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: Before I begin my remarks on the priesthood today… As you know, the priesthood is our life. It is not a profession, it is not an employment: it is a calling. It is a calling, and as we hear in the Gospel that many are called but few are chosen. So let us take this moment seriously and do it with a prayer. If we talk about priesthood from now until the end of the time in beautiful words, but we don’t do it, it would be nonsense.
My presentation today will cover two areas. The first one: the priest as administrator. The other area, the other part: the priest as a father and a husband, or as a husband and a father, to his family.
Your Graces, beloved brothers in Christ, reverend fathers, beloved clergy in Christ, Christ is in our midst! [He is and ever shall be!] With great joy, I greet all of you and welcome you to our Clergy Symposium. This gathering is important on many levels. Most simply, we can say with the Psalmist, “How good and pleasant for brethren to dwell in unity.” In addition to our fellowship, the Symposium affords us the blessing to worship together and learn from one another. I ask that we all commit ourselves to making the most out of this precious time.
When I met with my brother hierarchs to begin planning for this Symposium, we thought it was important that we take time to return to the fundamentals to discuss the very definition of the priesthood itself. This topic is of such clear importance to the life of our Archdiocese that I thought it would be the most beneficial for our own hierarchs to share their vision of various aspects of the priesthood. So this year we do not have a speaker from another jurisdiction or an eminent theologian from oversees or a hierarch from another local church. This year we will hear from the archpastors of this God-protected Archdiocese.
Of course, the topic of the priesthood cannot be fully discussed in one week. Our priesthood is based on the one priesthood of our Great High Priest, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. We would all agree with the Apostle and Evangelist John that if we were to discuss the priesthood of our Lord, all the books in the world would not contain all that could be written, but as St. John wrote in his gospel: what needed to be written for us to believe.
I and my brothers will attempt, with God’s mercy, to say what needs to be said for this week for us to have us all profiting and a ministry-enhancing time here. We will have Bishop Basil address the high calling of the priesthood; Bishop Thomas, the meaning of calling the priest “father”; Bishop Alexander, who is not with us, as I said yesterday, but Bishop Anthony will cover for him, so Bishop Anthony will give two parts: Bishop Alexander the integrity of the priesthood; Bishop John, the sacramental ministry of the priesthood; Bishop Anthony the meaning of apostolic succession; and finally, Bishop Nicholas, the priest as a servant.
To round out this very full range of aspects of the priesthood, I have decided to focus my remarks today on the priest as administrator. My address will have two parts. First, I will begin with a discussion with how the priest administers his parish, and second I will turn to the subject of how the priest administers his home as a husband and father.
I have often heard priests, when confronted with mundane tasks of administration, sigh and say something to the effect of: “This is not why I went to seminary.” We were attracted to the priesthood by visions of ourselves leading liturgical worship, preaching the Gospel, teaching the faith, discussing the nuances of Palamite theology, consoling the sorrowing, visiting the sick and imprisoned, restoring the penitent, and healing divisions. We probably did not, however, enjoy envisioning ourselves sitting through lengthy parish council meetings, haggling over deductions on assessment sheets, filling out sacramental registries, reading balance sheets, planning events, and collecting court documents confirming a civil divorce. Why I chose this particular topic is that for many of you the primary way in which you may come in contact with me is through some of those administrative matters I just listed.
For this reason, I have traveled the length and breadth of this Archdiocese in my initial years as your Metropolitan, so as not to be a distant figure in Englewood but a true father in Christ. My prayer is to have every correspondence between us come from a place of love and relationship, as a father to his sons. For this reason, I have tried to emulate the words of the Lord describing his ministry. “The Son of man has no place to lay his head.” Nevertheless, my ministry is one with many administrative tasks. St. John Chrysostom, in his classic work, On the Priesthood, tries to justify his running from the priestly ministry to his dear friend, St. Basil. One of the lengthy justifications is based precisely on the heavy burden of administration, particularly on the difficulty in caring for the widows, the sick, and the strangers. St. John speaks of the need for a skillful management of property. He says:
Much forethought, therefore, is needed, that the resources of the Church should be neither overabundant nor deficient, but that all the supplies which are provided should be quickly distributed among those who require them, and the treasures of the Church stored up in the hearts of those who are under her rule.
He continues to tell St. Basil the difficulty of this kind of stewardship, and the pitfalls and the heartaches that come with the great responsibility. So even our holy Father John Chrysostom desired to shy away from these kinds of matters. I myself would prefer focusing my time more exclusively on liturgizing, teaching, preaching, consoling, confessing, and counseling. However, we know that we cannot do those ministries if the work of administration is not done, as St. Paul says, decently and in order.
The Church has monetary needs for its ministries and buildings. We cannot comply with the canons or demonstrate our compliance if we do not have paperwork and forms and letters. In order to avoid scandalizing our faithful, we need to have transparent financial reporting. When we gather for Symposia, Parish Life Conferences, retreats, and conventions, we need planning and organization. There is no way around having our priesthood bound up in administrative duties, but I ask you, my beloved brothers in Christ, can we reframe the way we look at our administrative tasks in this Archdiocese and our parishes? Can we look at them in a fresh light?
I think clergy face a temptation to disregard administrative tasks because they feel they are primarily liturgical celebrants. We sometimes create a false dichotomy in our parish life that the priest is in charge liturgically and the parish council is in charge of everything else. I believe that the priest who concerns himself only with the liturgical services and treats administrative aspects of the parish as somehow beneath him is actually denying what St. John Chrysostom called “the liturgy after the liturgy,” and thus makes himself merely a liturgical robot.
Let me explain what I mean by inviting you to think in terms of the diskos. After I have completed all of the commemorations, we see the Lamb encompassed by all of the members that make up the body of Christ: the holy Theotokos to its right, the ranks of the saints and angels to its left, and all of the hierarchs and clergy as well as all of the living and departed beneath it. There is such a beautiful icon there of the unity and diversity of the body of Christ. We see the icon of what St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews, Greeks, whether slaves or free, and have all been made to drink of one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member, but many.
The holy Apostle continues to explain that a body has members, with various functions, and no one part may claim it has no need of the others. All the members of Christ’s body also have gifts and talents to offer, as well as various roles and responsibilities. These must work together decently and in good order with sacrificial love. The icon presented to us by the diskos shows the unity of the Church around Christ, while the neatness and exactitude of the cut bread and the arranged ranks show her orderliness.
In the life of our Archdiocese as a whole and our parishes individually, we can take that icon of the diskos as a powerful reminder that we and our people have roles and responsibilities in the Church that, again, must be done decently and in good order, in love. I have heard Fr. Alexander Schmemann quoted as saying that the vocation of the priest is actually vocationless. What he meant by that is that the priest is one who offers himself in loving sacrifice to bring out the vocations, the callings of his people. We as priests and the administrators of the offerings of the members of the body, that they may be done in the harmonious and loving order taught by St. Paul, we help our people to discover their own sacred vocations in the Church and teach them to offer themselves with love, humility, and self-sacrifice.
I am sure when you heard the theme of my address of a priest as administrator, the word “administrator” probably had a negative connotation. When we hear someone talk about admin or an administration, the images that come to mind are ones of bureaucracies that run without regard for persons, just nameless, faceless entities that blindly enforce policies with no regard for individual circumstances. I think we can say there is a temptation for clergy to act in this way. I would describe such a priest as an ecclesiastical bureaucrat.
In order to avoid these two temptations, of being either a liturgical robot or an ecclesiastical bureaucrat, let us rethink this term, “administrator.” The original etymology of “administrator” comes from the Latin word ministrare: to serve, to attend. In fact, this word has as its root, “minister,” and is related to our word, “ministry.” In the original Latin and medieval French source words, the idea is in fact one of stewardship. The administrator is a servant who is entrusted to manage affairs on behalf of his master. He is a servant bringing order to the service, the ministry, of fellow servants.
A priest who is a holy administrator is not an ecclesiastical bureaucrat, mindlessly enforcing policy and canons, or a liturgical robot, merely offering rituals, but a servant who helps his fellow servants in their service, a minister who helps the ministry of his fellow ministers. The Apostle Paul nicely summed up this ideal in his epistle to the Ephesians when he writes that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” You are there to equip your people for ministry. Ultimately, all that we do and inspire our people to do is for the salvation of souls. That’s why, in the enthronement speech, I gave myself a title of three words: Saving the souls.
I often hear of burnout. I often hear of burnout among our clergy, and I would say that perhaps this comes from an attempt from our priests to do it all. If we take seriously the teaching of St. Paul and the true meaning of the priest as administrator, the people of God become engaged as fellow servants in the ministry of the Church. The priest is inspiring, teaching, guiding, and overseeing, not expending his energy as the one-man show.
I realize this is easier said than done. Our people have come to expect our clergy to be supermen. Our Church culture tends to blame the priest first for each and every failure in a parish. Asking for help can often be met by cynicism on the part of our people or even the question from them: “Isn’t this what we pay you for?” How do we overcome those objections? Like everything we do in the life of the Church, we must first and foremost build and cultivate loving relationships with our people. We love them, we serve them, we go out of our way to bear witness to the sacrificial love of Christ in their lives. We go with them to the Cross. In this way, we transcend being the ecclesiastical bureaucrat and the liturgical robot and become that servant who inspires and orders the work of his fellow servants. We learn about our people so we know where their gifts and their talents can be put to use and how they can be excited about being asked to use them. The priest as administrator, when he is a holy administrator, is primarily one who is relational, one who loves.
Let me give you a more concrete example of what I mean. One of those heavily administrative tasks I mentioned at the outset is the collection of the paperwork necessary to restore a divorced person to the full sacramental life of the Church. During the course of my initial years as your Metropolitan, I began to notice that the petitions from our priests read as though we were charging people $200. Don’t make this mistake. It’s not about $200. For a letter that contained the legalistic phrase, “I hereby recommend, based on thorough examination, this person be restored,” when I would ask what kind of thorough examination had taken place, I would often be disappointed at the level of pastoral care behind that phrase. These are people who have often suffered terribly. These are people who are considering a second marriage.
This process should be an opportunity to love and care for those people, not a bureaucratic set of hoops to jump through. I instructed my staff to send instructions to make sure these petitions showed there was indeed a personal ministry involved in this process. I ask you from the depths of my heart: Please be sure to use every administrative opportunity, parish council meetings, budget, preparations, restoral petitions, sacraments to build loving relationships with your people. These seemingly mundane matters can be the very means of bringing them to salvation.
Now let me switch the focus of this address to speak of another temptation we face as clergy. We began by speaking of the temptation to be the liturgical robot who shies away from administrative tasks because they do not appear to him to be ministry, and the temptation to be an ecclesiastical bureaucrat who completes his administrative tasks without love and without using them as an opportunity to build relationships with his people. The other temptation I would like to address is to think of the priesthood as primarily an administrative job, not a spiritual one. We can call this temptation the priest as CEO.
During my decades-long ministry, I have seen priests who consider their work in the parish as one of the building, not the body of Christ or equipping the saints, as St. Paul has taught us, but growing a worldly organization. This temptation is for the priest to concentrate on finances for the sake of finances, buildings for the sake of buildings, and social activities for the sake of social activities. Oftentimes, there are very popular priests who are good at what the world describes as leadership. While they can inspire people to work together and give money, they do not inspire people to true spiritual life. To avoid complaints, the cut down the services or choose not to offer them at all. They do not challenge their people to live the Gospel. Their sermons are meant only to make people feel good about themselves in order not to offend or perhaps as some kind of a growth strategy. They do not uphold the disciplines of the Church. They do not teach their people to take up their crosses through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and moral living. They put more of their time into ecumenical community activities and political activism than in the work of visiting the sick and shut-in. As Christ pointed out about the lavish tombs, perhaps their parishes may be beautifully outwardly, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones.
While I have spent a lot of time in my remarks discussing a holy way of being an administrator, I need to speak very clearly that our priests are not businessmen. Our way of leading our flocks is not through the leadership techniques shown by the modern CEO but through the kenotic outpouring of love shown by our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. I have said many times, and I say it again today: As the Metropolitan, I will have no patience with this model of the priest as CEO. The only Church growth I want to see is growth based on the evangelical commandments of the Savior, not the clever strategies of the business world. I do not want spreadsheets showing the number of people in the pews and the number of social activities done as though we are a country club. But I want to know how we are providing for the salvation of souls as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
I must also say that I have seen too much of the lifestyle of CEO amongst some of our priests. When I was a young seminarian in the monastery of Balamand, I learned an important lesson from my father, Patriarch Ignatius IV, of thrice-blessed memory. These are his words.
When a priest lives a lifestyle that is higher than his flock, he cannot be a priest for them. He must suffer with them as they suffer, or he is not a true priest.
When I went to Cyprus as a priest, I held those words of my father in Christ close to my heart. I was there to care for refugees for a civil war in Lebanon, living in a foreign land. There was no salary. There was no benefits package. There was no 401(k) retirement plan. I went there to live with them in their suffering. I have been a priest for some time, but it was there, amidst those people, that I came to understand what it means to be a shepherd and what it means to be called a father.
Brethren, let me also exhort you with the words of perhaps the greatest parish priest of our Orthodox Church in the 20th century, St. John of Kronstadt.
How indifferent a priest should be to earthly things, in order that, when celebrating such services, such high and most heavenly sacraments, he might not be ensnared by the Enemy, but may always burn with the pure love for God and his fellow men who are lost through sins and are saved by the grace of Christ in the Holy Spirit.
Please do not misunderstand me. I do not want you to turn to the other extreme and emulate the life of the monastery as parish priests. Parishes are not monasteries. Both have their calling in the life of the Church. I do not want our parish priests dressing as monks at all times. There is a time and place for the jibbe and perhaps the skoufi, but we need to have balance and discernment. I have tried to avoid making pronouncements on this issue, because I want to trust you to use your discernment. Please return my trust with a balanced approach.
And allow me a side note here. St. John teaches there is no room for the earthly cares when celebrating the services. This includes not just extravagant lifestyles, but also not to bring in the chatter behind the holy altar. This is time for communion with God, not joking or planning, announcements, etc. So that’s why the theme for the Parish Life Conference was koinonia, and we heard millions of meaning of the koinonia.
Your Graces and reverend fathers, as with all things in our Christian lives, we strive for the royal path, keeping all things in balance. I want to be clear what I am saying and what I am not saying. The model of the priest as administrator cannot be any of the following three things we have spoken about. I will state the three: (1) We as priests should not be liturgical robots who merely fulfill the ritual obligations of offering services and treat their parishes like sacrament factories. Of course, we must serve the liturgical rites of the Church with dignity and piety and devotion and fear of God and hearts aflame with love for God and all people, but celebrating the services must not be an excuse to shy away from the necessary work of parish administration. (2) In doing the work of administration, we must not be the ecclesiastical bureaucrats who simply fill out paperwork and keep track of balance sheets. Administration is ministry. We must administer by reaching out to our people in sacrificial love and inspiring them to offer their gifts in service to God, decently, and in good order. (3) We must never succumb to the temptation of treating our parishes as business and ourselves as CEO priests. This type of priesthood can create some sense of worldly success but does not offer our people a true spiritual life. If there is no true spiritual life, whatever growth happens in a parish is bound to be fleeting, as it is based upon sand, not upon rock.
As in all things we keep ourselves balanced, and I call on you to be balanced as holy administrators. We serve the liturgical services with love for God and our people. We complete our administrative tasks with love for God and our people. We sacrifice extravagant living and worldly popularity with love for God and our people.
As we continue our discussions of the priesthood this week, I want us to ask ourselves: How is my life different after my ordination? Of course, we are changed forever by virtue of our ordination. Let me say clearly that we must reflect. We must be icons of our Great Priest at all times and in all aspects of our lives. Can we take off our priesthood as we take off our collar and jibbe and hang them in the closet? Absolutely not. Our lives as priests must be holistic, not compartmentalized.
Now I go to the second part of my address: discussing the priest as a husband and a father. I will begin by saying you must be a holy administrator of your family life at home as well as in a parish. Again, the word “administration” may not have the sound of intimacy and domestic bliss, but I hope the message I have been trying to convey today shows that administration is relational. It is focused on love.
Let me begin to make this important connection between holy administration and love with my previous starting point in this address. The holy Apostle Paul, in his epistle to Timothy, clearly teaches that one who is being considered for ordination must have his own house in order and asks: if the man cannot manage his own house, how can he care for the Church? I have seen throughout my ministry the wisdom of St. Paul. I have seen clergy families that are models of mutual love and support that enhance and beautify the ministry of the priest. Unfortunately, I have also seen clergy families that are under such duress that the ministry of the priest is diminished or even choked off. I have seen some of my best priest lose their wives because of neglecting them for their ministries, and they, in turn, lost those ministries. I have seen priests lose their children through cynicism and loss of faith because of their absences.
All of this is so heartbreaking. We can clearly see St. Paul’s wisdom that the homes of our clergy must be in order for their ministries to thrive. I would like, as your father in Christ, to affirm the challenges that all of you face. I know that marriage and family life in our contemporary times is difficult, notwithstanding the unique challenges of clergy life. In a culture that emphasizes self-fulfillment over duty, self-will over obedience, worldly happiness over eternal salvation, and sexual license over chastity, it is no wonder half of our society’s marriages end in divorce. When you add to these wider cultural issues the pressures that come with clerical life, the priest being on call at all times and working long hours and the family living in the proverbial fishbowl, the struggles can be daunting.
The world you inhabit as married clergy is more complicated that in previous generations. While we can affirm the enhanced opportunities affords women, the careers of our clergy wives add a set of questions to your ministries our forebears did not have. Who is watching the children or taking them to extracurricular activities when you are ministering to the flock? How much time can your wife give to the parish when she has her own responsibilities outside of the home? When considering a priest for a new assignment, how would a potential move impact the wife’s career? These kinds of questions are very new in the life of our Church, and we are all doing our best to find the right way to keep everything in balance.
Also, as fathers, you must work with your wife to navigate how to raise our children in an ever more aggressively secular society with the temptations that come with technology and social media. You must protect them from the cynicism they are taught about religion, even in the face of our clergy and laity who sometimes live up to the worst stereotypes of religious people offered by the culture. Again, you are trying to parent with the added pressure of everyone watching you as the ones who should always get these things absolutely right and no mistakes.
So, yes, the task at hand can look overwhelming, and, yes, I recognize that life is difficult and complex in our times. We do take hope, however, in the fact that Christ says to us, “Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” We know and accept that our lives as clergy and the lives of all the Christians are centered first and foremost on taking up our crosses and following our Lord. We should not expect our lives as clergy to be without challenges or suffering. The late Fr. Thomas Hopko often said, “Christ did not suffer on the cross so we would not have to suffer. He suffered that our suffering may have meaning.” In other words, we take up our crosses and, through our Christian lives, our suffering can be transfigured into a means of greater communion with God, with our families and with our people.
Beloved in Christ, I would like to remind you of the first time you walked around a tetrapodium to the hymns, “O holy martyrs” and “Glory to thee, O Christ our God” and “O Isaiah” with your wife. (That is in the wedding, but in the ordination we say them backwards.) In a way, your marriage was your first ordination, and your ordination to the ranks of the clergy should not be seen as overtaking or replacing that first one. As you heard on your wedding day in the epistle to the Ephesians, you were united to your spouse as Christ is united to the Church. As your Metropolitan, I want your people to look at your married life and see precisely that icon of how Christ loves his Church. By your loving your wife in that self-sacrificial way unto the cross, your marriage can be a wonderful and edifying example to your people.
And we must remember: our people now see the institution of marriage being redefined and reimagined in ways completely at odds with the teaching of the Church. Your marriages are a witness—kerigma—of the truth. Even when you experience struggle in your marriages, you can be a greater example to your flock by showing your love and your perseverance. When they see the commitment of you and your wife to continue building a strong relationship during the times when life is hard, you will be preaching the most powerful sermon about marriage and love unto the cross.
In education, there is an important term I want to share: the unwritten curriculum. These are the things teachers are teaching in unintentional ways, either through nonverbal communications or priorities that get set or different decisions that get made. I would like to challenge you: Think about the ways we teach our people other than in our homilies or in our Christian education programs. Let me ask you two questions: (1) What are our clergy teaching their own wives and children about their love for them in how they balance their family lives and ministries? (2) What are they teaching their flocks about the sacrament of marriage in how they balance their family lives and ministries? Of course, there is a temptation to take your wife’s love for granted and sacrifice time with her and your children in trying to serve your parish. Perhaps the parish may be grateful for those sacrifices, but you must ask yourself about what you are teaching in the unwritten curriculum.
You may be teaching by your example something that is not good for their family lives and may very well destroy your own, namely, that work outside the home always comes first. And I know that our priests feel called to take up their crosses by concentrating on their parish work, but can this often be an excuse to stay away from the crosses that are at home? Perhaps the cross of attending one more parish meeting or doing one more pastoral visit is a lighter cross than working on your marriage or helping your child with a school project? Beloved married spiritual sons, there is no greater pain I feel as a bishop than seeing one of our clergy marriages end in divorce. Please do not hear my words about being a holy administrator as a call to neglect your wives and children. On the contrary, part of your holy administration is often at home, caring for your family’s spiritual and emotional needs.
Let me ask you these questions. Do you give your wife time and attention? Do you take her out on dates? Do you send her flowers or candy with no other reason than to let her know you are thinking of her? Do you spend time with each of your children? Do you come home and play with them even when you are tired from a busy day? If not, I give you my archpastoral blessing to do just that. In fact, I place all of you under obedience to do precisely those things. I do not want for you to drop your children off at college and wonder where the time went because you were too busy for them. I do not want for you, in that same moment, to realize that your wife has become a stranger to you because of your ministering to everyone but her.
Now there is another aspect that I must address to keep balanced perspective. You must love your wives and children to the cross, but your ministry is also loving Christ and his Church to the cross. And your families are also called to take up this cross. The clergy family has a calling, each and every member of it. They need to understand that your priesthood will call them to sacrifice as well. This joint calling is the reason why we have always made sure to have the wife sign her name to the petition for ordination and will not ordain a man without it. As the Metropolitan, I have found priests who are not fulfilling their sacred duties to their people and use their family life as an excuse in a way that not even a secular employer will accept. Our people want to see and need to see the clergy families involved in their lives, and sometimes there is an attitude that the clergy family should be kept separate from the parish. A khouriye, for example, may say, “This is my husband’s job, not mine.” This is a secular mindset that fails to lift up the high calling of the clergy family.
We are working in this Archdiocese to ensure that all of our clergy are supported financially by their parishes, and we still have much work to do. I try very hard to assign priests in a way that is not disruptive to their families. However, I cannot abide by priests who are careerists. I understand that you want what you think is the best for your families, but I am heartbroken when I see priests who use politics and intrigue to move up the ladder in their ecclesiastical careers to bigger and wealthier churches. And I am scandalized when I ask a priest to move to a parish, and I am given lame excuses as to why a wife will not do it, or the children will not like it, and so on. Do not misunderstand me. Of course I listen to everyone, and I do not make decisions that I believe will cause a priest’s family unnecessary suffering and hardship, but there needs to be a balance.
I would like to return to the concept of the unwritten curriculum. Of course, I do not want my actions as the Metropolitan to unintentionally teach that the Church does not care about our clergy families, but I also do not want to unintentionally teach that the priesthood is a career like any other. If I simply were to search for good fits where our priests all go to where they want to go and our parishes only get the priests they want to accept, what kind of ministry is that? What kind of teaching would that be about our faith? We do not get to choose our crosses. We do not get to choose the flocks we shepherd.
Furthermore, I believe that if our children grow up and see careerism in the Church, modeled by their parents, they will ultimately be cynical about their Orthodox faith. If they see parents who are afraid to take up their crosses and sacrifice for the faith, they will be afraid to as well. If they see that their parents chafe under the light yoke of obedience to Christ, they will chafe under it as well. If, however, they see parents who joyfully take up their crosses and, through love and prayer and hard work, allow God’s grace to transfigure every situation, no matter how difficult from a worldly perspective, they will be moved to live the same way. Their faith will be alive, and they will teach and proclaim by their example and beautiful unwritten curriculum of the Christian life.
Ultimately, beloved in Christ, the answer to the tough questions of our contemporary lives is the same answer Christ has given the Church for its entire 2,000-year history: Take up your crosses and follow me. We live in an age where many want Christianity without the Cross.
One day, I was conducting a retreat at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and one of the questions struck me the most. Why can’t we bring more—five people or ten people or 15 people—for vespers, while we see, in Houston, Texas, Joel Osteen and someone like that, with 5,000 or whatever. And my answer was the same here: because people desire or favor an easy religion. So here we carry the cross.
I might go so far as to say that I worry less about our society’s aggressive secularism than I do about a flavorless Christian faith that has lost the saltiness of its ascetical and moral life. In our contemporary society, we see preachers proclaiming a gospel of prosperity, wherein our Lord suffered the Passion in order to grant us material wealth. We see some teachers who use demonic sophistry to explain away the Gospel’s moral precepts. We see Christians treating their spiritual life as though it is a kind of self-help program to feel better about themselves. We see people in the name of Christ preaching extreme nationalism to the point of xenophobia and racism. Do we think that we as Orthodox are immune to these things? I do not think so. I think some of our people have a gospel-of-prosperity mindset, where they believe if they go to church, kiss the icons, receive Communion, and get the blessing of the priest, God will give them materially blessed lives.
We have seen priests and even hierarchs question the moral teaching of the Church, through using sophistry to warp the teaching of the Fathers. We have faithful who treat our tradition of noetic prayer and stillness as some form of therapeutic meditation. We have parishes who consider themselves as parishes for only Lebanese or Syrians or Palestinians or Americans or converts or any other demographic category that St. Paul would have severely denounced as a betrayal of the Gospel.
Beloved brothers, the only way to heal these things, as all of our ascetical tradition teaches so profoundly, is to start with ourselves. Very simple: we repent. We’re not talking about some other people. We repent. We pray, we fast, we love, and we forgive. Then you start at home with your wives and your children. Unite yourselves through the spiritual life of the Church. Pray together. Go to confession. Go on pilgrimage. Find ways to serve together. Carry the cross of your ministry together. Do not seek suffering, but when it comes, courageously meet it with the help of Christ. When we are faithful, we do not avoid challenges, because Christ grants us the help of his grace to make our challenges salvific. Thus we become more forgiving, more kind, more gentle, and more holy. Our Church and our society need you and your families. We need the evangelical preaching of your lives as clergy families who struggle together and are sanctified together. We need you to show the balance of love and care for your families with the service you offer others and the parish. We need you to preach by your very actions the incarnate God who suffered for us and shares with us his own divine life. I and my brother hierarchs ask you and your families to preach this kind of sermon through the unwritten curriculum of how you live your lives.
I am deeply moved by your witness and sacrifices, those of you and your families. I will never stop working to care for all of you, but I need all of us to strike that holy balance and never forget that at the heart of our ministry, of our preaching and our teaching, is the cross of Christ. We minister, teach, and preach, most profoundly when we are living it. There is too much compartmentalization in our contemporary lives. In other words, you cannot separate your priesthood from your life as a husband and a father. Your family cannot separate itself from being a clerical family. You must life holistically holy lives so those you minister to will feel called to live holistically holy lives.
I do not mean that you are forbidden to swim in the ocean with your children or dance with your wife any more than I would require you to require a jibbee and a qaloosi to go apple-picking with your family, no. This is the false dichotomy that I am speaking about. Everything we say and do, whether we are with our families or our parishioners, whether we are dressed in clerical attire or not, whether we are home or on vacation, we must behave and act in a way that preaches the gospels and models our priesthood. Your life must be holistically holy.
As I close my remarks today, I ask you, as our priests, to be holy administrators of your homes and your parishes. This requires a skillful balance, a holy balance. You may ask me how to strike this balance in your lives, and there is no speech that I can give, that I can fully give an answer to each and every circumstance. I would like to rework the adage to those wishing to represent themselves in court as their own lawyer and say: “The man who has himself as his own spiritual father has a fool for a spiritual son.” If you expect your people to confess to you and take spiritual direction from you, you need to have a confessor and guide, yourself. Let me point out that I am here for you, my brother hierarchs are here for you, and your brother priests are here for you. There is no excuse for a priest not to have a spiritual father of his own, to help guide him and his family in finding that holy balance.
Let me conclude by returning to that image of the diskos. When you were ordained, the bishop placed the Lamb into your hands and exhorted you to protect it, and reminded you that you will be accountable for it at the dread day of judgment. We could interpret it narrowly as meaning that that should protect the holy Eucharist from those who are not worthy or not Orthodox. I feel it is much more than that. We are called to protect the entire body of Christ: to protect our priesthood, to protect our families, and to protect our flocks from all harm, from all false teaching, from all enemies, within and without, from all scandal, and from all neglect and betrayal.
I ask you: become holy administrators, by emulating the holy examples of and by asking the prayers of our recent forebears in our faith—the missionary zeal of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, the scholarly and martyric witness of St. Joseph of Damascus, the meekness and forbearance of St. Nektarios of Aegina, the charitable and liturgical outreach of St. John of Kronstadt, the hesychastic prayerfulness of St. Paisios, and the simple and quiet pastoral love of St. Nicholas of Athens. We also call to mind the heroic labors of our fathers in Christ of thrice-blessed memory: Patriarch Elias IV, Patriarch Ignatius IV, Metropolitan Philip, Archbishop Anthony, Archbishop Michael, Bishop Antoun, and Protosyngellos Paul Doyle, and many, many others. May our Lord, God, and Savior, Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, grant us to serve according to their holy examples and to build on the firm foundation they have left us.
Beloved brethren in Christ, it is my honor and my joy to address you today and to spend these beautiful, grace-filled days with you. Please know that I share these thoughts out of fatherly love for you, and I sincerely look forward to the talks that will be given by my brother hierarchs as we continue to flesh out and incarnate this most important topic of the holy priesthood. I ask our Almighty God that all of our discussions will be guided by the grace of the All-Holy Spirit and will be for the salvation of our souls, our families, and our flocks. Amen.
[Q&A not transcribed]