Fr. Joseph Huneycutt: This is Fr. Joseph Huneycutt of the Orthodixie podcast. As of the time of this interview’s recording, I had worked with Fr. John Salem for five years at St. George Church, Houston. Fr. John is a funny, funny man. I thought he would be funny and silly while talking about the priesthood. I was greatly surprised. Not only was he very serious, the information about the nature of the priesthood is humbling. Take a listen.
The upcoming 2011 conference and festival theme and oratorical topic is centered around bishops, priests, and deacons. “Be mindful, O Lord, of the priesthood, the diaconate, and every priestly rank” (taken from the anaphora prayers of St. Basil the Great). Now, I had deacons on the last interview, and I’m blessed to have my boss here with me today, Fr. John Salem, the proistamenos of St. George Orthodox Church in Houston, Texas.
You weren’t happy in life, being whatever you were before you felt called to the priesthood? How does that work?
Fr. John Salem: People always [ask] how did I get into the priesthood. Well, when I was young, my great-uncle, who actually was the priest in my hometown for almost 50 years, when I was three or four years old, said, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” I said, “I’m going to be a priest.” So what he did was [say,] “I’m an old man, I’m not going to be around, so let’s have a little drink of Scotch right now, because I won’t be at your ordination.”
Even though I said that at a young age, once I really knew what the priesthood was, it was something that I didn’t want to be, but yet I felt I was called to be a priest, so I had to make a decision: Do I do what I want to do, or do I do what I feel called to do?
Fr. Joseph: What can you say about the office of the priesthood, what you find the greatest struggle or the greatest joy?
Fr. John: It really is tough, being at the altar, because we are called by God, and we don’t want to do anything that it not godly. It’s tough, because some people look at the priest—“Oh, look, he’s dressed all nice in front of the altar”—but every time I’m at the altar, I truly feel awed. We are called to minister to the people, to liturgize, to give them the Body and Blood of Christ, and that’s something that’s very serious. I don’t like being in the front, because I consider myself one of the people, but I’m doing a job, in a sense, for the people.
Fr. Joseph: What does a priest do?
Fr. John: Well, this is funny, because a few years ago, there was a person—and he hardly ever came to church—and he came up to me—and he wasn’t being malicious or anything—he really sincerely came up to me and he said to me, “Now, what do you do the other six days, since you only work one day a week?” I said, “Well, you’re wrong. You only think we one day a week. I only work a half-day a week.” And he kind of just walked away, like, “Okay.”
The other priest was with me at the time. He was very upset. He goes, “Why didn’t you tell him all that we do?” I said, “You know what? If he really wants to know what we do, he’ll come back and see what we do.” But what do we do? We talk to people who are saddened, who need help, who need advice. We go visit the sick. We establish programs here in the church, and we oversee. Pretty much that’s what we do, oversee. We have someone doing that work; we just make sure everyone’s being ministered to.
Fr. Joseph: What does a priest do on that half-day he does work?
Fr. John: Well, we prepare for the Liturgy and hopefully that is prayerful. What is “priest”? “Priest” really is “presvyteros” or “presbyter” from the Greek, which means elder. I really don’t feel much like an elder. I didn’t feel much like an elder when I was 32 and ordained. I look at elders [as] those who can give wisdom, and there are people that are not priests in the Church that I feel give me wisdom, but I always go back to what was I before I was a priest, which was a deacon, which means “servant.” That’s still part of the priesthood, so I just really look at myself as being a servant to the people, and it’s an awesome responsibility that we pray for the Holy Spirit to come down and make the bread and wine the Body and Blood of Christ.
I think the scariest thing for me—it’s not that I feel afraid of crowds at all; I feel comfortable, but when I preach, I am scared, not that I’m nervous to be in front of people, but because we have to preach the word of God, and it can’t be what my perspective is; it has to be what the Church teaches. I’m always afraid that I might lead the people astray, so I want to make sure that when we preach, that we are truly teaching what has been handed down from Christ to his disciples to those ordained.
Fr. Joseph: I’m an adult convert to Orthodoxy. I grew up in church all my life, but not the Orthodox Church. You, Fr. John, grew up in the Orthodox Church. I’m sure there were priests along the way that you noticed something about the way they carried themselves, they treated people, they served the Liturgy, that had an influence on you.
Fr. John: Really, the first influence was my great-uncle, and even though he was retired—he retired after he’d baptized me—he was still a presence in the town. Just to hear the stories, hear what priests did… They didn’t really get salaries. There would be a box, and people at their own will would put something in if they wanted the priest to be paid. On feast days, people would drop a lamb in his yard or there would be vegetables or produce at his steps, so it’s like wow. And he never thought anything poorly of it; that just was the way of life, and he was thankful.
When I was a teenager, we got a priest, Fr. John Abdalah, who was only about 24 years old, and right out of seminary. He was just a go-getter, and he brought things into the church that we probably weren’t doing as much. We always had vespers, we had evening Liturgies, we had the teens meeting all the time throughout the week. He had a real gentle touch, very kind to everybody, and really was a true servant.
Then, on the other hand, the Antiochian Village started at the same time, so every year for 13 years, I was with Fr. John Namie, who was gruff, but he was a teddy bear inside, but he really took services very seriously. I’ll never forget during [the] off-season of camp he would come to the local churches. I was 13 years old, and my father said, “Fr. John Namie’s doing a chanting class at our church. Let’s go listen to them. I love chanting.” So we got there and Fr. John Namie told me, in his very distinctive voice, “What are you doing? If you come, you gotta sing.” That’s how I learned chanting. It was basically “Repeat after me.” I couldn’t read music very well.
But he was very serious when it came to Liturgy. We’re doing this for God. We’re trying to emulate the kingdom. So there was no room for playing around, and you really see the awesomeness of God. And you look into the Old Testament: God was very serious to the people in Exodus, how he wanted the temple set up and worship. Even though I think you and I try to have as much fun as we can, I think we take worshiping very seriously, because God is not playtime.
Fr. Joseph: Looking through the eyes, say, of your own children, if they see a priest celebrating the Liturgy, what questions might come to mind? What are some things that you find either interesting or peculiar or what?
Fr. John: Well, my kids in particular—and this is just something they ask—they say, “You’re the boss of the church.” And that’s something I can’t say enough: We are servant to the Church. What is the Church? It is the body of Christ, and we serve that body, and it’s an awesome responsibility. I look at it as not authority; I see it as responsibility, and I see the priest as being a servant.
Fr. Joseph: Any time somebody says to me they feel like they are called to be a priest, one of the first things I ask them is, “Well, do you like going to church?” If somebody doesn’t like going to church, I would say they’re probably not being called to the priesthood. So: Do you like going to church?
Fr. John: I love going to church. During Lent, people say, “Oh, we feel so bad for you, all these services that you’re doing.” You know, that’s one of the most peaceful times during the year for us, because I really feel I’m doing what I should be doing as a priest. As you know, a lot of times, we do office things, administrative things, paperwork, traveling from one side of town to the other, working with the clergy association. It’s not that I don’t like those things, because I love visiting with the people, but the office side of the priesthood, you know, I’m not a big fan of, but those things need to get done; we need to have the place organized.
Fr. Joseph: So if someone comes to you, and they say, “I feel called to be a priest” or “I think I want to be a priest” or “I want to go to seminary and study for the priesthood,” do you have any standard counsel?
Fr. John: “You don’t want to do that.”
Fr. Joseph: [laughter]
Fr. John: Look, it’s a blessing. I mean, it’s truly a blessing to be a priest, but yet it’s awesome, and this is what I tell people: It’s not a job. You don’t do this because, “Okay, well, it’s a decent job, and I’ll always have a place to be a priest, and even if they move me, I’ll still have income.” You don’t do it for those reasons. I realize I feel this calling, which is hard to describe. Do I do what I’m called to do or do what I want to do? I knew what the Church did for me, how it was instrumental in my life, how it was a tool of salvation for me. It was always there for me, and the priests serve me, and I [was] realizing all these priests that gave their life to the priesthood, to the Church, that’s hard work!
Fr. Joseph: That’s Fr. John Salem of St. George Church, Houston, Texas. I’d like to thank Carole Buleza, Director of the Antiochian Archdiocese Christian Education Department for suggesting the interview, and Vasiliki Oldziey, for her suggestions, and, of course, my main man, Fr. John Salem, for his words on priesthood.