Word Magazine April 1974 Page 3
THE WAY IT WAS
By The Very Rev. Michael Simon
Say-id-na has given me an assignment. He wants me to talk about what I have seen or observed about the priesthood in the years that I have been in the archdiocese. Mostly, I hope to speak about the pastoral part of the priesthood; I am not an expert in dogmatics or theology, but I am in the practical.
I am sure that after twenty- five years of service in the priesthood, there are certain traits of personality that are needed to be an Orthodox priest. I cannot enumerate all these traits, an impossible task, nor can I completely evaluate my own personality traits, another impossible task.
What I can do and what I shall do instead is to tell you a little of what I have seen and how I feel at this time in my life. I hope that I will reach the same end in this way; that is: what is it that makes an Orthodox priest?
As many of you already know, when I came to Paterson, my first and only parish, twenty-five years ago, I came as one who stood between two ages. They were the immigrant Church,
then truly a Church in diaspora, and the contemporary Church, now integrated into the life of America. Then it was more of a Syrian, or Greek, or Russian Church. Now it is moving quickly becoming first an Orthodox Christian Church. Then priests and bishops were largely “imported” and still had ideas about the way of life in their old countries. Now we have seen much more growth from within where priests, and even our own Archbishop, have had most of their pastoral experience in our own archdiocese. Then little English was used; now mostly English is used.
These were the ages between which I stood: a position of being raised in America, but fluent in both languages. To be truthful, a threat often to some of the “older” and established priests because of this rather fortunate position into which I was born.
In those days, however, not only were the priests different, but the people, the laity, were also different. The whole concept of exactly who was the priest and what was his function were the questions which were foremost to be answered. We, too, perhaps, must answer these
questions today. For these are the universal pastoral questions. But the intensity and the need to answer such questions was much greater twenty-five years ago when our churches were still very shaky about even surviving.
When I came to Paterson, it was after twelve priests had served here, none remaining more than a few years. The parish was anything but stable. And, I might as well make it clear from now, as I can observe from experience, a stable parish, one that is able to persevere, needs as its leader one who is himself stable and able to persevere.
The home we came to in Paterson was anything but desirable. It was an old, drafty, cold in the winter and hot in the summer kind of place. The salary was $150.00 per month, out of which we had to pay all expenses including utilities and water. It was up to me to paint and repair at my own expense, and do whatever was necessary to keep the house livable. A few years later I even did the janitor work in the church for the extra $25.00 per month in order to supplement my wages.
My family was, indeed, very unhappy about our living conditions, and if Khoor-ee-yee had her way, we would have left immediately after the first few months. I found myself caught between what I know was needed for the benefit of the parish and its survival and what was proper for my family.
In those days, in most parishes, the people thought of the priest as “hired” to perform the Liturgy and take care of their spiritual needs, not as a spiritual father.
However, in spite of all the difficulties, I stuck it out. I started with fifty families; this is not to imply that all fifty families were active or attended regularly. To give you an idea, our first Sunday collection came to a grand total of $6.50. It was not a very encouraging sign. Nevertheless, thanks to the cooperation and love of a small dedicated group of hard workers, St. George’s of Paterson can now hold its place with the best of them.
Instead of dwelling further upon my personal experiences, my message can be better presented by telling you, my fellow priests, what kind of priests I have seen throughout the years. There are various types, and I know that this may seem a strange way to present my talk, but after much thought, I believe my point will come across more clearly if I talk about the types. By the way, in no manner am I attacking or denouncing any priest or priests.
1. First there is the sheriff type. He is the one who guards the courthouse, which to him is the Church. The Church is a way of satisfying his need for power. He distributes grace. He finds the smallest thing in order to make a gigantic case in which he can exert that power over the people. It works for a while, and the people then get the picture and stop listening.
2. The second type is the kind that believes the only way to be successful is to make the people happy. This is the crowd pleaser. Tell them not what is, not what the Lord commanded, but what they want to hear. The people are happy, maybe not more Christian, but happy, and the priest is happy. But he soon finds that this way leads to an empty priesthood; he might as well get another job in which his only challenge is to make people happy.
3. There is the third kind who is concerned first with his own security before anything else; I mean not only financial security, but security in his position. I guess all of us are threatened at times by our laity, like our Boards of Trustees, but there are some that are threatened by every contribution and every energy that the laymen may make. Everything that is done must be under the priest’s personal ruling; he is enslaved by his own image, and he is an inch from being a dictator. In his concern for security, he has power but neither the compassion nor the love which our Lord had.
4. Finally, there is the cynic who takes nothing to be important. He is sloppy in the Liturgy, has no regard for Orthodox canons, the Orthodox Tradition, and the hierarchal structure. He is disconnected from the archdiocese; he is alone with his parish. But, sooner or later, he ceases to be an Orthodox priest; he is simply not committed. Nothing is serious, and he remains in the priesthood in a cynical way. It is a job, not a life. “Don’t bother me after 5:30 p.m.; my hours are from 11 am, to 5:30 p.m.”
Now, I’ve taken the time to tell you a little about my personal life and about some of the types of priests that I have seen in the twenty-five years of my priesthood. But what is the answer if these are the problems?
The answer is quite simple, and the longer I am a priest, the more simple it becomes. The answer must be nothing less than presenting Christ Himself to the people in a parish. We cannot pretend to present Christ, however, when we ourselves are not the first of the committed ones. And I do not mean here only transmitting what He said, but rather how He lived, how He loved, how He died, and how He Resurrected for us. We must live as He lived first, and just as the people, the whole world, were His Cross, how can any one of us pretend that the people are less than our very Crosses? We must love them in their sins and weakness. To “bear our Cross” means to bear the people. It does not mean any of the types mentioned — not the sheriff, not the crowd pleaser, not the threatened and insecure ones, not the cynical ones. The only type that works is the dedicated one, the dedicated type.
Suffering? Yes! But He suffered. Are we not also supposed to suffer in his suffering? And yet, at Gethsemane before His Crucifixion, Christ spoke about a glory in the very midst of His suffering. In St. John’s Gospel, Chapter 17, it says “And He lifted His eyes to Heaven and said, Father the hour is come; Glorify Thy son that Thy son also may Glorify Thee.” These words tell us that our own suffering, if it is based on love and faith, is forever tied with a particular glory, for sure, not the glory of this world, but a glory conditioned by the suffering of bearing our Cross. Our Master has forever tied the two, suffering and glory, and all done through the Cross. Our difficulty is that we fail to see that particular and special glory. We fail to look through our suffering, “that is the suffering of the Cross who are our people and their sins.”
Instead, we have become satisfied with the glory of this world as all these types indicate, and when that happens, the Christian suffering of the priest cannot be borne. Look at these types again: the sheriff cannot bear the suffering for his glory is not the Cross but power; the crowd pleaser cannot bear it for his glory is being a nice guy; the insecure one cannot bear it since he simply runs away; the cynic cannot bear it for he simply does not care about any glory.
The answer to being a priest is that exact dedication which can bear the sufferings because it can see that special glory, if only seen by God alone, that special glory of being tied to the Cross.
We do not have to look for suffering; a nice home, security, a fair income only make sense, and we have it much more today, thank God. All I mean is this: if we love as Christ loved, if we are willing to take up our Cross which we know as pastors is our people, we will indeed suffer, for suffering will find us. Our hope is to look for the glory beyond the world, the glory that comes through suffering for Christ.
And now when people ask me if I would do it again, I may hesitate, I may think “Why should my family have suffered? “ or “Why didn’t I leave Paterson when I received offers that were so much better for my worldly security? Why didn’t I leave when the times became almost unbearable? It would have been much easier.”
Yes, I have made many mistakes I have been very weak at times. But, yes, after that hesitation, I can only say I would do it again as I did it the first time. And I did it the first time despite those weaknesses, always having in mind that I cannot draw the measure for my life’s hope from the values of this world. I could not approach worthily the Altar, as the Cherubimic prayer clearly begins, unless my life’s hope looks beyond the world. The measure simply put, for every action including the hardships, is Christ’s life. The Gospel is clear: “A man cannot serve two masters.” This is the clearest choice with which the priest is confronted.
In conclusion, I can say in a most simple way that I know that all men, no less priests, are given the choice. This world or God’s world. The priest has to make the right decision I would do it again, only knowing that the right decision is to choose God’s world.
By The Very Rev. Michael Simon to Clergy Meeting, Los Angeles General Convention