individual meetings with the Director of Vocations, usually over a period of six months or more. During this period the director of vocations will help each candidate to arrive at a mature discernment of vocation, taking account of his personal faith journey, and his human experience.   See FAQ on discernment process.

The person who is discerning will be encouraged to take part in the SIENA programme or something similar.  See separate menu item under Vocations.

Once a formal application has been received, relevant documentation will be gathered, including:
Baptism and Confirmation Certificates
Certification of state examination results
Transcripts of third level courses taken, and the relevant degrees or diplomas awarded
References will also be sought from previous employers, and from at least two other independent referees.

Arrangements will be made with a registered Clinical Psychologist, for a Psychological Assessment to take place. This assessment is intended primarily to identify the human gifts and limitations which an applicant may have. If he is accepted into the formation programme, he will be helped to develop these gifts, and to work around the limitations. The assessment also has the secondary function of screening for characteristics which might exclude an applicant. Like every aspect of the admissions process, the report of the assessment is treated as confidential. It will be seen only by those who are directly responsible for dealing with the application. The results of the assessment will be discussed openly but sensitively with the applicant himself.

Unless the outcome of the assessment clearly excludes the applicant, the Director of Vocations will arrange for him to be interviewed by the assessment panel, appointed by the Bishop. This panel will arrive at a decision as to whether the candidate should be accepted for formation, and their recommendation will be forwarded by the Director of Vocations to the Bishop.

Before the candidate is nominated to the seminary he should be asked to undergo a medical examination, the full results of which would be made available to him, and a synopsis of which would be sent to the Director of Vocations

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What age do you have to be to become a priest?

The minimum age for ordination is 25 (although a bishop can give a dispensation to allow for ordination at 24, if he judges that to be appropriate). In Elphin diocese we routinely accept applications from men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, to begin their formation for the priesthood. People over forty are not excluded of course, but we do need to establish that they continue to have the flexibility and the energy that are necessary to begin what is not just a new career, but a whole new way of life.

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Does Elphin diocese accept applications from overseas?

We don’t actively seek applications from outside Ireland, because we don’t want to create the the impression or the expectation that the future needs of the Church can be catered for without any commitment on the part of Irish Catholics themselves.  We do, however, welcome enquiries from abroad.  It usually takes a little longer to make a decision in relation to such applications, because the evaluation of the applicant as a potential seminarian is more complex.  We would always seek a reliable local evaluation before inviting an applicant to come to Ireland for interview. We are, of course, obliged to follow the procedures which currently apply in civil law with respect to immigration and residence.  Those enquiring from overseas should typically be resident in the country for at least a year before the formal application process begins.

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What are the criteria by which an application will be evaluated?

A candidate for the priesthood needs to be a person of mature (or maturing) faith, who is motivated to serve people and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He needs to be a self-starter, but also capable of working as part of a team.  He will be reasonably intelligent and will show some signs of creative vision.  Compassion and warmth will be found alongside a commitment to truth, as essential elements of his character.  He has six or seven years to prepare, so readiness to learn is more important than having all the answers to life’s problems.

As basic conditions for acceptance into formation, an applicant should:

  • Have been a regularly practising Catholic for at least two years 
  • Have maintained, or re-established for some significant time the capacity to live the virtue of chastity (i.e., to live his sexuality as is appropriate for a single man)
  • Have maintained or re-established for some significant time the capacity to live without dependence on alcohol or on the use of drugs.
  • Have a track-record of working / living constructively with others.
  • Have no record of ever having placed vulnerable people (especially children) at risk
  • Be emotionally stable, and free from any major psychiatric illness
  • Be in good general health
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Why do priests not get married?

Celibacy is a decision not to marry, in order to be free to make a different commitment.  Celibacy is all about the relationship of the priest to the people he is sent to serve.  In that sense it is a positive rather than a negative decision.  People sometimes think that the life of a priest is very lonely.  Everyone experiences loneliness from time to time, sometimes even when they are surrounded by people.  Priests are no different.  But it is important to distinguish between loneliness and being alone.

Priests come from families.  An important part of our ministry is the celebration of marriage.  They wouldn’t be able to minister to young couples, and to families, if they didn’t value marriage and relationship.  Celibacy is also meant to have a sign value.  By giving up something which most people value very highly, the celibacy of a priest reminds us all that our ultimate fulfillment is not in this world.  

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Do you have to be very holy to be a priest?

Technically the word Holy means set-apart, in the sense of being single-minded in our relationship with God .  In practice that means that we nourish our relationship with God through prayer, and that we allow that relationship to influence the decisions we make.  In that sense everyone is called to be holy.  A priest is not necessarily holier than other people.  On the other hand, they are supposed to serve people by helping them in their relationship with God. They cant expect to be much good at that if we don’t look after their own.  Relationship is not static; it either grows deeper and stronger, or it fades away.  A person thinking about priesthood would need to have at least the beginnings of a mature relationship with God.

Every relationship needs to be nourished by spending time together.  In just the same way, time spent in prayer is an essential part of nourishing our relationship with God.  Prayer is not always easy; it sometimes involves a struggle. Perhaps the most difficult part of it is actually setting aside time for it, in our busy world.  But it is worth while.
Like all good conversations, prayer is about listening as well as talking.  God has lots of things to say to us.  He speaks to us especially through the Scriptures, which are his Word.  It is important that we try to hear his word as something which is spoken to us, in the particular circumstances of our own lives, and not just as something that Jesus said or did two thousand years ago.  Praying is not just something we do with our heads (to understand), but also with our hearts (to be motivated and drawn, to love and to make commitments).  One way of praying which helps to bring the Gospel to bear on our daily experience is Lectio Divina.  It is actually a very ancient approach to prayer which has rediscovered its popularity in recent times.  Please see HERE for a practical help to pray this way.

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