For me, a discussion about the priesthood begins with St. John of Kronstadt. It is a personal choice, one whose ministry speaks to me in a very real manner. I have read a little about his life and a few parts of My Life in Christ, especially the parts relating to the Liturgy. His practice of the priesthood and the views he expressed in writing have strongly influenced my own vision of the priesthood. His energy and tireless work for the Church have often inspired me to try to emulate, to the best of my ability, his dedication. His love for people, regardless of their religious backgrounds, was an inspiration for me at a time when I was struggling with the question of how to interact with people of other faiths or denominations. St. John was completely dedicated to his flock and that work occupied the great majority of his time, yet he helped anyone who would come to him for help. The following story remained in my mind as soon as I read it the first time, and it illustrates, to me, the true spirit of the priesthood:
"One day, a Tartar woman brought her ailing husband in a cart and asked Fr. John to pray for him. Fr. John asked the woman whether she believed in God. When she answered in the affirmative, he said, "Let us pray together. You pray in your way and I shall pray in mine." Upon finishing his prayer, Fr. John blessed the Tartar woman. Getting back to her cart, the woman stopped in wonder because her husband was walking to meet her."
Of all the saints with whose lives and writings I am familiar—granted, a relatively small number—St. John's ministry is the one that resonates the strongest in my heart. He had a great love for the services of the Church. Every day of his priestly life, he celebrated the Liturgy. It is true that his environment was not something that we would encounter today in America. It was Russia, a traditionally Orthodox country, and Kronstadt was a poor town, where people could feel more inclined to seek God's help. Looking at the situation, however, it is my firm belief that people came to St. John's church not so much because of their personal circumstances, but because they had in front of them an example of holiness. St. John was a living example of Christ's love for people. He took personal care of the preparation of the faithful for the Eucharist and insisted that they receive the Body and Blood of Christ. His services, known for their completeness and for the vigorous pace at which they were celebrated, were a mark of love for the liturgical tradition of the Church. This care for the faithful and for the worship of the Church were signs of St. John's love for God. In this love, people were drawn to him and he ministered to them ceaselessly and selflessly. I believe, though I do not have a rational basis for doing so, that there is a need for a similar ministry in America today. It may not necessarily be the celebration of the Liturgy every day. A mixture from the vast richness of Orthodox services (Orthros, Vespers, Akathists, Paraklesis, hours) can be used to offer the faithful the opportunity to worship every day. As with all things Orthodox, it should not be coercion – St. John never used coercion in his ministry – but an offering from the Church to the people. It should be an opportunity to start a long day by placing yourself in front of God, or to end a tiring day by resting in God's care through prayer.
The final facet of St. John's priesthood that indicates to me the true nature of the priesthood is his dedication to work outside the church itself. The story of his life says that "[i]n 1868 he conceived the idea of founding a House of Industry, comprising a number of workshops, a dormitory, a refectory, a dispensary, and a primary school." It was clear to to St. John that the ministry of the Church extended well beyond the doors of the church building. The Church is called to care for the people in every possible way, and St. John worked tirelessly to make sure that she did just that.
Of course, St. John is not the only person whom we studied this semester who has made an impression on me. Fr. Arseny's constant struggle, his priestly ministry without a regular Liturgy forms a witness to the grace of God which conquers, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Reading about his prayer life, his unwavering focus on God, and his service to others reminded me of the importance of personal prayer in the priesthood. It also taught me that the priesthood always adapts to its environment in ways which radiate God's love to those around. Finally, it reminded me that, even though God's grace is always present, the priesthood can be a great struggle, which brings to the fore our individual shortcomings. Fr. Maximos' quiet and understated faith, his maturity and dedication to his duty as a spiritual father were another source of inspiration. Elder Paisios' quiet and simple advice was also helpful as a reminder that simple words get the message across just as well as, if not better than, a well-crafted phrase. Each person we encountered in the course had a message and a mission which helped shed light on some aspect of the priesthood.
As I mentioned in the beginning, much of my understanding of the priesthood is connected in some way to St. John of Kronstadt. The paragraphs above are a description, for me, of who the priest is: a person totally devoted to God. This devotion, however, does not take him away from the people. Rather, it infuses him with great love and energy and a desire to serve the people in such a way that they become aware of God's love and His providence. This requires humility, perseverance, and self-sacrifice in a measure that cannot humanly be attained. And this is, I believe, the essence of the call to the priesthood. It is the knowledge that the priesthood is a task beyond any man's strength, combined with the assurance that it is something that it can be done—not because of any particular personal strength or merit, but because of God's grace. It seems to me that no man can sincerely believe that he can be a priest, unless he has had some experience of God's grace which helps him see how "with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26). Without that experience, the priesthood is truly an impossible endeavor. As with all things, this experience needs to be examined to ascertain whether it is a true calling, or a temptation. If it is a real calling, then this is the first step towards the priesthood.
The issue of what is proper preparation for the priesthood becomes much less clear beyond this. There are, I believe, two components to this preparation: a cognitive component and a spiritual component. Both are needed, though in my opinion, the second component carries a greater importance.
The cognitive component relates to the factual knowledge needed to perform the duties of a priest in 21st-century America. We live in a society which places a premium on degrees, and letters that can be attached to one's name: M.A., M.D., Ph.D., Esq., etc. However, these letters are only an imperfect indication of how intellectually capable a person is in the context of a particular field of expertise. This is by no means meant to be disparaging the intellectual facility of humanity. The Church Fathers held the mind in high respect; St. Gregory of Nyssa saw it as God's image in us. The emphasis placed on this faculty at the expense of God's grace, at the expense of humility and love, creates a very difficult practical situation. Is a Master of Divinity degree necessary as part of one's preparation for the priesthood? In the United States of 2005, the answer is probably yes, because of the premium placed on degrees and because there is currently no other practical way of ensuring the theological and teleturgical preparation of the future priests.
The preparation for the priesthood needs more than knowledge, however. There is a spiritual component to the preparation which includes prayer, spiritual discipline, and proper practical nurture of the virtues. All the knowledge in the world will not make a good priest without love, compassion, humility, patience, and self-sacrifice. The way to these is as unique as each individual, which precludes the writing of a universally applicable step-by-step manual. The journey towards the virtues can take place through, among others, monastic tonsure, marriage, service (such as the field education program here at Holy Cross), and prayer. However, because each journey is different, there is an important need for guidance in each journey. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to quantify how this guidance is to take place beyond the basic requirement that each candidate for the priesthood have a spiritual father with whom he can develop a close relationship. Trust that God will provide the needed guidance is part of the journey.
Beyond this point, I cannot speak about the priesthood and preparation for it in abstract terms. I have drawn the general outline of my understanding of the priesthood; in order to approach the details of that understanding, I need to refer to the personal experience of my own journey. I came to the seminary a little over a year ago because I finally decided to listen to the needling voice that had been directing me towards the priesthood for the past several years. But what did it direct me towards? Why the priesthood?
Before coming here, I studied mathematics and computer science. I was good at it and I enjoyed working at it. Yet, somehow, I only felt fulfilled when, as an undergraduate student, I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning because someone had asked for help with a project and I ended up spending the better part of the next three hours helping that person understand what that project required. In graduate school I found myself helping several undergraduates who had difficulties with a project. As I was helping them, several more came by, and the next thing I knew it was 4:30 a.m. The great joy was asking them the kinds of questions that would help them unravel the project in their own minds. I wrote and published a number of papers, I worked on challenging projects, but no matter how prestigious the conference or journal where the paper would be published, I never felt the kind of satisfaction in those achievements as I did in helping others. My first encounter with the call to the priesthood thus came through the perspective of service.
That was the beginning. Only a couple of years later did I finally realize that the ultimate help comes through serving Christ. So it was the servant leadership which we have been talking about in class that first attracted me to the priesthood. Everything I have learned since then has deepened my understanding of that servant leadership. I started my journey towards the priesthood by thinking that I would offer my love to the ministry. I have come to see the imperfection of my love and I have come to realize that, by uniting ourselves with Christ we share in the love of Christ. It is this love that we offer. I started by thinking that I would sacrifice for the other, but I have come to know that my sacrifice, whatever it may be, only has meaning because of Christ's sacrifice.
The difference between my starting point and my current understanding of the priesthood, while perhaps subtle, is a very important one. Then, the focus of the ministry seemed either the priest himself, or the person to whom the priest ministers. Christ is present, inherently, but tangentially. Now, the ministry is seen as a mostly human endeavor, largely defined by our fallenness: our motives may be good, but we need God's help in order to translate our good motives into good results. In my present understanding, the ministry is that of Christ, and the focus of the priest is strongly on Christ Himself. It is not the case that the human aspects of the ministry are neglected; it is, in fact, quite the contrary: with Christ, God's strength shows through in our weaknesses. The other, the person to whom the priest ministers, is part of Christ's body or, at the very least, Christ is part of him, whether he is aware of it or not. As the priest is part of the body of Christ and has Christ within him as well, the priest and the person to whom he ministers can be united. The two can know one another and love one another in Christ. Then, and perhaps only then, the priest exercises his true ministry.
This is the story of my call to the priesthood so far. While I cannot generalize the details of the story to every call to the priesthood, it seems that each call undergoes a natural process of growth and maturation. Looking at the ministry of the saints and saintly people we have studied in class, I believe that this growth is characteristic of the priesthood in general; that it continues for ever. While, as mentioned previously, every person, every ministry, and every call is different, this process of growth is, I believe, one important way of discerning the authenticity of the call.
The next step on the road to the priesthood is the preparation, cognitive and spiritual. I think it is important for a future priest to try to understand everything through the filter of faith. A large part of our time at seminary is spent on classes. It is easy, therefore, to limit our cognitive preparation to classroom material. However, little things around us every day can help us in our future ministry; valuable information can be found everywhere. For example, Fr. Frank Marangos' comment that the people in the parish are interested in learning the theology of the Church goes hand in hand with Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis' insistence that theology must be presented in a practical way. These things were not directly related to the topic of the class, but together they form an element of ministry which I may not have thought of on my own.
We have talked in class about the relationship between the Orthodox and other Christian denominations, even other religions in society. I believe that it is of paramount importance to the mission of the Church that the Orthodox be actively present in the life of the community in which they are found. For reasons which are both theological (relationships are paramount in the Orthodox Church's understanding of humanity) and practical (the Orthodox community may be too small to start and sustain programs in the community) our presence in the community needs to take place in cooperation with other Christian denominations. It is the priest's responsibility to encourage the participation of his parishioners in community service activities, such as feeding the homeless, or community mentoring programs. Such programs are a practical illustration of the Christian faith and open the doors to the heart of our neighbor, whether he be another volunteer, or someone to whom the program ministers. The priest himself should be leading the parish in these activities. He may not be able to participate in every one of them, but he should be active in these activities, as well as other community service activities for which parishioners may not be as well-suited (e.g., hospital or police chaplain).
Another aspect of the cognitive preparation, and one of the most difficult aspects of my preparation for the priesthood, has been the idea of cooperative leadership. The theory is simple and based on common sense: the work of the parish is such that no one person can do it alone. It is therefore a practical—as well as a spiritual—necessity that the ministry of the priest be not apart from the people, but in communion with them. It is deeply saddening that we see cases in which the relationship between priest and parishioners is defined by tension and mutual distrust. In such situations, it is the responsibility of the priest, as the one in the position of higher authority, to initiate the healing process. This can be a difficult process, requiring humility and love, patience and endurance.
As an example of cooperative leadership, the ministries of the Watertown parish made a deep impression on me. The mutual trust between the priest and his parishioners is something that should be emulated in every parish. This is not to idolize the make-up of one particular parish, or to copy identically the inner workings of that parish; it is, rather, to hold up the end result of a loving and trusting relationship between priest and faithful, grounded in the love of Christ. This trust has to be grounded in faith: the faith that Christ is with His Church, supporting her, that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in the fullness of truth and life. It should not be equated with a conviction or hope that there will be no failures in ministry or that the priest and the faithful will always agree on every issue. It is, rather, a conviction that God will work through difficult times and even through failure. This conviction, however, comes not from the cognitive preparation for the priesthood, but from the spiritual preparation.
A main aspect of the spiritual preparation for the priesthood is spiritual fatherhood. I know that, on my own, I have no capacity to be a spiritual father. Yet, if I follow the path of the priesthood, it is likely that at some point I will become a father confessor. This is one of the reasons why I delayed my coming to the seminary and why I tried not to listen to God's calling. I needed to come to the realization that I was not the focus of the ministry; that the answers that I would provide would not be mine, but, by the grace of God, God Himself would provide the answers in the sacrament. It was only then that I could face the priesthood and look forward to entering it. The essence of this faith, the love and trust of God, is the essential element of priesthood. The faith and the grace of God are what give the priest a different outlook on life. It is what gives the priest the strength to face the temptations and trials of life, regardless of their source and nature. It is easy, in the face of difficulty and failure, to either lose hope and give up, or become obstinate and refuse to face reality. The priest, focused on God, has a great responsibility not give in to either extreme; he is called to minister, to love, and to have faith.
Love, faith, and all the other virtues in themselves need care and attention. For me, the start on the road to these virtues was marriage. Through marriage I came to start learning about the meaning of love; of moving beyond the difficulties of daily life through God's love. One thing that I have learned through marriage is that I only began to understand what love is when I decided that I want to spend eternity with my wife. Without that commitment, love is not truly love. And it is a similar commitment that the priest makes to his faithful. He wants to be with them in the kingdom of God and is committed to helping them find their way there through whatever difficulties might arise.
Faith developed through marriage also by turning to God in difficult times and getting through those difficult times. Patience, hope, compassion - they all 'acquire' a new dimension when they are applied to someone who is there every day. I find myself falling short every day, but by the grace of God, I also find myself learning and growing every day. Again, these virtues, that I have only began to learn, find their counterpart in ministry. I am convinced that my marriage is part of my preparation for ministry. This is not the way that everyone will walk towards the priesthood, but the spiritual journey is a necessary part of becoming a priest.
All this having been said, what do I believe about the priesthood? I believe that it is a sacred ministry, originating with God, rooted in His love. I believe that priesthood requires the love to care for parishioners without judging them; the faith that God will be by your side in both success and failure; the humility to learn, listen, and open yourself up to God's grace; the dedication to offer your entire life to God. I believe that the priesthood is the meeting place of God's ministry to people and the people's ministry to God. Finally, I believe that the priesthood is holy, and that, while we should bring our individual holiness to the priesthood as much as possible, we should, more importantly, allow ourselves to be sanctified by it.