Tag Archives: Priesthood

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

Regrets? I’ve Had A Few

Recently, I was asked if I had any regrets about being a priest.

To the questioner’s surprise, I said yes I did. I went on to explain that while I had regrets that didn’t mean I was unhappy being a priest. Quite the contrary in fact.

My regrets make clear to me how much I value my vocation. When I call to mind the things I could have done, reflect on their value and the satisfaction that I would have come from doing them and I realize that the rewards of being a priest are more than worth the sacrifice.

But to imagine that I didn’t make any sacrifices, that I didn’t give up some good things to receive the good thing of the priesthood, would be to lie to myself. Actually, it would be to lie to myself about myself and about the importance I place of the work I do as a priest.

None of this, I should say, is unique to the priesthood. It is simply part of being faithful to our vocation. Trade offs in life are inescapable and sacrifice isn’t sacrifice–as Fr Chris told me in college–unless it hurts.

Think of the sacrifice of Abraham (Genesis 22:1-19). When God commands him to sacrifice Isaac, the patriarch has a choice to make. Does he value obedience to God more than the fulfillment of God’s promise and his own most deeply held hopes for his future? In other words, does he love God more than the promises and things of God?

For many, the Gospel is less about picking up the cross and following Jesus and more a coping mechanism. Yes, I can use the Gospel to protect myself from the bumps and bruises (and worse) of life. Doing so, however, means that I prefer the things of God more than God Himself.

And it means that I’m not following God or making the sacrifices that come my way. Instead, I’m trying (futility) to lead God, to make Him follow me.

How easily I turn to God and flip Ruth’s words to Naomi: “I will go where you go. I will live where you live. Your people will be my people” (Ruth 1:16).

The irony here is that I don’t need to compel Him to follow me. He does this already. He is always with me, leading the way, clearing the path before me to the Kingdom.

All the sacrifices we make are not simply ours. They all share in the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

The thing is this: Before I pick up my cross and follow Him, He picked up His Cross as part of joining Himself to us. Before we are His companions, Jesus is ours. Before we sacrifice for Him, He has sacrificed for us.

So yes, I have regrets about being a priest. But the cost of the priesthood pales in comparison to the myriad rewards of the priesthood. And again, this isn’t unique to the priesthood.

If we are faithful to our personal vocation, the rewards will outweigh the costs. This doesn’t mean there won’t be moments when we will wonder, or even doubt, whether this is the case.

Painful as they are, these moments of doubts are moments of grace; they are invitations to renew and deepen our vocational commitments. They are our personal experience of climbing the mountain like Abraham with Isaac following along wondering if, when the moment comes, we can be obedient to the terrible thing God asks of us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Love is the Vocation, Friendship the Key

The call of the husband is not to fit into a preconceived role of husband, but to enter deeply into a relationship with his wife. We find our fulfillment as husbands (and wives) as we are united with Christ and perfected in Christ, in relation relationship with our spouse. If a man tries to act like a good husband, head, or leader, he will find that his wife, with her faults, will only get in the way. This is a subtly self-centered approach to marriage. If, however, he tries to love his wife with perfect love, he will find that his wife provides plenty of opportunities for him to be an become a true husband, head, and leader.

 Philip Mamalakis, “The High and Holy Calling of Being a Husband,” in David C. Ford, Mary S. Ford and Alfred Kentigern Siewers Eds.),  Glory and Honor: Orthodox Christian Resources on Marriage, (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2016), p. 100.

Vocations are always personal. God calls this or that person to love Him and to love others in a concrete–and so necessarily, personal–way. And just as no one is called to be a husband (or wife!) in general but to be the husband of this woman, no one is called to be a priest in general. The priest is called by God to love a particular community.

Unlike marriage, a priest might–and often is–asked in the course of his priesthood to love different communities. Some he loves for longer, other shorter, time. But whether his time with a community is long or short, easy or hard, the priest is called to love the community in all it’s concreteness.

And so, to borrow from the epigraph, the call of the priest is not to fit into a preconceived role of the priesthood, but to enter deeply into a relationship with his family, his parish, his fellow clergy and his diocese. This is only possible, if the priest is first “united with Christ and perfected in Christ.” It is only in this way that the priest can be “in relation relationship with” those around him.

If, on the other hand, a man tries merely to act like a good priest, head, or leader, he will find that his parish, with its “faults, will only get in the way.” The priest who doesn’t draw close to Christ will, of necessity, limits his ministry to appearance. He may sing well, he may preach well and even be of comfort to his parishioners. But for all he has the appearance of success, he will slowly die inside.

His inner life will wither away not because divine grace is absent but because he is relying simply on himself, on his own abilities, and not on Christ. Often this “subtly self-centered approach” to ministry is overlooked by the parish, the bishop and even the priest’s family until the priest stumbles in some way or other.

If, on the other hand, the priest “tries to love his [parish] with perfect love, he will find that [the community] provides plenty of opportunities for him to be an become a true husband, head, and leader.” But perfect love is only possible in Christ and this requires that the priest cultivate a deep, personal and prayerful relationship with his Lord.

Like marriage, the priesthood is a kind of friendship. And, in both cases, the friendship whether between priest and parishioner, or between husband and wife, is the fruit of a friendship with Jesus Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory