By Fr. Vassilios Papavassiliou, All Saints Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Camden Town (North London)
Address given at the Clergy Conference of the Archdiocese of Thyateira & Great Britain
What is the essence of priesthood? I think we do well to occasionally take a step back from our daily ministry to contemplate this question, because it is all too easy to lose track of what our service to the Church is all about. I think the essence of priesthood can be summed up in one simple word: offering. But what is it that we offer, and to whom do we offer it, and why? The first answer to this question can be found in the Divine Liturgy: “We offer you your own of your own in all things and for all things”. We have nothing to offer God other than what is already His. That applies not only to creation and to sacraments – bread, wine, water, oil – but also to ourselves. We offer all that we are to God, because we already belong to Him.
This brings me to the first point I want to make about the subject of the image of the priest in today’s world. We can only offer our true selves. For me this is a matter of fundamental importance. I feel that there is a tendency among the clergy to wear a mask all the time, to put on an act. We seem to think that we have to fit a certain mould. We have to behave a certain way, think a certain way, speak a certain way. But are we true to ourselves? Or are we simply acting the way we think people expect us to? If so, why is this a bad thing? It is bad because we will never discover our true selves, we can never learn true humility or truly repent, if we are always pretending to be something we are not. I also wonder if trying to fit a mould is rooted in the sin of pride. That is, we try to behave in a way that people equate with holiness, because we want people to think we are holy. To quote Fr Alexander Schmemann: “It might be that some clerical vocations are in fact rooted in a morbid desire for supernatural respect, especially when the chances of a natural one are thin”.
But offering ourselves to God means more than just being who we are. It means trying to become who we truly are. We offer ourselves to God because our true selves can only be found in Him. But this means that we, like our parishioners and spiritual children, are on a journey to discovering God and our true selves. We are by no means perfect, and we should not try to give the impression that we are.
I said that in a perfect world, worship would be all we do. But we do not live in a perfect world. And so we must also shepherd our people. We must teach them the Gospel, and give hope and comfort to all sinners. In this aspect of our work, it is important that we know our limitations and that we carry out our duties because we love what we do, not because we expect results. The image of the priest is the image of the sower. We sow the seeds and hope they take root. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But if we stop sowing every time we don’t get a result we’ll end up not doing anything at all. For example, a few years ago I was doing catechism for a couple that was going to get married. They seemed very enthusiastic. But after the wedding day, they just disappeared and I lost contact with them. I figured they weren’t really into it. They just wanted to get married, that’s all. But recently, out of the blue, they contacted me to tell me that they really miss the relationship we had, lessons and discussions, and want to see me and continue learning and have started coming to church more often. My point is we need to be patient and allow room for God to work. It is not all about us and our abilities. More often than not, it is more about us having the humility to let go and entrusting our work to God.
Another aspect of priesthood is the ability to empathise and sympathise with people’s realities and weaknesses. This is something I don’t think we are very good at. And the result is we drive people to despair. I’ve now lost count of the number of young people who have come to me for confession after many years of alienation from the church because they were condemned for a sin they confessed, or were reprimanded because of the way they were dressed. We can not begin helping people before we accept them as they are. This initial acceptance is essential to ongoing repentance. The image of the priest is the image of Christ, who never condemned anyone but the Pharisees, the super-pious and religious elite. To the prostitutes and tax collectors, He spoke only with compassion When we hear Confessions, we must never ever condemn. In fact, any one who is scandalised by sins of any kind, is not fit to hear confessions.
We must give people hope, not only that they can be forgiven and saved, but that they can become saints. To do that, we have to give up the superficial notions of holiness that we have. We seem to equate sanctity with monasticism and nothing else. We do not seem to have any consideration for the sacrifices that normal married laypeople make every day. Recently, I was shocked to hear an Orthodox bishop in Europe laying down the law regarding what laypeople had to do to receive Communion (apparently there are no rules for what clergy have to do to take Communion). He claimed they had to say all the prayers of preparation the evening before, in the morning before coming to church, that they should fast the day before, both from food and from sex, should be in church for the very beginning of the Liturgy, and should have gone to Confession beforehand. Let us stop to think about that for a minute. Imagine a married couple with careers and five children. They are exhausted every day. The stress and strain of work and screaming children probably make prayer near impossible. The one day they can rest and spend quality time together they choose to come to church, get their children ready, probably kicking and screaming sometimes. They are stressed by the time they arrive, and they may well arrive late. And we expect them, on top of all that, to endure all the additional burdens that we have placed on them, but which we ourselves would struggle with or not even contemplate enduring ourselves. They make more of a sacrifice to come to church and take Communion than we do. And what do we do? We tell them stories of saints in the desert and hold up monks praying in their cells as examples of sanctity. That’s the unrealistic ideal that they are expected to imitate. Their efforts and sacrifices for some reason are not considered equal to the asceticism of monks and nuns praying in solitude. Do we not do the people of God a great injustice? It is time we got over the romantic utopia of monastic idealism, and began to give hope to real people living in the real world.