The role priests play for the church is incredibly dynamic and one that I'm constantly trying to figure out. In the early church, the presbyterate was probably a group of intelligentsia advising the bishop to ensure that the church did not get off track. It's my understanding that the bishop would not have initially been chosen from among the priests but among the deacons. I have always assumed that meant that the priests were supposed to stay in the background while the bishop put his life on the line making as close to public statements as an illegal organization can make.
Of course, when the church expanded, it became clear that priests were needed to be more than advisers to the bishop. They needed to be shepherds to small parts of the larger area the bishop led. The bishop turned into a rarely seen (though often prayed for) overseer while the priest was to be on the seen, directly involved.
What I find ironic is that parishes are somewhat being set up in this same pattern in the US. Priests are often "in charge" of large staffs who are to be in more direct contact with the people. They buffer the pastor in some ways who is seen as too busy to meet with people. Other than Sunday liturgy, the pastor is not really expected to come to most meetings or being free to talk with someone who walks in off the street. And, with the number of priests decreasing at a higher rate than the number of parishes, it could be that a "lay leader of prayer" is present at almost every Sunday Celebration (in the absence of a priest) while the priest bounces between as many as ten or twelve different parishes over the course of a month.
Some have said that this means we need to change priesthood to better fit current circumstances. I tend, instead, to think that we may need to ask, from a theological point of view, what do priests need to be for their people. Should the priest merely be an empowerer of other staff members, an overseer like the bishop ended up becoming or does the priest need to be more "in charge"? Is there a point when a diocese should feel justified in telling a parish that they cannot staff them with a priest and so they cannot remain open? If so, what characteristics define when that needs to take place? Is there any precedence for normalizing regular Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest? What effect does that have on a community?
I raise these questions without answers because I feel like they are bigger than my opinions allow for. They deserve some serious reflection, though.