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Can a Felon Become a Priest?

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Felons in prison often develop a strong faith as a result of their incarceration and time to reflect on their mistakes. For some this might mean a career in a profession where you help others. Sometimes, this deepened faith may spur them into thinking of a career in the religious order after their release. For those who are Catholic this might mean considering the vocation of a priest.

This blog post will address the issue of whether or not a felon can become a priest.

  • What is a Priest?
  • What Education/Training Does a Priest Need?
  • How Much Does a Priest Earn?
  • An Opportunity for Felons?
  • Recommended Action


What is a Priest?

A priest is a man who has received the Sacrament of Holy Orders. He is given a sacred power to serve God’s people to lead them to unity with God. He does this by teaching people, guiding them through leadership, offering pastoral care and spiritual guidance, and sanctifying them through the Sacraments.

The ministry of the priest includes:

  • Preaching the Word of God
  • Baptizing
  • Offering the Sacrament of Confession for the forgiveness of sins
  • Offering mass daily
  • Praying
  • Providing pastoral guidance and spiritual direction
  • Marriage preparation for couples and celebrating the sacrament of marriage
  • Visiting and anointing the sick
  • Leading the community in serving the poor
  • Conducting a funeral mass when someone has passed away

There are numerous skills required to be a priest, including:

  • Service orientation
  • Communications
  • Compassion
  • Empathy
  • Integrity
  • Judgment and decision-making skills
  • Time management skills
  • Self-control
  • Flexibility

What Education/Training Does a Priest Need?

The priesthood has requirements beyond those of education. A candidate must be a Catholic male, have a passion for the work, and be willing to live a celibate life. Catholic priests are trained in the seminary. Before entering the seminary, one must obtain a bachelor’s degree in any field of study. A candidate must be an average or above average student, as he will need to pass difficult courses in the seminary. Some older candidates, or those who do not have a bachelor’s degree, may be able to enter a special program to become a priest.

In addition to a bachelor’s degree, a candidate must complete a two-year pre-theology program. The primary course work in this program focuses on theology and philosophy. He will also study prayer, the New Testament, Catholic catechism, and Latin. A candidate will spend time working in a parish ministry to gain insight into the life of a priest.

He must be sponsored by a diocese to enter the seminary. In the seminary, he will continue his studies to obtain a master of divinity degree, which takes four years. Course work will include logic, metaphysics, anthropology, ethics, liturgy, sacraments, and moral theology. He will be assigned to different parishes within the diocese to experience parish life. The seminarian spends a full year in a parish to experience life as a priest.

How Much Does a Priest Earn?

Currently, there are approximately 37,500 Catholic priests in the U.S. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not report data specific to Catholic priests, but the need for clergy in general is about average with a growth rate of 10 percent for all clergy occupations.

Approximately 20% of parishes do not have a fulltime priest, and the average age of American priests is 63, with many near retirement. The median annual salary for Catholic priests was $33,100 in 2008.

An Opportunity for Felons?

Criminal activity in one’s background does not automatically disqualify an applicant. It is best to meet with a vocation director for the diocese or religious order that he is considering and be honest, even about things that will not come up in a required criminal background check. It is better to tell them than for them to discover offenses on their own.

Applicants must give evidence of an overall personal balance, good moral character, a love for the truth, and proper motivation. This includes the requisite human, moral, spiritual, intellectual, physical, and psychological qualities for priestly ministry.

Applicants must undergo a thorough screening process. Personal interviews with the applicants, evaluations from their pastors and teachers, records and evaluations from a previous seminary or religious community if applicable, psychological exams, academic records, standardized test scores, psychological evaluations, and criminal background checks are considered together with an assessment of the applicant’s motivation. Those who do not fulfill these entrance requirements of the seminary may not be admitted.

In order to be successful in their pursuit of becoming a priest, it is essential for felons to be honest about their background. Lying about their conviction will prevent them from becoming a priest.

It is important to be honest while filling out any application. If a felony isn’t disclosed but is found upon doing a background check, this constitutes fraud and is a punishable crime which would require an attorney and could result in their being sent back to prison.

Felons are already working with the negative perceptions of being dishonest, untrustworthy, and unwilling or unable to follow directions from authority figures. Having their record expunged can give them the chance needed to begin with a clean record and succeed in becoming a priest.

Expunging a criminal record allows anyone to honestly state on an application that he or she has not been convicted of a crime.

Recommended Action

It is a big challenge, but it might be worth it for a felon wanting to become a priest. Giving himself the best chance for success by having his record expunged and also documenting any training programs or additional education could make the essential difference.

Having support from family, friends, and/or religious advisors can make a huge difference. A felon doesn’t have to be defined by his crime. We are not defined by our mistakes but by how we recover from them. He can begin again and live an honest life no matter how difficult it might seem.

What do you think about this blog post? Have you or someone you know been in the situation of trying to become a priest with a felony? What was that like for them, and how did they achieve success? Please tell us in the comments below.

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