The Word, June 1982, Page 11-14
Notes on the Priesthood:
A Personal View
by Father Antony Gabriel
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you (Jer. 1:5)
Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine. Should you pass through the sea, I will be with you; or through rivers, they will not swallow you up. Should you walk through fire, you will not be scorched and the flames will not burn you. For I am Yahweh, your God, the Holy One of Israel, Your Saviour. (Is. 43:2-3)
Having written several articles for “The Word” over the years on the Priesthood, I felt compelled once again to reflect on the nature of the “personal” ministry. The following notes come not from presumptuousness or conceit, but from years of struggling within myself on the content and activity of the ministry in the twentieth century. These reflections have been formed from the very depth of that struggle which is found in the context of the Church. But first of all, let me emphasize that nothing is achieved without prayer and fasting; reading and quiet; celebrating and preaching; ministering and administering.
Twenty years after the date of my ordination, I retreated within my study, Ordination Service in hand, to set down a series of questions to see how I measured up to that “standard” preserved in the mind of the Church. After all, the proclamation “Axios” is an existential term filled with meaning; it is both an affirmation by the congregation and a goal to be achieved “Worthiness” is not automatically “given”, it is a process, a lifelong struggle that is only fully realized in the Kingdom of God. It is a goal, a directive from God.
Some of the awesome questions that have confronted me as urgent considerations for the Pastor of today are as follows:
—How will marriage (and celibacy, for that matter) and the family cope with this new life of total dedication? What is reasonable or unreasonable for the family to accept by way of demands and pressures now placed on the Pastor and his family? Is the ministry an “obstacle course” to be hurdled?
—Will the Church itself remain the Pastor’s lifelong love or will he be aggressively seduced by the other “gods” such as success, financial security, a thriving parish, statistics and progress, Chairmanship of an Archdiocesan commission or a comfortable position somewhere up the ecclesiastical ladder?
—Can a Pastor retain the intensity of his idealism during the valleys and peaks of life? Does he have enough tenacity to maintain his inner beliefs in the face of the modern mockery of those convictions? Do men of the Church have the ability to be faithful and resist philosophical promiscuity? Is there a constant growth and renewal, or despair and cynicism . . .? Is there intellectual honesty or falsehood . . .?
—Can a Priest be an expressive leader motivating others to action or is he “the lamb being led to the slaughter?” Is he passive or the creative innovator? Must the Priest be the focus of the Parish, a boss or the prime mover? Can the Pastor effectively delegate authority? Does today’s Pastor comprehend the central role which the Church must play in the community? Can the Church combine both the moral, religious and cultural aspects of society?
—Can the Priest balance social and political concerns with his religious conscience? Is the Gospel reconcilable with politics or the involvement in modern day problems, such as abortion, technology, environmental waste, biogenics, the aged, the electronic media, etc., etc.? Is there an authentic answer to the seeming contradiction inherent in the face of affluence and poverty that surround us daily? What ought the Pastor to do or say?
—Should the Pastor be a “censor-swinger”, a perfectionist in the rites of the Church and aloof from the concerns of the every day man? What does the liturgical life mean to each Priest? How can our modern lifestyles be sanctified in and through the Church? Is Tradition a real or illusionary concept?
—Should the Priest have some business sense or is financial management out of his domain? How does a Priest organize his office and where? Are technology and computers “unorthodox”? Does a Priest collect pledges and raise money?
—What does a Priest do in the hospital, during home visitations? How does one deal with the unchurched, the assault on the family and marriage? How does the Church respond to the estrangement of the dispossessed? Does the Pastor need continued Pastoral training? Does he seek out new techniques? How can he really help?
—What does a Pastor do with his spare time? Does he read, pray and meditate, or is life all action? Is there room for the development of his talents and potentialities? Can a Priest be quiet once in a while? How does he prepare his sermons? Is life all seriousness or is there time for fun and gaiety? Who does he talk to when he has problems? Does he go to confession or remain in a state of withdrawal?
—Should the Priest attend all meetings, accept all dinner invitations, and be expected to speak at every occasion? What does his wife do in the Church? Is she expected to be always present with her husband? Does she have a role to play in the life of the Church, either independently or as a partner? And what about the children . . .? Can deep friendships be cultivated with our Priests?
—Must a Pastor bless all the homes? How does he deal with mixed marriages, canonical problems and divorce? What does he do and say in critical situations within the parish-family? How does the Pastor handle the new preoccupation with death and the dying? What themes predominate at funerals — homilies, eulogies or Pastoral exhortations. Is the Gospel preached or does it turn into a sentimental “tear jerker?”
—Does the Pastor and his family have a right to privacy? Where should he live? How are salaries determined? Should a Priest have a private number? At what point does confidence with parishioners give birth to either comfort, confidence or contempt? Can he and his family have friends from within the parish?
—At what point does the Pastor’s freedom infringe on other rights, particularly that of the Church? What are the limitations to self-expression? What is true humility when today’s ministry is included among the success-oriented professions?
—Is there time for the cultivation of the interior life in the midst of a myriad of activities taking place within each parish, especially the drive for financial growth and in some cases their survival? How can the Pastor effectively infuse a spirit of awareness among his charges? Can he make Orthodoxy alive and relevant, or does he drown in trivia and endless details . . .? Can he make Christ present in the congregation?
—On some of the other spiritual questions: The new freedoms afforded to modern man by wealth; the hunger and thirst for agelessness in a youth oriented society; the threat of nuclear extinction; “plasticized” death; consumerism; the world as a global village; sexual narcissism, and on goes the list — Can the Pastor be “a pillar of truth” or will he be swept along with the tide?
—Are people today really different from those of any other era? Are our people unique? Has human nature as such radically altered in its evolution to the twentieth century? What are the conditions that seem to undermine our ministry? Is Christianity facing overwhelming odds? Is history marching over us?
—Does the Priest disturb as Proclaimer or Prophet in the parish? Can he remind the people what they are and what they are to be? Is the Church the image of “me” or of Christ? What criteria do I use for up-building the parish? Is there, in fact, an objective truth that we must live, or is change the only constant that is the all-controlling principle?
—The Parish Council, Church School, SOYO, Choir, Altar Boys, Ladies’ Society, AOCWNA, Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Antiochian Village, the Seminary, etc., etc., where does the Pastor’s responsibility begin and end? How does he develop his programs and with whom? Is his ministry shared or does he go it alone? Finally, how does the Priest relate to the Metropolitan and other hierarchs?
As the heart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, 0 God, Deep calleth unto deep. . . (Ps 42:1, 7) As in water, face answereth to face, so the heart man to man. (Prov. 27, 19)
Thoughts and Suggestions
The God Question. “If I find fifty righteous people in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake” explodes in our ears as a timeless judgment on the Church as well as society. Evangelical holiness is as vital to our continued existence in North America as it is on Mount Athos. We so desperately need to interpret the ethos of Orthodoxy in the context of the twentieth century; we need a new type of martyria; a new “icon” of holiness that will prophetically appeal to the men and women standing on the threshold of the twenty-first century.
There are no easy answers to any of the important questions of our age, but we must raise them, ponder them and most of all struggle with all our might with them. If there is nothing deep, original or inspired in our responses to the faithful, it is tantamount to “giving stones to our children who ask for bread”.
Therefore, it seems to me that the starting point of each Priest is with the depth and quality of his own inner life. Can anyone offer anything from an empty bucket? One of the most poignant scenes in the New Testament is the tender encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Plunging into the “well” of our souls, do we emerge refreshed with the living water of faith, hope and love…?
I would like to offer a few suggestions to my fellow strugglers and travelers who are on the way….
1. Dependence on the sources — Revelation, the Ecumenical Teachers, the Desert Fathers, the Canons, is an absolute must. Here one is confronted with the same struggle, the same life and death issues that confronted the Saints. Our spiritual forefathers had a perception of their “enemy” whereas, today the enemy deals with us in a subtle way. Their courageous words still speak with a freshness and vibrance in their heroic battle between “the way of life” and “the way of death.” Once we immerse ourselves in that ocean of spirituality, we can critically use modern research and techniques as supportive and sensitizing tools in a wise understanding of the yearnings of the human spirit. But most important of all, contemplation of the Word of God should be the source of our life for it catapults us into the Creator’s immensity and wisdom.
2. The Liturgical life as “epiphany” and “transfiguration.” Our Priestly image shines from the altar when we joyfully celebrate God’s wondrous mysteries. The harmony, dignity and beauty of our Priestly Liturgical actions bring the laity to God because they reflect that Divine “meeting place” between God and his people. Therefore, it is a must that we strive to be faithful to the rich liturgical cycle as set down by the Church. There is something “different” about a praying congregation. Also, there are certain life events that can be transformed by their inclusion into the rhythm of the Church, marriage-vow renewal, rededication, Parish/Organization induction ceremonies, etc., etc. When this is done, the faithful feel the importance of these activities and by encouraging family participation, we touch them in their “dearest spots.”
3. Obedience to Church disciplines such as fasting, abstinence, confession, the Kairon, etc., etc. We sometimes ignore these as canonical details or monastic distractions. It seems to me that once we let “the little things” slip by, a slow erosion takes place in the pit of our soul until nothing is left except weak self-justification. As Priests we must be aware of “signs” of what is normative for the Christian life. There is an organic co-relation between who we are and how we do it! It is simply staggering to me that religions exterior to Orthodoxy have been able to incite their followers to all kinds of personal sacrifices and we have difficulty inspiring fidelity to the most elemental practices of the Church. Is it not time to get back to the basics . . .“
4. “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian” (Evagrios the Solitary). In that daily communion with God, does He not help us to overcome our doubt and insecurity? In the silence of our “closets” does He not speak mysteriously to our hearts? A daily rule is so vital; a time away from time is so necessary; it is fundamental to the nourishment of our interior life. What Jesus tells us says it best of all, “Can a barren tree bring forth much fruit?” We must recapture the grace of stillness and simplicity…
5. Read, write, study the issues, be informed and articulate. Create forums in the Parish that provide an opportunity for dialogue on a one-to-one basis. It takes imagination and vision. Only the Pastor can make the Good News both “good” and “new”, by the testimony of his life and deeds. It is our mandate to make Christ the reference point and center of the Parish and its programs. A Priest must be foremost a good listener. How else can he be a “geiger counter” to either the personal wealth within each individual or the treasures of Orthodoxy? We must have something distinctive and definite to say on what is current, as well as historical questions. And most of all, GROW, don’t be static intellectually.
6. Be Organized. Without becoming a slave to schedules, an effective leader must work by planning his daily routine, organizing his office, (answering mail and calls) and time. There is something disconcerting about operating in chaos. In practical terms, we can best serve the needs of our flock if we know where they are headed each day . . . home and hospital visitations, pastoral consultations, meetings, etc., etc. Time must be afforded to each Pastor to think about his goals and objectives, about the direction he wishes to take his parish. A harried disheveled Pastor simply will not efficiently project or create a competent or consistent atmosphere.
RECEIVE THE BODY OF CHRIST
7. The Family. This is our “first congregation”. The greatest gift we pass on to them is our own faith. Long after we are gone the signals will be comprehended in the hearts of those around us. There will be peace and tranquility in the home if there is both verbal and non-verbal communication and positive reinforcement. It is not how much time you spend at home as much as the quality, what you do when you are there. If the Church is a meaningful place to be, the family will soon enough find out by the Christian spirit that breathes through the family relationships.
8. Availability. A genuine Pastor who is “a craftsman” of the soul, will be at the disposal of others. Good stewardship of his calendar will enable him to do so! His compassionate nature will be revealed by his concentration and openness to the joys and sorrows of his parishioners. The personal involvement is probably the most significant dimension of the healing ministry . . . It is here that one fulfills the title of Pastor. At almost no other period in modern history is this aspect more obviously needed.
He who has seen himself is greater than he who has seen the angels.
He who has seen himself such as he is and has seen his sins is greater than he who raises the dead. (St. Isaac the Syrian)
The role that the Pastor has in the community as healer, counselor, teacher, priest and prophet, is interdependent upon his own self-image and the advance he has made in his personal life. A priest must quite simply have a wholly integrated personality. If there is a split within this, fragmentation will soon enough reveal itself. A man can either be likened to a prism or a cracked mirror. Each deflects different kinds of rays; the one splendorous, the other broken. I believe that the Orthodox way is simultaneously incarnational and resurrectional in our rising up and giving out in the service of others. The Church is the best place to be today and the importance of that mission in the world can never be under-estimated. The crisis-death/resurrection-rebirth pattern of every conscious Pastor can only increase that awareness of the urgency and sacredness of The Call. Our mission in the parish must reflect the face of Christ and that must be the essence of our vision.
We shall be subject to either the searing indictment as read in the Book of Ezekiel 34:1-10 or identify with the loving embrace of God with His own .
For the Lord Yahweh says this, I am going to look after my flock myself and keep it all in view. As a shepherd keeps all his flock in when he stands up in the middle of his scattered sheep, so shall I keep my sheep in view. I shall rescue them from wherever they have been scattered during the mist and darkness.
I myself will pasture my sheep, I myself will show them where to rest — it is the Lord Yahweh who speaks. I shall look after the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong. I shall watch over the fat and healthy. I shall be a true shepherd to them.” (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15, 16)
Father Antony is pastor of St. George Church in Montreal and Chaplain to the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch.