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 Right Reverend Bishop Nicholas: Good evening, everyone.
Well, you’ve been listening to the priesthood described extensively for the past two, three days. Nothing is left for me to talk about. So I was given this topic to discuss. It’s a very heavy topic. I need your undivided and total attention. You drank your cup of coffee after lunch and took your vitamin C, so you can concentrate on this topic. It’s a very heavy topic. I was unable to find any references to it, even in the Library of Congress. So I might need your help to figure it out. Very heavy topic. [Slide: “The Behavior of Fruit Flies Near Fluorescent Light as It Relates to the Book of Revelation.”] [Laughter] Any ideas? All right. If you don’t think that’s a good topic, we’ll switch to my back-up topic. Is this better? Okay.
Just to give you some fair warnings: First of all, nothing I’m going to tell you you don’t already know, but this presentation might formalize what you already know. It is formed in a way that it is a letter to a newly ordained priest, about the priest as a servant. But it does apply to all three degrees of the priesthood, which means it applies to me as well.
Dear Father—Your Eminence and Your Graces and reverend clergy—
Greeting in the name of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. As you mentioned to me, you were fearful of the moment of ordination, since you did not consider yourself worthy of the priesthood. You are quite right; you are not worthy of the priesthood. You are not holy. You are not even close to being holy. You have not done enough work to deserve the ordination. In essence, you are inadequate for this high holy office. The truth be told, neither am I, nor is any person on the face of the earth. For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances, and very naturally so, for neither man nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete himself, instituted this vocation and persuaded men, while still abiding in the flesh, to represent the ministry of angels.
However, having served the ministry for a while as a deacon, a priest, and bishop, I would like to give you a few practical and essential pieces of advice to help you in your new ministry. This guidance is not exhaustive, since a myriad of books can and have been written on this subject. Nevertheless, the recommendations I am about to give you are tested applied theology that are in simple non-scholarly words, which can be essential to your ministry. For it is easy to utilize complicated sentences and big words. However, the chief intention could be diluted in the process, and might be misplaced in an ocean of ambiguity. By the way, your sermons should follow this same practice as you deliver them authoritatively, speaking in the tongues of the apostles.
There are certain traits of the ministry that you need to constantly live and practice. First, the priestly ministry is a life of service. It is not serving the people of God, and it is not just serving God himself. It is appropriating the Gospel message and Christ’s life in general in the context of the parish and the faithful. The face of the ministry meets the face of the world. On the other hand, a ministry of service cannot just be quoting the Bible, but should lead to fruitful results.
For when he saw a fig tree on the way, he came to it and found nothing thereon but leaves only, he said unto it, “Let no fruit grow on you henceforward forever.” And at once the fig tree withered away.
It is meeting parishioners where they are and bringing the Church’s theology to a level they can understand without compromising the Church or the faith. Conversely, the priestly ministry is the serving of the movement of God in the people and the movement of the people in God. Doing anything less than this would mar your ministry with impoverished characteristics. If you solely serve your flock, you will end up with the feeling of sentimentality or disdain. Sentimentality is the fact that you would give more tenderness to matters and people than God would, which is contrary to Christ’s ministry. For example, our Lord loved and cared for his disciples. However, he used two aspects of love, tender love and tough love, at the proper times. He had a kind heart.
You are urged to follow God in his kindness to do all things gently and with tenderness, especially when rebuking or correcting others. Serve the flock that is entrusted to you and love everyone and be kind to everyone. However, kindness does not mean overlooking people’s sins. It means forgiving them. Kindness also does not mean being nice to everyone, whoever they are and whatever they do. It does not mean going along with others in every way. A kind person will correct others if need be, and his very kindness will be shown by his care and concern for the well-being of his fellow creature for whom Christ died.
Christ cared for the disciples, but was tough on them when needed. For example, he told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. You do not have in mind the concerns of God but merely human concerns.” Imagine God telling someone that he is Satan! Is there anything harsher than this? Therefore, our God was gentle, but at the same time he was the harshest person to walk the earth. Nevertheless, all at the proper time and context.
Our God is a loving God, but at the same time he demands of us to follow his commandments, since love, in God’s parlance, is a verb and performs actions and demands deeds. So it is not a feeling. If we lose this principle, we are surely going to wilt, no savor left.
Disdain is the fact that you would feel cynicism when you serve only the people of God. Cynicism is feeling that no one cares, that no one is talking to you, and they do not appreciate you, and therefore it is time to be transferred. This will cause you to suddenly disdain the very people you serve. When you only serve God in your ministry, you will deduce the wrong conclusion, that people are not important, which leads to rigidity. You would become the sheriff in the parish, enforcing all the rules, without being pastoral, compassionate, or lenient when warranted. It is important to teach the reasons for all the rules. An educated parishioner is the best parishioner. In this case, you would not need to enforce anything. Once parishioners understand the rationale behind the rules, they themselves, in most instances, would want to implement them.
The priestly ministry is more like a marathon of teachings, compassionately and pastorally, and implementing those teachings. It is so, rather than a one-hundred-meter dash of rapidly enforcing rules. It takes time to turn around an oil tanker in the middle of the ocean, and it is so for the faithful due to the fact that change is difficult for most people. In effect, imposing rules swiftly and making changes hastily will not lead to serving God; rather, it will lead to creating animosity between you and the people of God, and blatant defiance of all that you teach, despite its authenticity. In the priestly ministry, we absolutely need to be cognizant of this fact, realize it, and hold together this divine-human reality. We learn this dual movement in the priestly ministry from him in his ministry.
I advise you not to make changes in the parish during your first year so that you build a relationship of agape love with the people of God in order for them to receive Christ’s teachings well through you. Despite the fact that you would be teaching the people of God, the teachings are Christ’s. This transparency is vital, so that the wisdom and knowledge is not mistaken to be yours. For in the Orthodox Church, we only teach what has been taught for the past 2,000 years, and make attributions to Christ in order for you not to be adored for the wrong reason, or worse, worshiped.
Thus, you would be following the example of St. John the Baptist.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, that all through him might believe. He was not the light, but was sent to bear witness of that light.
Second, the priestly ministry is a life of prayer. It is the priest’s job to pray, recognize and realize the presence of God in his life at all times, not just at specific instances or intervals in his existence when he crashes or soars. Prayer is not meant just as a response to a specific reality in our life, like a state of wonder, a state of agony, or a state of soaring in our feelings. It is a tool to develop a true relationship with God, as we, through his grace, strengthen ourselves on all fronts. Note what St. Isaac the Syrian affirmed about prayer:
Prayer heartens the conscience, invests the mind with power, strengthens one’s hope, fires one’s confidence. Thus is man made able to withstand the tribulations and evils of this world. For when he compares them with the glorious things he is to inherit, he can defy torture and all manner of affliction.
St. Ephraim the Syrian wants us to take notice of how we are to draw closer to God and acquire his attributes on the way to theosis.
Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance, suppresses anger, restrains pride and envy, draws down the Holy Spirit into the soul, and raises man to heaven.
Fr. Matta El-Meskeen, Matthew the Poor, describes what prayer is supposed to be in our lives so that we are kept from crashing spiritually.
Prayer is an inward light that exposes the blemishes and defects of our daily conduct. This saves us from being driven into the abyss of hell. For God does not seek mere believers; rather, he seeks true worshipers who worship him in spirit and truth.
Fr. Matta El-Meskeen further states that prayer is a preventative measure that steers us away from sin.
Prayer restrains our hearts from coveting justice. It keeps our feet from wandering down the path of sin, and our tongues from flattery and lies. Prayer supplies us with a deep insight so that we may refrain from involvements in wrongdoings or condoning improper behavior or praising wayward or wicked actions.
Our window to heaven, and hence to see God, so to speak, is the sacraments of the Church, which take place during corporate prayers. We must partake of corporate and private personal prayers so that we are always aware that we are in God’s presence in everyday life. God, after the fall of Adam and Eve and the immediate casting out from paradise of our ancestral, primordial parents, as the Old and New Testament proclaim, never ceased to do all things to bring us back to heaven, and has endowed us with his kingdom which is to come. Sounds familiar: from the Liturgy, hmm? We can thus transmit his presence among us to others by means of his non-stop actions throughout history where he has sent us prophets, messengers, a burning bush, and events of theophany.
God breathed life into Adam, and as long as you are breathing, God is with you. You just have to be cognizant of this fact at all times. The Old and New Testaments should be your source of inspiration. You should read them among other ways, from the point of view of the ministry of the Church in order to discern what is required from a shepherd, a priest. Prayers and studying the Old Testament and New Testament allow you to determine the core of your ministry, where the heart of the Law is. Your final and ultimate value from such a source should be nothing less than compassion, for he said, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”
In order to grow this precious relationship with God through prayer and help the flock entrusted to you, do the same. You need to discern the true identity and characteristics of whom you are seeking. For there will be many christs who will come in his name falsely, and will say, “I am he.” Do not be deceived! His true identity and characteristics are proclaimed by the holy Bible as interpreted by the true Church that is inspired by the Holy Spirit. When you seek this true God and let him into your life, some aspects of your life must be abandoned, for they are not compatible with what you are seeking. Once this is done, there must be no regrets, like the man who called our God, “good teacher,” but was sorrowful when Jesus asked him to sell what he had and give the poor in order to inherit the kingdom of God.
For the cost of discipleship can be large in earthly standards. Your expectations and assumptions must be tempered with God’s true Spirit, as he permeates the holy Bible and the Church, lest you make wrong assumptions, as some of the workers made when the landowner went out to hire laborers for his vineyard at different times of the day. The next step is that you will need, through persevering prayers and actions, to make an unwavering commitment to God and yourself, without allowing future distractions to assuage your resolve. You need to keep your tenacious stance by means of the grace and assistance of the Holy Spirit, despite the ensuing struggle and the possible suffering as an inexhaustible brilliantly vivid lamp in front of your eyes, to preserve your commitment intact. Doing so would only be biblical, as did the widow who went to court to receive justice from her adversary, and due to her insistence, justice was handed to her. In the same vein, it would be as the person knocking on the door insistently to borrow three loaves of bread in the middle of the night from his friend, who was already in bed with the children.
Third, the priestly ministry is a life of leading the people to God’s presence in the world. As you know, the Church, in her infinite wisdom, arranged for three periods of preparation for the Feast of Feasts, the Great and Holy Pascha. This groundwork, among others, can be utilized to accentuate God’s love for his people, to depict his forbearance for our iniquities, to highlight his avowal during history until today, to draw us back to him, having alienated ourselves from him.
The first period is the Triodion, preceded by Zacchaeus Sunday. There are a progression of themes on these Sundays. Whenever we read the gospel about Zacchaeus, we know that the Church is giving us a friendly warning: “Hey, wake up! Focus your mind and your heart towards Pascha, starting today.” When Zacchaeus is being described, we should know that Pascha is around the corner, that Great Lent is around the corner, followed by Pascha.
The first Sunday is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, which happens right at the beginning of the Triodion. There is a theme right there. It talks about humility. So we have to have a burning desire for Christ like Zacchaeus in order to have the humility of the publican, which leads us to the next Sunday, which is the Prodigal Son, that leads us to repentance. So if we don’t have a burning desire for Christ, we can’t have humility, and if we can’t have humility, we cannot have repentance. The Sunday after that is the Sunday of Judgment. If we have no repentance, our judgment can be harsh, because we have not prepared ourselves for Great Lent.
Following that, the Church in her infinite wisdom told us about forgiveness. We can’t properly start Great Lent without forgiveness. That’s why the Church has appointed Forgiveness Vespers on that Sunday, so that everybody would ask everybody else their forgiveness. At that point, we can start Great Lent successfully.
At the same time, the second period of preparation starts. It is Great Lent itself. Each Sunday has at least two themes. I will not go over those themes; everybody knows those themes. Each Sunday prepares us further for Pascha. All of that, all of those five Sundays, will lead us to the final preparation period, which is Holy Week. Right before Holy Week starts, right at Lazarus Saturday, the Great Fast ends, right at vespers.
The Great Fast ends, right before Holy Week—for about a second—which ushers in a greater fast, the fast during Holy Week itself. All the themes that are assigned to every day of Holy Week—every day of Holy Week has a theme that prepares us even further for Pascha. All of these preparations can help us lead the people of God to the presence of God among us. So the second period, as I mentioned, is Great and Holy Lent, and the last period is Holy Week.
The fourth and final trait of the priestly ministry is a life of having authority given to us by God over the flock entrusted to us. We should use this authority properly. We do not under-use it or abuse it. We are the leaders in the spiritual realm as well as the administrative realm in the parish. The parish council is a council to help the priest administer the parish. In your decisions, do not be too hard, lest you be broken. Do not be too soft, lest you be squeezed. If you want to be obeyed, ask what is possible.
St. John Chrysostom tells us more. The priest ought to be sober-minded and penetrating in discernment and possessed of innumerable eyes in every direction, as one who lives not for himself alone but for so great a multitude. Be gentle. Be a gentle leader, but do not shy away from challenges and spiritual diseases that might afflict the flock, for you will give account to God at Judgment Day for the way you will have behaved throughout your priestly life in terms of being faithful to the gift of ordination that God bestowed upon you. Be compassionate, for your flock lives in a fallen world, and temptations are numerous. Be lenient, and use oikonomia when merited, for your flock members are saints in the making; they haven’t made it yet to sainthood.
In essence, your mission as a priest is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, because when we are in our comfort zone, we’re not growing spiritually. We need to take our flock and ourselves out of our comfort zone so that we may grow spiritually.
I close the letter by saying: My dear son in Christ, there are many more important areas to discuss, but time is short. God willing, I will write to you again, at a later date. May God be with you and guide your steps in Christ.
[Q&A not transcribed]