The 20th Biennial Clergy Symposium for the Antiochian Archdiocese was convened by His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph July 16-20, 2018 at the beautiful Antiochian Village in Bolivar, PA. The theme was The Holy Priesthood - Our Life and Calling. Plenary talks were given by each of the bishops on the following topics:
Metropolitan Joseph - The priest as administrator: Let all things be done decently and in order. St. Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 14:40) and The priest as a husband and a father to his family.
Bishop Basil - The High Calling of the Priesthood.
Bishop Anthony (for Bishop Alexander) - The Integrity of the Priesthood.
Bishop Thomas - What It Means to Call the Priest Father.
Bishop Anthony - Priesthood and the The Meaning of the Apostolic Succession.
Bishop Nicholas - The Priest as the Servant of Christ and His Church.
Bishop John - The Priest As Minister of the Sacraments, the Holy Mysteries.
The Most Reverend Metropolitan Joseph: Look, the best thing for any priest in his area… One day we heard “I cannot go to this priest because he is this and he is that.” No. My advice to all of you: that you pick one of the local priests, whether he is Greek or Serbian or Russian or anything else, no matter whether he is younger than you at age or older—it doesn’t matter. A priest is a priest. So you choose one in your area, the one available, the one not very distant from you. I think that would be good. We get spiritual guidance from each other. So now, if you don’t have any Antiochian brother in the area, you go to any other jurisdiction and get to know each other. I am available also, but that is not confession, as I said: phone. You can call me at the Archdiocese, and you can ask me any question; you can ask my staff, but that is not confession. We are talking about confession, to be personal.
Please, let us be attentive. His Grace Bishop Basil will give his second presentation.
The Right Reverend Bishop Basil: Thank you, Sayidna. Your Eminence, brothers, fathers, before I begin this reflection on the high calling of the priesthood, I thought it wise that we hear, once again, the prayers that were offered for each one of us who are priests on the day of our ordination, the ordination prayers. Of course it begins with:
The grace divine, which always healeth that which is infirm and completeth that which is wanting, elevateth through the laying on of hands—all of y’all—the most-devout deacon to be a priest, wherefore I pray that the grace of the All-Holy Spirit may come upon him.
And then the ordaining bishop continues the two prayers while the litany is quietly said.
O God, who hast no beginning and no ending, who art older than every created thing, who crowneth with the name of presbyter those whom thou deemest worthy to serve the word of thy truth of the divine ministry of this degree, do thou, this same Lord of all men, deign to preserve in pureness of life and in unswerving faith this man also, upon whom, through me, thou hast been graciously pleased to lay hands. Be favorably pleased to grant unto him the great grace of thy Holy Spirit, and make him wholly thy servant, in all things acceptable unto thee, and worthily exercising the great honors of the priesthood which thou hast conferred upon him by thy prescient power. For thine is the might and thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages, Amen.
O God great in might and inscrutable in wisdom, marvelous in counsel above the sons of men: Do thou the same Lord fill with the gift of the Holy Spirit this man who but hath pleased thee to advance to the degree of priesthood, that he may be worthy to stand in innocency before thine altar, to proclaim the Gospel of thy kingdom, to minister the word of thy truth, to offer unto thee spiritual gifts and sacrifices, to renew the people through the labor of regeneration, that when he shall go to meet thee at the second coming of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, thine only-begotten Son, he may receive the reward of a good steward in the degree committed unto him, through the plenitude of thy goodness.
While those are the prayers that are offered at the time of the ordination of a man to the sacred priesthood, for me, who now find myself in the position of being the ordainer, the most moving part of the ordination of a priest is the presentation of the Lamb to the newly ordained priest. It still takes my breath away, as it did the first time that I heard it when I was the one receiving the Lamb. My voice often breaks because it’s such a powerful gift that is given to that young man—in some instances not-so-young—to the ordinand.
Receive thou this pledge, and preserve it whole and unharmed until thy last breath, for thou shalt be held to an accounting thereof at the fearful second coming of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The fearfulness with which I present the Lamb and the fearfulness with which I am sure the ordinand receives the Lamb speaks to the great calling, the high calling, the holy calling of the priesthood. There are four—that we know of—patristic meditations on the priesthood. Of course, the most well-known is that by our father among the saints, John Chrysostom, and it’s the earliest of the four that we still have extant. As I said, there may be others, but these are the four early ones that we have extant. His dates from before the year—we’re not sure the year when it was written, but it was certainly before the year 386. So in the latter half of the fourth century.
As you know, it was written to an anonymous friend. All we know is that his name was Basil, one who was called to the holy priesthood and one who wanted to flee the holy priesthood. St. John Chrysostom did his best to convince him not to flee. He ends that meditation on the priesthood—these are the words he offers to his friend. Really, they are beautiful words that a friend who now has convinced this unknown Basil to submit to ordination, receives these words from St. John Chrysostom. St. John Chrysostom says:
I smiled, and then I said to Basil: What can I offer? How can I help you to carry so heavy a burden? And yet, such is your desire, take courage, my dear friend, for whenever it is possible for you to have a respite from the cares of your office, I will come to your side and encourage you, and nothing shall be left undone that lies within my power.
Would that each of us had a friend like that!
An earlier meditation on the priesthood is that which we know as De Fuga, or The Flight to Pontus, offered by St. Gregory the Theologian. That pre-dates this, St. Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood, by about 20 years. St. Gregory’s Flight to Pontus pre-dates it by about 20 years, 362 AD, and he’s the one who fled after he was ordained. He not only didn’t get out of town before being ordained, he got out of town right after he was ordained and abandoned the pastoral charge that his father had given him. De Fuga, or The Flight from Pontus, is his apologia, if you will, to the people that he had abandoned, explaining why he fled back to his place of ascetic retreat. He returned, of course, but this was his apologia.
The first in historical order would be St. Gregory’s De Fuga; the second would be St. John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood. The third is by St. Gregory the Dialogist, the Pope of Rome, and it’s at the end of the 700s, so it’s about four centuries later, and it’s The Pastoral Rule. I’m sure most of you are familiar with it. It’s not so much a meditation on the high calling of the priesthood as it is an explication of the responsibilities of the priesthood. Then the fourth in historical order is called On the Priesthood, just like St. John Chrysostom’s, but it’s an-eighth century work, in the 700s, by St. Symeon the Archbishop of Thessaloniki. I’ll be reading quite extensively from that one, because it’s really relatively unknown. I’ll also use some from St. John Chrysostom, but I’ll assume all of you have read St. John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood at least once.
Having said that, there’s a little vignette I’d like to tell you about: me and On the Priesthood by St. John Chrysostom. When I worked with the late Metropolitan Philip—God grant him paradise—in Englewood, he often charged me to meet with the young men who came to be interviewed about going to seminary. Sometimes he would have the late Bishop Antoun—God rest his soul—to interview them as a priest, or the late Metropolitan—bishop then—Elias (Saliba) interview them. Sayidna Elia liked to ask them to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I could hear it from my office. Fr. Tom Gallaway will remember that very well: Sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But if they were busy or otherwise occupied, he would then have me meet with the prospective seminarian.
One young man came, and after he left, after I had met with him—I remember it was in the great room, the big living room in Englewood—I met with the young man, Sayidna called me to his office: “Well, Basil, what do you think?” I said, “I think we have really a very fine candidate here.” “What did you talk about?” “I shared a little bit. When he left, I gave him a copy of St. John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood.” Sayidna Philip banged his desk. He said, “Why would you ever do that? You’re going to scare him away!” But it didn’t scare him away. He went to seminary as a married man, as a father, even, a young married man and a young father, and he’s a highly respected priest in our Archdiocese, a good, loving priest and dedicated pastor. Fr. Tom Gallaway got to sing, “O say, can you see?” And Fr. Michael Laffoon got a copy of On the Priesthood by St. John Chrysostom.
Since I have ordained so many of you, you’re more than likely going to hear repeated some things that I said at your ordination. I love to preach on the priesthood. And if I didn’t ordain you, perhaps I elevated you, at which time I still like to preach on the priesthood. So some of you have heard some of what I’m going to say, some of you have heard nothing of what I’m going to say, but there’s not a one of you who has heard everything of what I’m going to say.
St. John Chrysostom boldly proclaims that after the gift of God the Father to us—his gift to us of his only-begotten Son—the next greatest gift is the priesthood, given to mankind by God the Father: men to share in the salvific work of his only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a high calling, then, brothers, perhaps the highest calling. St. Symeon of Thessalonica said it’s the highest calling, numbered right after, again, the ministry of our Lord himself of his incarnation.
St. John Chrysostom, in his book On the Priesthood, reminds us, speaking to Basil, but he reminds all of us who at one time were Basils, contemplating our ordination to the fearful priesthood. St. John says the work of the priesthood is done on earth, but ranked among heavenly ordinances, and it’s only right, for no man, no angel, no archangel, no other created power but the Comforter himself, ordained this succession, and persuaded men, while still remaining in the flesh, to represent the ministry of angels.
St. Symeon the New Theologian (not the Archbishop of Thessalonica) in his Hymn 14 meditates on the priesthood, that high calling in which we all share, by God’s grace, with these words:
The priesthood is a dignity formidable even to angels, since one must touch the inaccessible God. There, indeed, where the bread is placed and wine is poured in the name of thy body, O Word of God, thou art there thyself, O Word my God, and they truly become thy body and thy blood through the advent of thy Spirit and the power of the Most High. We priests, we touch with audacity the inaccessible God, or rather, the One who dwells in light inaccessible, not only to humanity but also to the exalted angels themselves. This, then, is the inexpressible and the supernatural that I have been instructed to perform. It impels me always to keep death before my eyes. Thus, leaving behind all satisfaction, I have been seized with fright, knowing that it is impossible for me, as everyone, I think, to celebrate this service worthily and to lead an angelic life in the body, or rather, a life higher than the angels, so as to become a dignity even closer to him than they, since with my hands—y’all’s hands—I touch, and with our mouth—my mouth, he says—I eat, before whom they stand in fear and trembling.
It’s no accident that when we look upon icons, most especially of Theophany, though there are others, of course, as the angelic hosts approach our Savior, they cover their hands, that they not be burned up by the brightness, by the brilliance of his divinity, that they, the angelic hosts, the archangels, they do not presume to touch him. Yet we, who are made from this earth, and who should be like grass burning when we come so close to the fire, but are not, by God’s grace, can not only touch him—and that’s from the first moment of our ordination; it doesn’t come with long years in the priesthood, like a priestly elevation—from the very first moment of our priesthood, we are granted to touch his body, and then to break his body, to divide his body.
The angels stand in awe of you, brothers, not just of our Savior, who rests upon that holy table where we serve, but the angels and archangels stand in awe of you. Remember, they were created before us by God’s providence. They were witnesses of our creation. We might be able to fool others and even ourselves, but we can’t fool the angels. They know from where we came. They know of what matter we were made. And yet, they see us presume, not only with boldness to call God, “Father,” but presume to take the place of his Son in the role of salvation history, of being good shepherds to the flock of Christ entrusted to our pastoral care. They see us—dirt, if you will, soil—take a little child in our hands and, seeing him as a son of Adam, with a destiny to eternal death, the angels see us take that child and immerse him in a font three times, and bring that same child out, no longer a son of Adam, destined to eternal death, but as a son of God, deemed worthy of eternal life. That’s why the angels stand in awe. They don’t take it for granted. We might become used to it somehow, but the angels never do.
They see us take bread and wine, and the angels know not only where we came from, but they know where the bread and the wine came from. The know it’s fruit of this earth. It’s mundane things. But they see you take that bread and wine and offer it to God the Father in the name of our Savior, the Son of God, and by the might of the All-Holy Trinity, take it up in our hands again, now as the body and blood of Christ. They see us eat the body and drink the blood, the body and blood that they can’t even approach unless their hands are covered. Brothers, that’s your high calling.
I know there are many opportunities for a parish priest to be humbled—I know that—to be trodden down, even to be beaten down. Some are done simply by being human. If you’re a married priest, your wife and your children, if you have children—your marriage offers you plenty of opportunities for humility. Those of you who are monastics, your prayer rule, the words of spiritual counsel of your spiritual father offer you opportunities for humility. But today is a day, brothers, to be lifted. It’s not a day for humility except for us to be humbled that we are called to such a high calling. Angels stand in awe of you.
St. Paisios said this.
The divine liturgy which is offered by the priest sustains the world. (Boy, that’s a high calling, eh?) And we who are so unworthy of it. There are priests who live this divine mystery at every Divine Liturgy. A priest once told me (St. Paisios) that a very simple and good priest had once confessed to him: I have such a hard time during the consuming of the holy Gifts at the end of the Divine Liturgy. My filthy tears fall into the divine chalice. I cannot contain them, and this makes me so upset.” As he was speaking these words, he was crying. So the other priest told him, “Please, Father, ask Christ to give me some of those filthy tears, so that I might shed them as well.”
In The Spiritual Meadow of John Moschos, there’s a wonderful vignette about a village priest who took a long time to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, so much so that the council of the parishioners—I don’t know if they called them parish councils, but it was like that, representatives of the parishioners—went to complain to the bishop. “This priest takes forever to serve the Liturgy, and we can’t bear it any more.” So the priest was called in, and the bishop asked him, “Father, what are you doing? I serve the same Liturgy you serve. It doesn’t take me three hours to serve the Liturgy.” The pious priest told him, “Sayidna, I can’t help it. At the time of epiklesis, I have to wait until I see the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hover over the Gifts. Once I see that, then I can proceed.” The bishop dismissed the priest and called the people from the parish back in and told them, “I want a priest like you have a priest.”
Brothers, that which occurs within the holy place where we have been deemed worthy by God for his own reasons, I can only speak for myself, but I am sure all of you feel that way: I often wonder why. What is it that God sees in us that he pronounces us worthy? But there are things that occur in that holy place—in the holy temple in general, but most especially in the holy place—where we have been deemed worthy to stand. Perhaps our eyes don’t see it. There’s a lot that we don’t see. I don’t see angels, though I know they’re there. Perhaps our ears don’t hear what happens in the holy place, but there’s a lot our ears don’t hear. Age is not always such a blessing. There’s an innocency, a purity of heart that little children possess, that gradually we lose. Our ears become stopped, our eyes become blinded…
Time for another vignette. There was a young man when I was youth director, who was the treasurer of our southwest region—that’s what it was called—teen SOYO. Very nice young man from a very pious family, but a normal young man. After he graduated college he went on to law school, and I lost contact with him, of course. He became a young man and moved away from his parish and out of our southwest region. We had a midwinter meeting one time in the state where he was living, and I attended, and this young man, now no longer a teen but a fine young attorney, was there. He came and took my blessing—I was a brand-new bishop—and he said, “Sayidna, if you have five minutes, I’d really like to meet with you. I have a problem.” Lord, have mercy. “Okay, come to my room, and right after lunch we’ll talk.”
He came, and, as I said, this is a normal young man, not a religious fanatic in the least. He came and he confessed his problem, and his problem was, “Sayidna, I no longer see my guardian angel.” I said, “I beg your pardon?” He said, “I used to see him, standing at the foot of my bed every night.” I said, “Until when? How old were you?” He said, “Maybe two, three years ago. I no longer see my guardian angel.” How that convicted me! Here was one who had gone through university and law school and all, being a normal young man, everything that happens in the world around you, an attorney, and yet he had been able to preserve the innocency that was ours—all of ours, not only in paradise; don’t forget our foreparents, Adam and Eve, saw and heard things that we no longer see and hear—but preserved the innocency and purity of heart of his childhood.
Elder Iakovos of Evia, who was just recently glorified as a saint, himself a priest, wrote this.
People are blind and do not see what takes place in the church during the Divine Liturgy. Once I was serving, and I could not make the Great Entrance because of what I saw. I suddenly felt someone pushing me by my shoulder and guiding me toward the holy prothesis. I thought it was my chanter. I turned around and saw a huge wing that an archangel had laid on my shoulder and that he was guiding me to make the Great Entrance. What amazing things take place in the holy place during the Divine Liturgy! Sometimes I cannot handle it, and so I pass out in a chair, and thus some concelebrating priests conclude that I have got something wrong with my health, but they do not realize what I see and hear.
There’s a teaching from St. Kosmas Aitolos, a priest-monk of the holy mountain who, with the igumen’s blessing, left the holy mountain, that he might go around benighted Greece, during the time of the Tourkokratia, and re-enliven people’s hearts, first and foremost to the love of God, the All-Holy Trinity, and to the love of their holy Orthodox faith. He would go from village to village. He had three stock sermons. That was it, just three. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t stay in one place longer than three days. They would erect a large cross in the central square. A podium would be put there after evening prayers, after vespers. Those who wished would come, and St. Kosmas would teach them. If they enjoyed his preaching and asked him to stay a second day, they got his second sermon. Again, if they enjoyed his sermon and found it soul-profiting and asked him to stay a third day, they got his third teaching. Then he moved on.
One of his teachings concerned you, the priesthood: teaching people how the priesthood and the person of the priest ought to be reverenced. He might look like you; as a matter of fact, he does look like you. He doesn’t look much different from the moment after he was ordained from the moment before he was ordained, though he is very different—though you are very different. St. Kosmas said this to the people: For example, if you’re walking on the street, and on the other side of the street comes the emperor, with all of his servants, all of his attendants; on the other side of the street comes the priest. You leave the emperor, folks, cross the street, go make a metanoia before that simple village priest and take his blessing, and then you can go see the emperor. He said, beyond that, if you’re walking in the street and you see on one side of you, coming toward you, a host of archangels and on the other side of the street that same, simple parish priest, again, you leave the angels, and you first go to the parish priest and make your metanoia and take his blessing. Then you can go and pay your respects to the angels.
Brothers, I tell you this not to puff you up—and not just you, but me! For goodness’ sake, I share in that same priesthood. I don’t say this to boast of us, to puff us up, but to make us gratefully humble to the great high calling to which we have each been called. St. Symeon of Thessalonica addresses that. He says this.
This being the case (our high calling), it is obvious that priests have been granted the greatest charismas and gifts, and as such are therefore the greatest debtors to God, because so much has been given to us.
St. John Chrysostom, again from his book, On the Priesthood: To keep us humble, gratefully humble or humbly grateful, take your pick, reminds us that the priest’s shortcomings simply cannot be concealed. It’s not because we live in a fishbowl; it’s because we have presumed to accept the gift of this high calling and to flesh it out in this world. That gives people expectations, then, brothers. There are others who have been called to the calling, like you and I, and who fled and who never took it up. There are even those who, once having been ordained, served no liturgies, because they know of their unworthiness.
St. John Chrysostom then says that the priest’s shortcoming simply cannot be concealed, but everyone, including your parishioners, measures sin not by the size of the offense but by the standing of the sinner. And where do we stand in that line of sinners? Usually at the head, because of our high calling. There’s nothing else in this world that has a calling that comes even close to the calling which you have responded to. St. John Chrysostom says this:
Everyone wants to judge the priest, not as one clothed in flesh, not as one possessing a human nature, but as an angel, exempt from the frailty of others.
So people want to judge us as if we were angels, which means that even a simple, small little frailty can be huge in their eyes. St. John Chrysostom also warns us that, though people expect us to live as angels and look upon us as angels, we ought never think of ourselves as angels. They are passionless, and that’s why angels cannot sin. That’s from St. John of Damascus, by the way; it’s a very interesting concept. And also, because the demons are fallen angels, it’s the same reason why the demons cannot repent.
I have a brief confession to make. Those of you who are old enough to remember when I was elected to the sacred episcopacy—or nominated first—at the convention in Washington, D.C., in 1991. Are any of you here who was there? There’s still a few. If you remember, I didn’t even go to that general assembly. I stayed in my room, and it was pretty much general knowledge among people that, if I could, I would have fled to Pontus rather than be elected to be bishop, but I don’t know where Pontus is, so I just fled to my room.
I had spoken with who was then my father-confessor, Sayidna Elias (Audi), Metropolitan of Beirut, who happened to be at that convention, whose room happened to be right next to mine, and for whom I was assigned his syngellos, so I had to escort him everywhere. I had asked him, when the list of names for the eligible candidates came out—we were about 15, if I recall—all the priests of our Archdiocese who met the objective criteria in our Archdiocesan constitution, and I saw my name on the list, I asked Sayidna Elias if I could take my name off the list.
If you know Sayidna Elias, he’s really a tough confessor. I mean, talk right between the eyes when he talks with you about something. He’s a loving man, but as a confessor, as a spiritual guide, he doesn’t mince words. Sayidna said, “Basil, how dare you be so prideful? Shame on you! I never expected that from you!” and on and on and on, making me feel about this big. I just didn’t understand what he meant that I was prideful. I said, “Sayidna, explain to me. I’ll obey you, but explain to me.” He said, “Just because your name is on the list, you think you’re going to be nominated? You’re worried about being nominated? Shame on you!” I said, “Okay.”
Well, I got nominated. There were three of us at that convention in Washington, D.C., where I didn’t even go to the general assembly that day. I got word I had been nominated, I was one of the three, so I asked Sayidna Elias. I said, “Now, Sayidna? Now is it time that I can take my name off the list?” And again, the same old rigmarole. “Vasile, I’m so ashamed of you! So prideful!” I said, “Sayidna, I listened to you the first time, and I did get nominated.” He said, “Just because you’re nominated doesn’t mean you’re going to be elected. You’re so prideful!” On and on and on and on.
When I got word then—I was a priest in Wichita—I got a call from Balamand right after that holy synod meeting, saying that I had been elected. I called Sayidna Elias, at the Balamand, because he was at that holy synod meeting. I said, “Now, Sayidna?” He said, “How dare you doubt the will of the Holy Spirit? I’m so embarrassed by you! Shame on you!” and on and on and on.
All of that to say, when I was consecrated, Sayidna Elias came to Wichita for my consecration. Everybody else was: all of this flowery stuff, you’re this and you’re that, and Eis polla eti, Despota and kissing my hand, you’re the best this and you’re the best that, you’re young, on and on and on. It felt good for a while until Sayidna Elias got up at the banquet to speak, and he put everything in perspective. He said, “Basil, as a bishop your vocation is not that different from when you were made a priest. You need to think of yourself as a priest and then as a bishop.” Now, he wasn’t at my priestly ordination, so he couldn’t tell me then, but at my episcopal consecration, he said:
Think of yourself as a piece of incense that’s burned upon the charcoal of God’s love. That you will be dissipated because of the ministry to which you are called. It’ll be a beautiful thing if you do it joyfully and sacrificially. It’ll be sweet-smelling, just like the incense is sweet-smelling. But in the end, the incense is gone, the smoke is gone. What remains is the hot charcoal.
I guess that was probably the best lesson I had. It was the one phrase or one little vignette which I remember from that day which otherwise is sort of clouded in mystery. All of that to say that when I had to leave the priesthood as a parish priest, I went many miles away—1500 miles away—and my confession is this. I told you I was going to make my confession. My confession is that I was in mourning. I didn’t know it, but I was in mourning. I felt like somebody died. I had very little joy. I would smile when I would visit parishes. I don’t know that the parishes on the West Coast where I was sent knew that I was in mourning. I tried to be chipper and normal, but I was in mourning. I had lost what I thought was my bride, and I called Sayidna Elias—I took a chance!
I explained it to Sayidna Elias. This time, he was tender. He was not tender those other times, because I needed to be smashed. But this time he knew that I needed to be uplifted. Fr. Aimilianos—I always do these footnote things—of Simonopetra, when we visited there I was a young priest, and I asked him, “What is it that makes someone choose a spiritual father?” not just fall in line, use your parish priest, but really want something serious: What are the criteria for a spiritual father? He said this: “The one who knows when you need to be smashed and the one who knows when you need to be uplifted.” Well, I was blessed. Sayidna Elias was that kind of a spiritual father to me.
When I called him in the midst of my mourning, m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g, he had me speak of it, trying to describe it. I said, “Sayidna, there’s really nobody I can love by face and name.” When I was in a parish, the first thing I did on every morning, except on Sunday, including Saturday, I went to the hospital; I went to see the shut-ins. First thing, before they had their coffee, so I could give them the Eucharist, or before they had their surgery. That’s where I had my first cup of coffee in the morning: in the hospital or in an old person’s home, visiting them. I said, “I don’t have anybody like that any more. I get up and I make my own coffee.” I said, “I don’t see people grow any more. I used to see babies that I would welcome into this world in the hospital, going to read that first-day prayer, receive them into the Church at 40 days old, baptize them. I could see them grow: first grade, second grade.”
I said, “I don’t see anybody grow, and perhaps what is even worse, I don’t see anybody die. There’s no hospital calls. I don’t know anybody to visit in the hospital. Really, I lost the bride to whom I was married,” meaning my parish, everybody, not one particular person. Sayidna Elias really was very tender then. He said, “Sayidna Basil, you just have a new bride. You have a new congregation.” I said, “Who is that? There’s nobody here.” He said, “No, it’s your priests, your deacons, and their families. That’s your congregation. You’re their priest. You don’t have to worry about the people in the parish any more. God has provided them with priests, and they’re well taken care of if they have good priests in the parish. You have to be the priest for your priests and deacons, their wives, and their children.”
I took that to heart. I don’t know that I was a good priest, or am a good priest to my priests and deacons and their families, but I don’t feel I’m in mourning any more. Right then it dissipated.
I don’t know how many of you know of the contemporary elder, now deceased, Papa-Dimitri Gagastathis, a married priest. This is the prayer that he prayed as a priest.
O Jesus, the Good Shepherd, I thank thee, because thou hast given to me, the small and weak one, the same command thou gavest to thy apostle, when thou didst tell him, “Feed my lambs; feed my sheep.” Never would I dare, O Lord, to accept such a commission and such a high calling if I did not believe that thy grace healeth that which is infirm and completeth that which is wanting. Therefore, in this moment in which I feel my shortcomings so intensely, I, thy priest, the sacrificer, the small shepherd of thy flock, do implore thee: Uphold me, O Lord, and keep my heart pure, whole, free from money, in attachment to thy commandments. Take away from thy servant selfishness, ostentation, and worldliness. Keep him from anger, rancor, envy, and jealousy. Make me a man of prayer, so that not only with my lips but also with my heart I may praise and glorify thy holy name. Help me not forget the holy feelings of my first Divine Liturgy…
Can y’all remember your first Divine Liturgies? I remember mine so distinctly. I’ll do a footnote on that when I get done.
Help me not forget the holy feelings of my first Divine Liturgy, and by them to chase away the germ of habit which every so often comes to me. Help thy priest, O Lord, be always an angel of comfort for the afflicted, a source of spiritual invigoration for the disheartened, a guide towards thy peace, and a source of joy for the wounded. Help me, my Savior, combine in my priestly life and work tenderness and firmness, tact with strength, sensitivity with strictness. Reduce my faults so that no one may fall because of my weakness.
I think that’s very insightful. He doesn’t say, “So that I might go to the kingdom,” but “So that I don’t scandalize someone else.”
Reduce my faults so that no one may fall because of my weakness. Teach me, O Lord, how to instruct the children, how to inspire the youth, advise the adults, turn back the sinners, encourage those who are about to die. Teach me, O Lord, who knowest the hearts of men, how to perform the mysteries of thy Church, and especially the mystery of holy confession. During that time, make me a perfect physician of souls and an affectionate father. Help me be in my parish an inspiration of good works and a leader in God-pleasing endeavors so that all may be won over for their own happiness and for the glory of thy name. Amen.
My first Divine Liturgy as a priest was for the feast of the Meeting of Our Lord in the Temple (February 2). I was still working at the Archdiocese headquarters in Englewood, so I went to St. George in Little Falls, New Jersey, Fr. Dimitri’s parish. At that time, the priest was Fr. Michael Simon, and those of you who have white hair, white beards, remember Fr. Michael Laffoon’s relative, really a fine priest who served in that parish over 50 years and who loved the divine services. He welcomed me to come and serve the Divine Liturgy by myself, two days after I was ordained, for the feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, and I did.
All was going well. Fr. Michael stood off to the side and was grading me on every little movement. I made the Great Entrance. All was going well: I made the Great Entrance, I came down the center aisle, and as I look at the holy table, I see the gospel book is still on the holy table, the antimension is still folded underneath the gospel book. What am I going to do with this stuff? Talk about being humbled. But Fr. Michael is such a wonderful and loving priest. He stood off to the side, and those of you who know him can really picture this; he was standing there with a belly laugh, just a belly laugh, not because I had forgotten, but because he was entertained by the look on my face! God give him paradise! He moved the gospel book, the antimension, and all went well after that.
Brothers, I love the priesthood, because it’s the life of Christ. I love to talk about it, I love to think about it, and it’s your life. It’s your life. I know some of you have tough times. Even in material ways, not just in spiritual ways, which we all have, but in material ways. How are we going to get the kids through college? How are we going to make that payment for the car, the house, this month? How are we going to do that? Other kind of mundane concerns, but which none the less are concerns. I can’t tell you to forget them. Hopefully, at the Liturgy you can lay aside your earthly care as we are counseled to do, but it’s not like we throw them away. It just says, “Lay them aside”; they’ll be right there when we’re done with Liturgy, and you can have them back: they’ll be right there.
But possessing all of those concerns, about your family’s health, and then about the things in the parish, the little jibes you get, the judgments that you hear—or worse, that you don’t hear and your wife hears or that your children, God forbid it, should hear. I can’t tell you to ignore those, and I would never presume to tell you to ignore them, but balance them. Really try to balance them with the recognition of the high calling in which you now find yourselves. It will outweigh the other things a million to one. Again, that doesn’t make them disappear, but it should make you confident, brothers, that our Savior called you, all of whom are more worthy than I, but I’m worth nothing, so to be more worthy than nothing is not all that great. I mean, we all feel that, right? But our God saw something in us.
Perhaps it was our unworthiness, that he could take the weak of this world and make them the strong. He can make wonders, brothers. He makes bread and wine into body and blood. He fed five thousand with a little brunch loaf. He makes a baby into a son of God simply by going into a font at our hands. He takes a young man and a young woman, two bodies and two souls, and at our blessing, the words which we pronounce, they become one flesh—a miracle! He can make many miracles. The miracle I pray for you is that in those sad moments, in those tough moments, the frustrating moments, the angering moments, that our God uplifts you, that he calls to mind—just pricks your conscience or your heart a little bit—to be reminded of the confidence that God, the All-Holy Trinity, has in you. Perhaps you don’t even have that confidence in yourself. I don’t even have that confidence in myself, and I think that’s precisely why he chooses us: because we need to lean on him, to depend on him for everything.
Elder Joseph the Hesychast, who died in 1959, you’re all familiar with him and his many spiritual sons, wrote this in a letter to one of his spiritual sons who had just been ordained a priest. If you know anything about Elder Joseph the Hesychast, he was not a wimp; he was one of those tough ones. Talk right between the eyes! I mean, he was hard on himself, a little less hard on his spiritual sons, but none the less very tough. Listen to these words, though, how tender, when he knows that one of his sons became what you are—a priest. So this is a letter to you from Elder Joseph the Hesychast.
My son (and you can stick your name in), my blessed priest, may mercy and enlightenment, strength, peace, love, and the abundant grace of the Lord be upon your noble soul. May the Lord our God send you a good angel to direct your steps in the way of peace, according to his holy will. My truly beloved son (stick your name in there), who won my love with your noble feelings, may your fiery soul be graced with brilliant splendor. May the holy protection of our sweetest Queen, the pure Virgin and Theotokos, cover you like Moses, along with all your spiritual children, as the divine Andrew, the Fool-for-Christ, saw in Constantinople. May our sweet Jesus make your nous and heart shine with his holy seal, as well as every God-pleasing work of yours, so that the Enemy will not find anything in you at all to plunder.
At his second coming, may he reward and bless and crown every single one of your good deeds which were done with love. May he enrich all your spiritual children through his rich endowment and heavenly grace. And may they become (what a beautiful image!) fragrant flowers of paradise, so that you will see them in that day and rejoice in their sweet fragrance. I, too, rejoice, seeing all of you as flowers, with the sweet smell of good works—I, who am empty of every good. You, my priest, are my happiness, my joy, my wealth in poverty, my great boast. Through your spiritual works, the Father is glorified, the Son rejoices, and the Holy Spirit is exalted.
Amen. May the Lord God remember your priesthood in his kingdom always.
[Q&A not transcribed]