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.
Priests have been known since the earliest times and in the simplest societies (see shaman and oracle). There are priests in some branches of Christianity, Shintoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and many others, though each culture has a local denomination for the priestly office. Priests are generally regarded as having good contact with the deities of the religion he or she ascribes to, and other believers will often turn to a priest for advice on spiritual matters. 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.
The term "priestess" is often used for female priests in historical and modern paganism, neopagan religions such as the Lilian tradition, Wicca, and various reconstructionist faiths. However, in other churches such as those of the Anglican Communion, female priests are simply called priests without regard for gender.
In Judaism, the sub-tribe of the Kohanim (Cohen[s]) and the Levi'im (Levites) (Levy[s]), who are traditionally accepted as the descendants of Aaron, are hereditary priests through paternal descent.
During the times of the two Jewish Temples in Jerusalem they were responsible for daily and special Jewish holiday offerings and sacrifices within the temples known as the korbanot. Since the demise of the Second Temple, it has been the rabbis who became the most important members of the Jewish clergy.
However, the role of the Kohen is still extant, although much less important than in Biblical times. In Israel the Kohanim bless their congregations each day as part of the morning Jewish prayers services. Outside of Israel, they only do so on the Jewish holidays in the synagogues during morning prayers.
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.
At some point after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (A.D. 70), however, Greek-speaking Christians also began using hiereus to refer to presbyters, but still making a distinction between the old priesthood and the new. Thus, in Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Anglicanism generally a priest is also called a "presbyter" or elder. Priests are considered clergy and can only be ordained by a bishop.
Catholic & Orthodox
The most significant liturgical acts reserved to Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic priests are the administration of the Sacraments, including the celebration of the Mass or Divine Liturgy (see also Eucharist), Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a rite of Repentance, also called "Confession". The presence and ministry of a priest is required for a parish to function fully.
In both traditions only men who meet certain requirements may become priests. The canonical minimum age is 30, but enforcement of this canon is at the bishop's discretion and ordination of men in their mid-twenties is common. In neither tradition may priests marry. In the Latin rite of the Roman church they must be celibate and there are special rules for married clergy converting from certain other Christian confessions. Married men may become priests in Eastern Orthodoxy and the Eastern Rites of the Roman church but in neither case may they marry after ordination even if they become widowed.
Some Catholic churches, not in communion with the Roman Church, do ordain women as well as men as priests; such churches include some Old Catholic congregations, as well as certain independent groups. Old Catholic churches also permit the ordination of married people.
Some Protestant denominations do not use the term "priest" to describe the individual who has an officiating role because of its association with the idea of a sacrificial mass. In these denominations leaders of congragations are instead called "ministers" or "pastors" and are not believed to possess any special sacramental charism by virtue of their office. Lutheranism uses "priest" 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 most Christian traditions, priests wear a distinctive form of street dress. In form it varies considerably even within individual traditions depending on the specific occasion. In Western Christianity the stiff white clerical collar has become the nearly universal feature of priestly street dress, worn either with a cassock or a clerical shirt. The shirt may be worn with or without a jacket, and occasionally a pectoral cross is worn with either the cassock or the shirt. The collar may be either a full collar or a vestigal 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). Pectoral crosses are worn only if they are awarded.
Distinctive street dress is less often worn in modern times than formerly, and in many cases it's rare for a priest to wear it unless acting in his pastoral capacity. There are frequent exceptions to this however, and many priests rarely if ever go out in public without it.
Every Christian tradition that retains the title of priest also retains the tradition of special liturgical vestments worn only during services. Vestments vary so widely that there is little that can be said in general about them. Garments traceable in origin to the ancient Roman dalmatic, such as the alb, surplice or stikharion are very common, as is the stole, but these are not worn universally. Priests of denominations that are more minimalist in their approach might wear nothing more elaborate than an academic gown .
- Description of the problem of Roman Catholic and Old Catholic reunion with respect to the female priesthood.