Word Magazine April 1971 Page 7-8/12
THE PASTORAL PROBLEM IN THE CHURCH
By Father Joseph Allen
In a very real sense, the health of a local parish church school is indicative of the health of the parish at large. The priest is responsible for the growth and development of the whole of his parish life and his care and involvement are essential in this. The priest’s relationship to the church school is never a neutral one: it is always either harmful or beneficial. Within this division it is almost always safe to say that a priest who does nothing in, and has no contact with, his church school is always harmful. What we must look at now is the reason for this isolation of the priest from his church school and what role the priest as priest is functionally suited to play in the work of his school.
We should begin first by making it clear that the priest, as the leader of the parish, is ultimately responsible for what happens in his church school, both for what is taught and the effectiveness of methods used. He cannot escape this responsibility in virtue of the very nature of the priest’s relationship to the community he is serving.
This essential responsibility of the priest is clear from the relationship which the word “priest” has to the word “pastor.” For many of our priests the priest is simply the man who offers the Eucharist and serves a liturgy on Sunday mornings: his function ends right there. His Eucharistic role seemingly has no further implications beyond the Sunday celebration. In fact, to the role of priest we must necessarily add that of pastor; the pastoral functions are those which fall within the implications of the Eucharistic function. To the notion of priest we must add the diligent care of the shepherd, the one who takes an active part in the shaping of the Christian lives of his people. The priest cannot simply issue the “word”; it is not sufficient for the wellbeing of his flock.
Although this emphasis may seem obvious and self-evident, it is nonetheless a very real problem and the analogy of the priest as shepherd or pastor is essential. How many of our priests, we must ask, see themselves as pastors? How many of our priests merely “issue” the word? How many of our priests are prepared to recognize the implications of their Eucharistic functions and get involved, physically, in the operations of the church school as more than overseer?
This isolation of the priest from the life of the church school is manifested in other areas of parish life. This type of isolated and insulated priest tends to see things in neat and discrete categories. We call this type of priest the “category priest,” because he sees everyone as having a certain place and function in the parish. This attitude holds, for instance, that the church school is the “place” for the children on Sunday mornings and the liturgy is the place for the adults. This attitude has two implications: first, the children should not attend liturgy and, second, adults should not get involved in the church school. The unity of the parish is lost and the church school, Christian learning, Bible study, etc. becomes properly childish and not to be taken very seriously by the adults.
The needs of the situation are quite the contrary. It is, in fact, the priest who is the embodiment of the unity of all aspects of church life and in his person the adult community commits itself to the future of the Christian development of the children of the parish. The priest cannot, without distorting his function as priest, appear dues ex machine, as it were, in the church school occasionally. We have all heard the cute references children often make on seeing the priest, referring to him as “God.” On one level this is certainly normal; on another it is terribly sad and indicative of the fact that the children don’t know the priest as pastor. Here is the priest’s place, with the children and with their learning about God and His acts in history. In a real sense, as a priest, who stands before the Altar leading the community, he represents God. This isolation of the priest from the cares, needs and joys of the children has serious implications in the minds of the children. In fact, if the priest does not take the efforts of Christian education seriously, we cannot properly expect anyone in the parish to do so. Now the purpose of this short article is not to give specifics of Christian Education in terms of books or lessons. My purpose is rather to take a more lasting look at the relationship of the liturgy to the rest of parish life.
From a practical point of view the priest is the ideally suited one to guide the initiation of the children into the liturgical life of the Church. He can, for instance, demonstrate the various sections of the liturgy to the children. Several of our Orthodox Christian Education Commission books, for instance, call for the study of the Preparation or Proskomedia; the priest can introduce the children to this section of the liturgy on the phenomenological level and at the same time point out its deeper implications as manifested in the remembrances, the communion of the saints, the communal nature of the Church represented in the Eucharistic bread set around Christ.
Why can the priest not actually invite, let us say, the third grade to share the preparation in the sanctuary, with them giving him the names of their friends and family and hear him remember them as he cuts the prosphora. Here is an ideal opportunity, indeed one among the many that we can create, for the priest to stimulate a personal relationship with the children as a priest, drawing them into a more intimate participation, if not understanding, of the liturgy.
This same type of thing can be carried on in an assembly situation for the entire church school body as a demonstration, with each of the appropriate themes being carefully pointed out —fellowship, communion of the saints, the communal nature of the Church; God’s coming to us in the very offering we make to Him, etc. One class, for example the ninth grade, could even arrange to spend a Saturday evening baking the prosphora for the liturgy the next morning.
Along this same line, ideally it is the priest’s role to introduce the children to the Church building. Each of the items in the Church can become meaningful; each of the saints can have a personal introduction. This familiarity is inseparably tied to the Communion of the Saints without which we cannot understand all of the icons in the Church. Furthermore, the pastor must use his imagination; for example, instead of only praying for the sick and the suffering, he can arrange a visitation program for local hospitals. Instead of only explaining the liturgical cycle of the Church year, two things can be done: first, he can conduct all the services of Great Lent, which go far beyond the Friday night services, and find a way to actively involve the students of the parish in the celebration, and, second, he can see to it that throughout the year the appropriate feasts are celebrated with Liturgy and Vespers and that opportunities are created for the children to read, sing, serve, decorate and bring offerings.
Along a different line, the pastor must know how and what the older students are faced with in their homes, schools and social life: he must be ready to give the Church’s moral response to the problems they face. He must not be an old-line dictator, but rather provoke the questions which will lead to a Christian manner of looking at the problem. The pastor must necessarily maintain contact with his church school faculty, meet with them, discuss their problems and more importantly, discuss the problems of the students with them.
There are many more suggestions to be made in terms of specifics, not all of which deal with the liturgical aspects of Church life. But these specifics can be arrived at only from this starting point: that priest be a “pastor.” But, somehow, many of us seem to have forgotten this axiom.
But we are brought back to it by one simple question: knowing that Orthodoxy proclaims that one’s faiths is his life, how is it possible for a priest NOT to be a pastor? How is it possible not to be intimately involved in the Christian education of the children under his charge?
Father Joseph Allen is the pastor of St. Antony’s Orthodox Church in Bergenfield, New Jersey, the editor of UPBEAT, the teenage Orthodox magazine, and a member of the Department of Christian Education of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.