Word Magazine April 1993 Page 7-8
THE PRIEST IN THE PARISH SETTING
by Bishop ISAIAH of Denver
We are living at a time in human history in which many long standing teachings and traditions have been distorted, not to say changed. It is not inaccurate to believe that in our day men are lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the form of godliness but denying its power (2 Tim. 3:2-5). They are always learning but are never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 3:7). This condition is all around us and tends to influence, if possible, even the teachings of our Holy Faith.
Because it is to this society, to this kind of world into which our priests enter, it is imperative that we be reminded and to know with certainty what the priesthood is, what its focus should be, and how it can be applied to the parish setting, that is, to our people. Even now, there is a confusion and even a conflict in the minds of our people as to the identity and the purpose of the holy priesthood. We, ourselves, may have an improper and an incorrect understanding of what it is to be a priest of God today.
We know from the history and the living tradition of our Church that the priesthood was established by Christ according to the order of Melchizedek. The old Aaronic or Levitical priesthood had served its purpose and fulfilled its objectives. There was no further need for sacrifices, for the spotless Lamb of God had been sacrificed on the Cross. A New Covenant was written in the hearts of the believers, as Jeremiah had prophesied. The veil in the Temple, concealing the Holy of Holies, mysteriously was ripped apart from top to bottom, and God’s holy presence departed. The bread and wine which Melchizedek offered to Abraham after the battle of the kings was manifested on the Cross as our Lord offered His flesh and blood for the sins of the world, giving Himself up for the life of the world. On the great day of Pentecost the presence of God returned as tongues of fire establishing the New Israel and Christ’s holy priesthood after the order of Melchizedek.
From the Book of Acts we learn of the establishment of the clergy, the Apostles as bishops, the presbyters, and the deacons. They were called by the Holy Spirit for the gathering of God’s people. They are the servants of the parable who run out to the streets and lanes, the highways and hedges to invite people to the eternal banquet. We read in one part of Acts, “As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’ (Acts 13:2).” It is the Holy Spirit Who calls us. We describe this as a calling from God, a vocation.
Yet in the history of the Church many have entered the ranks of the clergy without this calling. Simon wanted to buy it and not a few bishops in the course of history have sold it (Acts 8:18). How do we know this? The Lord tells us. He says, “Many will say to Me in that day ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me …’ (Matt. 7:23).”
We enter the holy priesthood not as free agents as it were but as obedient hearers of the voice of the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Acts we read, “So being sent by the Holy Spirit, they went . . . (Acts 13:4).” We are called by Christ to go, not where we wish to go, but where the Holy Spirit sends us. I do not know if it is because of my vantage point at the Archdiocese or my thirty years in the clergy, but it seems to me that more and more priests are involved in where they wish to be assigned. The reasons given are invariably personal ones. Of the five graduating classes I have interviewed at the Archdiocese these past five years, I believe only two seniors told me that they would go wherever the Church sent them. And they are converts. If our priests are going to be successful in their parish ministries, it will be only because they believe that the Holy Spirit placed them there.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the only Priest of the order of Melchizedek. The bishops of the Church are His personal representatives, and the presbyters and the deacons are the personal extensions of the bishops. There is only one purpose for this new priesthood: the gathering of God’s people so that the full number of those who are to be saved will be completed (Rom. 11:25, Heb. 11:40). There is only one message: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” This message receives its authority from the death and resurrection of Christ and His coming again. The priest of the Church cannot be a proponent of current philosophies or of liberation theology as we see it expressed in the political arena. We pray for peace in the world: we work for peace in the world. But we are realistic enough to know that we will not bring it about by ourselves. If we could, our Lord would not call Himself the Prince of Peace: for then, it would be an empty title. When we preach the Kingdom of Heaven being at hand, we teach and proclaim Christ crucified: Christ resurrected: and Christ coming again.
It is important to stress this again and again, even though we know it. For we are always tempted to preach our own message from the pulpit, rather than Christ’s. Even now there are priests in the Church who take liberties in order to demonstrate that they are capable of interpreting the Faith and who consider their innovations correct. They abbreviate services and even change the words of Scripture. In the marriage sacrament, for example, they do not read in one of the prayers to “keep their bed in purity” so that the bridegroom and the bride would want their bed undefiled. By doing this, those priests erase the Scriptural reference which we see in the Epistle to the Hebrews where it says, “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled (Heb. 13:4).” It is not surprising therefore to see such priests allow non-Orthodox to be sponsors at baptisms and to offer Holy Communion to non-Orthodox individuals. For a priest to compromise his calling in such ways and in many others, one day he must come to the realization that he has betrayed the priesthood, that is, if he knows what the priesthood is in the first place.
The sad reality with our faithful in the parishes is that they do not comprehend the Divine Liturgy as it is; and for a priest to change or add something is considered most confusing, if not offensive to them. In Corinth in the days of Saint Paul, the Christians were being baptized in behalf of the dead (1 Corin. 15:29). But we certainly would not think of bringing this practice back today.
Because of these things, it is most vital for the priest to believe himself to be sent by the Holy Spirit and to be obedient to the ways of the Church. His personal feelings with history or nostalgia must never interfere with how the Church is today. Neither should he consider himself as having the right to be innovative by trying to demonstrate equal rights of the sexes, for example, by changing liturgical practices. This type of license can certainly lead to equal rights for all life styles as we see happening in other churches and denominations. There is only one way for a priest to serve God’s People and that is Christ’s Way. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no clergyman has the right to compete with this doctrine.
A priest who enters the Parish life for the first time can have a kind of traumatic experience, for he will realize that in seminary he learned to be a teacher, a preacher, and a liturgist, but in the parish he finds himself to be an office worker, a maintenance supervisor, and an administrator, to mention just a few areas of responsibility. One can conveniently accept this reality by saying that in the seminary he was mostly involved with theoretical and theological studies, while in the parish setting the demands are toward the material, especially the physical needs and expectations. There is truth to this. I recall that thirty years ago when I first started out as an assistant priest, my pastor, in a moment of frustration, said that he was so much involved in administrative affairs that he had no time to be a priest.
The size of the parish in most cases determines whether the priest is a Mary or a Martha. In today’s parish setting, a priest most be both and must be able to balance them. Too many priests in the past have been far more concerned with the physical and material side of parish life than the spiritual. This can be readily seen from parish bulletins which show on red letter days no liturgies. However the social and athletic activities are in full swing. In this regard many of our priests want to feel that they are the immediate overseers of all expressions of parish life and they are offended when the parish council does not agree with them. Probably it is here in the area of chief responsibility or, rather, authority, which is the real cause of a breakdown in a harmonious operation of a parish in all its expressions.
The reason for this breakdown, which is commonplace among our parishes, is seen in the type of parish regulations our Church in North America followed in the early days, in the way the laity view the bishops and priests, and thirdly in the way the clergy sees itself.
In regard to the regulations that were used to administrate our parishes, they had been prepared chiefly by attorneys who did not fully understand the administrative role of the priest in the parish. One example suffices to prove the point: In many situations of parish life in the parish or in the greater society, the chairman of the parish council is introduced and recognized as “the president of the community.” Far too many times I have heard bishops recognize the council chairman in this way. Here we have a real dichotomy in the leadership of a parish. The priest is the head the parish and the chairman is supposedly the head of the parish council. Within this contradictory recognition of priest and chairman, the laity comes forth to support the one interpretation or the other. This, naturally, puts the bishop in a serious dilemma. If he supports the priest, the parish council may hold back its commitment to the Church. If he supports the chairman and the council, he loses the trust of his priest.
If some priests have no faith in their bishops today, however, they have no strong argument to support this, due to the way they view themselves. Although theological training is paramount regarding a bishop and a priest in today’s world, the spirit of secularism which literally permeates the atmosphere of our Church, convinces the clergyman to see himself as more of a professional, such as a professor or a counseling agent, or a psychologist, rather than as God’s servant who is responsible for leading the people of God toward redemption and salvation. In this regard the ‘‘professional’’ priest appears to consider his excellent sermon to be on a higher order than holy communion. As long as the priest allows his people to attend the Divine Liturgy after the Epistle and Gospel readings, and in some cases, even after the Holy Eucharist is offered, then the highlight of the Liturgy in the minds of these people will continue to be the sermon which often comes at the very end. Sadly, the priest erroneously sees his homily as fulfilling his role as priest. Yet earlier in the Liturgy he minimizes his priestly role as teacher and sacrificial offerer by his apparent lack of concern for the number of people in attendance. To stretch the point, the late comers at a Divine Liturgy identify the priest not with the Altar, but with the Pulpit. Sermons should he given in their proper place in the Liturgy: after the Gospel reading.
One of the areas in which a priest demeans himself and his priesthood is with his remuneration. Considering himself a “professional” with degrees after his name, he prepares a curriculum vitae for parish councils to see. In the past few years I have seen an increasing number of new graduates of our school with prepared curricula vitae. This document gives the wrong message to the parish councils and to the Church, and exposes the graduate to the probability that he does not know what the priesthood is. He gives the impression that he is a free agent of sorts; that it is his document which makes all the difference in his assignment, rather than his bishop; that even the Holy Spirit is not necessarily involved. Unknowingly he falls into the hands of the parish council members who see him as a potential employee. To make matters worse, he auditions for them by chanting and even celebrating a service or two, thereby making a divine service simply a kind of rehearsal for the eyes and ears of council members.
A few years ago I was trying to find an assignment for a graduate of our Seminary. He showed me what he had prepared, including curriculum vitae and even financial statistics as to the cost of living in that part of the country and other such documents. This was after he had returned from a parish to which I had sent him. He told me that they could not meet his figures. Then I reminded him that he had never served anywhere as a clergyman. He had established no “track record” whatsoever. And then I asked him why he expected such a remuneration when he himself did not know how well he would do and if he would succeed in his ministry. Needless to say I received no answer. I wanted to tell him to save his curriculum vitae and to present it to the Lord on the Day of Judgment; but I did not think that he would understand.
A priest can look at himself as a professional, but never in the light of secularism. He is an organizer, and administrator, a counsellor, a psychologist, a community leader, a public relations person — all of these and more, but only in the light of Christ, only in the same sense as Saint Paul was when he wrote, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some (1 Cor. 9:22).” All these roles must come under the first and chief role: a priest of God, the priest who is sent by the Holy Spirit as a small Christ to find and to save souls for the Kingdom. Moreover, in regard to academic degrees, there is no doubt that they are necessary. If Saint Paul lived today or Saint Gregory the Theologian, Saint Photios or Saint Gregory Palamas, they would have as many if not more earned and honorary degrees as the most highly educated scholars of today. But all of them would see themselves first and foremost as servants of Christ Who had called them into His soul-saving ministry.
For one to be a successful priest in continuity of Christ’s holy mandate is most difficult in today’s parishes. The priest must see the parish as God’s workshop for the saving of souls, even though the cultural, social, fraternal and athletic programs may abound. The parishioners must begin to view the priest as the source of their spiritual development and edification. Our sacraments have taken on an air of societal prestige. The outer trappings involving baptisms and weddings have gone to the point of being ludicrous. You begin to wonder how many of our faithful at a baptism realize that the child was claimed in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, having being separated from Satan’s claim and ownership by the sacrament? You see four foot tall candles at weddings attired in lace like human mannequins and you wonder why. The concept that Christ enters the marriage in partnership with the bride and groom seems not to be understood. Even at funerals there seem to be more and more requests for relatives and friends of the deceased to read a poem or sing a favorite song or offer a eulogy that never speaks of one’s eternal condition. The priest’s sermon on the resurrection is not considered of importance in the service.
The condition of our parishes must change in order for the priest to fulfill the expectations of his ministry. For example Saturday night vespers can be instituted in all parishes, even though ten people may attend. The rest of the parish family will soon realize that Saturday evening is the beginning of one’s preparation for the Sunday Liturgy. All parish council meetings must begin with a Scripture reading and a small meditation so that they who say that a parish is a business and who consider the treasurer’s report the most important part of the meeting, may somehow be awakened to the reality of their error. Those individuals who consider the financial report in any parish setting as the most important, should be taken to visit a local heavily endowed Protestant church which has only a few elderly members or which is closed.
Many former graduates of the seminary including myself, in their zeal to teach the Faith established an excellent Sunday School system from the 1950’s on. They produced their own materials initially because the Archdiocese had only Greek language materials. Forty years later the programs and materials have greatly increased and professionally improved. However, in a substantial number of parishes, the major mistake we made is being continued. We taught our children many things in the classroom setting. But we also taught them, not by word, but by example, that they did not have to attend the Divine Liturgy. The simultaneous time of Sunday School with the Divine Liturgy told them that they did not have to be there. And now as adults, they are still not there except for baptisms, weddings, and funerals.
There is no question that all of us have been influenced to one degree or another by our secular world in our education, in our professionalism, and in our leadership capabilities. We believe that we speak from the vantage point of Christian leaders, but somehow we are not getting across. Our parish councils look upon themselves as stewards of the church, but act more like safety deposit boxes. A good steward uses the money. He does not bury it as the sinful servant in the parable. Our people seem to want their leaders to be more of the Martha-type than of the Mary-type. They want their physical and secular needs addressed to the point of being more interested in how the liturgy is conducted than why they attend the liturgy.
Yes, it is most difficult to be Christ’s kind of priest in today’s society. The priest’s leadership qualities and preparation must be effective in his role as a servant of Christ. For him to be a servant of Christ, he must first and always be a man of prayer. Whether he has administrative qualities or a good voice, whether he is a praiseworthy intellectual or a public relations expert, whether his talents are superior or even inferior, they become secondary in the eyes of our people when they see him as a man of prayer.
Being a person of prayer is best manifested in caring for his parishioners, all of them, including all people. He can never allow himself to see his parishioners in two camps. Being a person of prayer is best manifested in his regular visits to the hospitals and to the sick person’s bed wherever it may be, and to place his hand of healing upon him/her, anointing with holy oil and holy water. Being a person of prayer is best manifested in offering the Holy Body and Precious Blood of our Lord at as many Divine Liturgies as he can schedule. He, first, as a communicant of the Lord, needs this more than anyone else. It is his spiritual life-line. His ministry must he identified more with his altar and the sick bed, than with the office and his other activities. For these two places tell you what he is all about and tell others that he cares. For the altar is the depository of God’s love and the sick bed is the recipient of that love, moreso than any other recipient.
When his people see him as a man of prayer and a vessel of God’s grace, then he will guide them to their first love which must always be his first love. Then he will be able to function simultaneously as a servant and as a leader in all facets and expressions of parish and community life. And he will then be successful in making all people see that his is a Eucharistic Community identical with the ones in the Apostolic age. “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the Church of God which He purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28).”
On the day of his holy ordination to the priesthood, immediately after the consecration of the gifts the ordaining bishop placed the Lamb in his hands, the consecrated Body of Christ to hold for a few moments. He will say to the priest, “Receive this deposit and guard it until the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ at which time it will be demanded from you.” The priesthood is an awesome calling. But it is also the richest and most joyful blessing. For He Who calls the priest is always ready to sustain him at all times to do His will, which He has promised will be done until He returns to gather in His people and to complete the number of them who are to be saved.
Bishop ISAIAH is the hierarch of the Diocese of Denver, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America.