Catholic Priests – Hierarchy, Roles, and Requirements

Within the Catholic Church, there are three primary ranks that can be held by members of the clergy, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. Similar to how most other institutions of power and government have different roles for each of the positions held by their members; so too do each of these ranks hold different responsibilities and various degrees of authority over others.

A hierarchy system has been set in place within the Church to help define roles and duties. This safeguards against human fallibility by providing checks and balances for all ranks and positions within the Church. The highest-ranking position within the Church is the Pope while the lowest ranking is a Deacon.

We will be covering each of these titles in this article to form the basis of the hierarchy system that exists within the Catholic Church.

The Different Types of Bishops

The topmost rank of the Holy Order within the Catholic Church is that of the Bishops. This doesn’t mean that all Bishops hold the same positions and responsibilities as one another. Within the role of Bishop, there are 8 separate positions that can be held by these high ranking members of the clergy.

1) The Pope

Each Pope that has ever held the position, both past, present, and future is, in fact, the direct successor to Saint Peter himself. As the head of the Catholic Church, the position of the Pope is one that is heavily governed by both politics and religious faith.

The Pope is responsible for maintaining healthy diplomatic relationships with over 100 countries, while also providing guidance for the greater Catholic community. Maintaining this balance of power between geopolitical, cultural and biblical law, can be rather taxing on the Pope, especially during times of global unrest.

This is why the hierarchy of the Church is structured as it is. In the past Popes were appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor, this meant that the Emporer would elect a Pope that best suited to their own agenda. Since approximately 1085 AD, Popes have been appointed by the Cardinals. This one simple change has helped to ensure that only the most suitable, and well-deserving candidates could be elevated to the position of Pope.

To further help to ensure that the Pope is able to do what is right for the Church, the faithful, and the world at large, the Pope seeks the advice of their Cardinals, appoints the Bishops who are more suited for various roles of importance, and conducts regular meetings with other Bishops from all over the world, heeding their advice, and addressing their concerns.

As part of their daily duties, there are many different tasks that the Pope needs to undertake:

  • Appoint new Bishops and Cardinals.
  • Write epistles.
  • Carry out formal communications, both within the Church and with foreign leaders.
  • Carry out reviews of religious scholarships.
  • Conduct meetings with Bishops, political leaders, and community leaders.
  • Conduct liturgies, sermons, and mass, directly to the faithful.
  • Greet pilgrims at general assemblies, and during religious seasons.
  • Travel the world greeting and addressing both political leaders and the public in their home country.

2) Patriarchs

Bishops who are the heads of several local autonomous Churches can be granted the title of Patriarch or sui juris. These Patriarchs are granted authority over the Bishops of their particular branch of the Church, as well as members of their congregations.

The six branches of the Church that have Patriarchs governing them are:

  • Coptic Catholic Church – The Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria
  • Melkite Greek Catholic Church – The Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch
  • Maronite Church – The Maronite Patriarch of Antioch
  • Syriac Catholic Church – The Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch
  • Armenian Catholic Church – The Armenian Catholic Patriarch of Cilicia
  • Chaldean Catholic Church – The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylonia

3) Major Archbishops

When the leader of an autonomous branch of the Church that is both large enough and stable enough to govern themselves, but due to historical, ecumenical, or political limitations, are unable to be classified as a Patrich of their Church, they can instead be granted the title of Major Archbishop

Four Major Archbishops can be found in the following Countries

  • India, Ernakulam-Angamaly, Church of Syro-Malabar
  • India, Trivandrum, Church of Syro-Malankara
  • Romania, Făgăraş and Alba Iulia, Romanian Catholic Church
  • Ukraine, Kiev–Galicia, Ukrainian Catholic Church

4) Cardinals

Cardinals are basically the princes of the Catholic Church. While they may not be an integral part of the theological structure of the Catholic Church, they are nonetheless held in high esteem, are greatly honored and respected by the community at large, and are very important for maintaining the political structure within the Church.

Each Cardinal is appointed by the Pope. They are usually selected from Bishops who have headed departments of the Roman Curia, the administrative institutions of the Holy See that see to the affairs and conduct of the Catholic Church.

Those who are appointed to the prestigious role of Cardinal will hold the title for life. All Cardinals form the body of the College of Cardinals and work together to provide advice to the current Pope. When a new Pope needs to be elected, it is the responsibility of the Cardinals who are under the age of 80 to agree upon the next successor.

5) Primates

The title of Primate is a prerogative title of honor, that is bestowed upon Bishops who are the ordinary of the first diocese or the oldest archdiocese of a particular country or metropolitan See.

In the past, the Primate may have held authority over all parishes within their larger region. Today a Primate holds no power of governance. That is unless a preexisting custom or tradition grants them authority over their constitutes, or privileges have been granted by the Holy See.

6) Metropolitan Bishops

Metropolitan cities are home to millions of people. In order for the Catholic Church to effectively service the faithful who happen to live within these cities, the city itself is divided up into different districts known as diocese. A Bishop is then appointed to each of these dioceses.

Each Metropolitan Bishop has limited oversight authority over the parishes and constitutes within their diocese, but they can serve as the head of the council that governs their parishes. If the council is unable to agree upon who to elect as their new diocesan administrator, the Bishop has the authority to have the final say over who should be elected into the position.

7) Archbishop

To unify and manage the various districts, parishes, and constitutes of a metropolitan city, an Archbishop is appointed as head of the Metropolitan Bishops. The Archbishop oversees the matters of all of the districts, meeting with each of the Metropolitan Bishops both individually and collectively as a council.

As the head Bishop for the city, it is their responsibility to ensure that not only are matters of faith being upheld throughout their city but to also ensure that the appropriate funding and services are being effectively distributed to each of the districts.

8) Diocesan Bishops

Much like how a Metropolitan Bishop is responsible for the affairs of their particular district, a Diocesan Bishop is responsible for maintaining matters of the Church, and for seeing to the concerns of their constitutes and priests within their own diocese.

Diocesan Bishops are usually appointed to areas outside of major metropolitan cities. This could include individual towns and villages, or in more rural areas, entire counties, or regions.

Ordained Priest

An Ordained Priest holds the second-highest rank within the Holy Order. In the early years of the Church, becoming a Priest was inherited and passed down the family line. Today each Priest must make the choice to take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

The daily responsibilities of the Priest range from maintaining the upkeep of their parish, collecting donations, and communing directly with their parishioners. They can offer informal advice and guidance, provide marriage and prenuptial counseling, listen to confessions and issue penances, and most importantly, lead their parishioners in spiritual guidance and pray during daily Mass.

Additional services and duties that Priests can perform are:

  • Celebrate Saturday evening and Sunday Mass and the Eucharist.
  • Sacraments of Penance.
  • Baptisms.
  • Witness marriages.
  • Perform funerals and burials.
  • Conduct spiritual and theological readings.
  • Teach catechism to children and adults.
  • Visit and anoint the sick in homes, hospitals, and nursing homes.
  • Attend public parish and diocesan meetings.
  • Attend private meetings with other priests and their Bishop.


The difference between a Deacon and an Ordained Priest, in layman’s terms, is that an Ordained Priest is fully qualified, whereas a Deacon has yet to take their vows.

Deacons assist the Priests in their daily duties but are unable to preside over Holy Sacraments or the celebration of the Mass. Think of a Priest as an assistant to the Bishop, running the shop in the absence of the boss. Whereas the Deacon is more like a servant of the Church, who serves as a clerk of the parish, answering to the Bishop while aiding the parish’s Priest where they can.

The Services that a Deacon can or can not perform, are primarily limited to services that a Priest could supervise over. This includes but not limited, witnessing marriages that are conducted outside of Mass, they can minister the Holy Communion, proclaim the Gospel during Mass, and provide their parishioners with services pertaining to advice, listening and assistance.

Deacons have even been known to join local community planning groups and council boards. As they live in and among the community themselves, many people feel that they can be more approachable, and might ask them for help with coordinating fundraisers and community events.

Becoming a Deacon can be a final step towards ordination in order to become a priest. But you need not be a seminarian studying to become a Priest in order to be ordained as a Deacon.

Celibacy is also expected of a Deacon, but if they were married prior to being ordained; they are only expected to abide by their vow of celibacy should their spouse pass away before they do. Unlike Priests who have also sworn a vow of poverty, Deacons can be paid a wage, own vehicles, and property, or even splurge on recreational or entertainment equipment.

Final Thoughts

The difference between living in a city, suburban area, or rural town may mean that your local parish may or may not, have its own Bishop that’s in attendance every Sunday, or your church may be large enough that it might require multiple Priests and Deacons to meet the needs of their constitutes.

Each Catholic community can be unique enough from one another, that your local priests could be more involved with community charity events, or they may focus more on the individual personal touch. No two priests are the same, and as such you, yourself may even have a favorite priest.

This isn’t to say that one priest is better than another, or that bishops are less approachable then deacons. As representatives of the Church, our religious leaders are there to provide us all with guidance and advice on matters of faith and life.

Please share with us in the comments below, about the things that your religious leader(s) have been known to do for you, your friends and family, or the community at large.

Categories: The Church
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