Liturgy & the Spiritual Fatherhood of the Priest

Let me make a provocative assertion. The priest has nothing of his own and it is only in accepting this that he can hope to have a personally fruitful ministry.

While women are maternal by nature, men are fathers only by analogy. Motherhood—whether biological or spiritual—is inherent in what it means to be a woman. For men, however, paternity (again biological and spiritual) is not intrinsic to their nature.  A man’s fatherhood is a participation in the singular, unique and unrepeatable Fatherhood of God. As we read in Scripture: “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9; see also 1 Corinthians 8:6).

Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) is Being as Communion says we call God Father because He is the Source of all. He begets the Son, He spirates (breaths) the Spirit, and He is the Creator of “all things visible and invisible” calling them “from non-existence into being.” In addition, the Father sustains all things in existence by His Word (see Colossians 1:15-18).

A priest’s spiritual fatherhood is not his but a participation (sharing) in the Fatherhood of God. While the priest is not the source of things in the parish (a sadly not uncommon misunderstanding among priests and laity alike), he is responsible for helping people come to know God Who is the source of their lives and the life of the parish. According to St Dionysius the Areopagite this is the work of illumination.  A priest reveals the hidden and unsearchable presence of God in the lives of those he serves (see Jeremiah 33:3).

Dionysius also says that to accomplish this the priest must himself have attained the second of the three stages of the spiritual life: illumination. (The first stage is purification, which is both the requirement for ordination to the diaconate as well as his primary pastoral mission. The third and final stage is theosis, which is both the requirement and mission of the bishop.) It is primarily through his liturgical ministry that the priest fulfills his task to illumine not only the life of the faithful but also events in human society and the nature of creation itself.

Or to say the same thing in a different way, ordination to the priesthood is a call to a prophetic office.

This prophetic ministry is accomplished in and through the words and actions of the various liturgical services of the Church. Through his liturgical ministry, the priest reveals for all to see (include to himself!) the will of God. For example, “the servant of God N is baptized…”; “May God now through me a sinner forgive you…”; and, of course, “take, eat, this is my Body…take drink, this is my Blood.” All of these are prophetic actions in that they reveal or manifest God’s plan to “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him” (Ephesians 1:10).

This is why all of the sacraments of the Church include an epiclesis, an invocation of the Holy Spirit. In fact, this invocation of the Spirit is included in all the services in the prayer “O Heavenly King.”

I said above, that the fatherhood of the priest—like the fatherhood of all men—is not his by nature but only by participation in the Fatherhood of God. Likewise, liturgical ministry of the priest is not his. It is rather lent or delegated by the bishop to the priest (this is something which sadly, is not infrequently misunderstood by priests as well as the laity and even at times bishops).

Zizioulas in Eucharist, Bishop, Church points out that in the early Church, the bishop presides at the celebration of the Eucharist. While he stood in the first place (as an icon of God the Father in the Holy Trinity), he did not stand alone. Rather he was surrounded by the presbyters, assisted by the deacons and in the presence of the faithful (who are themselves not only a unique order in the Church but through baptism the first order and foundation on which all subsequent orders are conferred).

The presbyter or priest only took the first place at Liturgy when (for one reason or another) the bishop was unavailable. Especially as the Church grew this would often mean a priest would be sent to an outlying, rural community to celebrate the Eucharist and the other sacraments with them. He was sent because the bishop couldn’t go.

If in the early Church, the priest was not (to use contemporary language) ordained primarily to celebrate the Eucharist, why was he ordained? Zizioulas’s Eucharist, Bishop, Church is helpful here as well.

In addition to the biblical requirements for ordination (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7), it was expected that a candidate for the priesthood have demonstrated as a layman certain abilities (or really, spiritual gift after the pattern in 1 Corinthians 12:28, Romans 12:3-8, Ephesians 4:7-16). Specifically, the man had to be able to teach the Gospel, to offer wise counsel to the bishop to help him govern the church and to prudently and justly administer the wealth of the church.

It was because they demonstrated the ability to teach, counsel and administer in a godly fashion that men were ordained to the priesthood to assist the bishop in governing the local church. And it was because they had demonstrated their fidelity “in what is least” (governance) that they were trusted “in much” (the celebration of the Mysteries) as the need arose (see Luke 16:10).

To go back to what I said at the beginning, the priest has nothing of his own. His spiritual paternity is by participation in the Fatherhood of God. His prophetic office is fulfilled through his faithful celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the sacrament and services of the Church. And in the parishes, he speaks not in his own name but as representatives of the bishop (this is why he can only celebrate the Eucharist on an antimension with the bishop’s signature).

And yet, as St Paul says of himself, though the priest has nothing of his, in Christ he possesses everything (see 2 Corinthians 6:10) in Christ.

If I may offer a final personal word, the more I have come to understand that everything I have and do as a priest is not mine but only entrusted to me, the more I find real joy and peace not only in the liturgical life of the Church but the strength and willingness to meet the many demands and obligations of serving in the parish, teaching at the seminary, ministering to college students and representing the Church in the wider community.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory