Sound human formation, Pope John Paul II writes in Pastores Dabo Vobis (On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day), is important not only for the “proper and due growth and realization of self, but also with a view to the ministry.” So what does he mean by the phrase “sound human formation”?
It is important, the pope argues that priests be
balanced . . . , strong and free, capable of bearing the weight of pastoral [and for Orthodox clergy this often means as well the weight of familial and professional] responsibilities. They need to be educated to love the truth, to be loyal, to respect every person, to have a sense of justice, to be true to their word, to be genuinely compassionate, to be men of integrity and, especially, to be balanced in judgment and behavior (emphasis added).
All of this is contained, John Paul argues, in the words of the Apostle Paul when he writes to the Church at Philippi, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Reflecting on the Apostle’s teaching, he continues: “It is interesting to note that Paul, precisely in these profoundly human qualities, presents himself as a model to his faithful, for he goes on to say: ‘What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do’ (Phil. 4:9).”
Thinking about this I can’t help but wonder how many of the clergy (myself included) can appropriately present ourselves as models to be imitated? To take only one example, the work of a parish priest is often demanding. More often then I think we would prefer to think the cost of the demands of the priesthood have a deleterious effect not only on the priest’s physical health (think of the number of overweight priests you know) but also as a consequence of his emotional and spiritual well-being.
Beyond the obvious negative effect on the priest’s health, ministry—or more accurately, the expectations the priest, his bishop and his parish have for him—often has a harmful effect on his marriage and family life. Though it is not openly discussed, unhappy marriages are not uncommon among the clergy. Nor is divorce unheard of. Clergy wives and children often bear the cost of their husband’s and father’s ministry.
And, as I said, these are just a few examples. If in fact clergy are, like St Paul, to be examples worthy of imitation, then we need not demand that Father and his family to keep up a good front or pretend that everything in their personal lives is rosy. No, what we must do instead is work to make sure clergy and their families have the preparation and support they need. Part of this is for all of us, clergy, their families, bishops and congregations to have reasonable expectations for what a married priesthood can, and cannot, accomplish.
We need to do this not only for the sake of the clergy and their families but also out of a sense of our healthy self-interest, for our own well-being and the well-being of our parishes and dioceses.
One sign that not all is well in how form our clergy is the overall health of our parishes. Not only in convert communities but more generally I have often encountered in Orthodox parishes a harsh, polemical attitude. His Eminence, Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk in a recent interview (“A Mission in the World”) offers us an illustration from parish life of how poor human formation might adversely effect the need to build “bridges linking Orthodox parishes to the outside world.” He asks, “Currently what happens to a person who enters an Orthodox church [in Russia] for the first time out of curiosity or inner dissatisfaction or in search for the truth?” Answering his own question he says that,
At best no one will say anything to him. He will be given an opportunity to stand and listen to the service, to look around, etc. But, coming in touch with God’s grace through the atmosphere of the church, he may come to feel something. And he will come again and, later, again. Then he will begin searching for books. In this way, gradually, through self-education, he will get involved in the life of the Church. It is a very long and not easy way. A person will have to surmount his own numerous barriers separating him from the church world – barriers psychological, cultural and linguistic.
Sadly, the best does not always happen. Instead, “a newcomer coming to a church from the street will encounter just plain rudeness. He could be scolded by the babushka who serves behind the candle box. She might condemn him for making the sign of the cross in a wrong way, for standing at a wrong place, for wearing wrong clothes, etc. And after coming to church two or three times, the person will lose any interest in coming back.”
These types of exchanges are not limited to the Church in Russia they are common also in the States and almost de rigueur in online forums. Visitors are often ignored, but just as often they are greeted with hostility. At times the hostility is ethnically based. Just as frequently however visitors are “greeted” with theological tracts meant not simply to explain the faith but proselytize, that is to undermine their commitment as Protestants or Catholic Christians.
This is all simply to highlight that both in traditional Orthodox countries and here in America we need, to return to Archbishop Hilarion, “to break this mechanism of alienating people from the Church or merely expecting that they will turn up and surmount all the barriers on their own.” To do this we must “create a system that helps people without much church experience to get involved in church life gradually.”
While part of this is no doubt catechetical, much of what must be done is more properly the work of spiritual formation and has a necessary psychological component. In any event it is important to realize that the “resources of clergy alone are insufficient to do it. We need active lay people. Our task is to mobilize the laity for proactive missionary and educational work. It is not that nothing is being done. There are people who do things. There are many who work in this area, helping the clergy to bring people to God. But we need a completely different scale of welcome.” (emphasis added).
This does not mean that the clergy have no role, or that their role will diminish in the Church. But it does mean that the role of the clergy will, necessarily change. For this change to happen, “depends. . . on the personality of the priest and the ruling bishop.” He continues that this means laying aside the typical Orthodox tendency to vacillate between passivity and polemics both of which lull the “lay people and clergy [into thinking they can] rely on the proposition that ‘we bear witness to the truth of Orthodoxy by the very fact of our existence’.”
This is simply false and my believing that “the task of bringing new people to the Church will be unfeasible.” If as Orthodox Christians “we do not use aggressive and importunate methods of mission” this “does not mean that we must simply sit and wait doing nothing until people themselves come to us.” But whatever might be their disadvantages for mission work, personally passivity and polemics do not challenge me, do not call me to examine my own heart or challenge me to look at my own behavior and character and how they effect (for good or ill) how (or even if) I present the Gospel.
If, as I would argue, we are all of us to be a bridge to Christ, and if this work is a personal work and not simply the application of technique, then I must be properly formed for this work. But, to repeat what I have said above, none of this is possible if we do not see to the proper human (and humane) formation of our clergy.
Until then, and as always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, they are actively sought.