The priesthood . . . it’s a significant office whether one is Catholic (Eastern or Roman) or Orthodox (Eastern or Oriental). Those ordained to the office are typically called “father,” referencing that they are to be, like St. Paul, a father in the Gospel to their parishes. Yet, in too many churches, there are two errors that are often made: the priest is to fulfill a particular vision of “piety” and the priesthood is an entrance into holiness that others cannot attain. Both are misguided, even if popular.
With regard to the first, the vision of “piety” often includes: poverty, or at least low income, constant availability, frequent serving of services, a concern for the trappings (cassock, beard, publicly worn prayer beads and black clothing) and placing his family (at least if Orthodox or Eastern Catholic) below the needs of the parish. In short, the priest is to adhere to a lay perception of the monastic ideal even if not living in a monastery. How this plays out will vary based on the parish and context. I know Roman Catholic priests who put in insane hours each week. I also know what Orthodox clergy are typically paid and that some jurisdictions think 1-2k/month is adequate. Goodness, I know of a bishop who thinks it’s a real improvement that in one parish his priest is paid a few hundred dollars, sleeps in a classroom of the dilapidated church building, and bathes in the boiler room in a cattle trough purchased at the local feed store. That last might be a bit extreme, and could say more about that particular bishop and parish than anyone else, but sadly the $1-2k isn’t. Nor is it unusual to expect that the priest will offer services throughout the week, even if it is very very difficult to work around an outside employment and children’s activities or very very sparsely attended when accomplished. All of this is paired with the usual microscope that priests are under (for every lay person has an opinion–OK opinionS about his/ her priest and/or priest family).
The second problem might function as its mirror opposite. An Orthodox priest-blogger has recently shared with us a piece wherein St. Nikolai Velimirovic argued that the priesthood is the greatest honor and the means by which the priest has come into contact with the “eternal source of Grace.”
Although I think the reposting is well-intentioned, and St. Nikolai possibly meant only to speak to the blessedness of ordination, his words went too far (at least it did for us in our theological context–perhaps there was warrant for them at the time he spoke them). The priesthood is not the greatest honor. The greatest honor is to Christ first and all the baptized second. The priesthood serves the baptized. The greatest sacramental honor is to receive Christ, is to be baptized and receive the Eucharist. That is the greatest honor and it is something inherently open to all. The priesthood is sacramental and is special, but it’s not the Eucharist.
Ironically, these two misguided views of the priesthood can reinforce one another. Clergy themselves are often quite guilty of it. So, a priest or layperson identifies the priesthood with the poverty, with the never ending services, with placing the priest’s family’s needs second to the parish, and in order to help compensate, in order to help justify the priest’s situation in life, over-inflates the sacramental nature of his priesthood. I think this is a real temptation for some clergy. Or, it can go the other way, the priest or layperson might view the priest in an idealized, sacramental way, and so believe the only way that could be fulfilled in the here and now is to show a willingness to live in poverty and serve to the detriment of the priest’s family, and to be under the microscope of the parishioners. In its sickest form, lay people might believe the hyper-sacramental fluff and therefore feel justified (and take glee in) making the priest operate as an underpaid hireling.
In the end, neither approach is good. The priesthood is not a pretext to familial poverty and the priesthood is not the greatest means by which one can encounter God’s grace (for that is already open to every baptized Christian in the Eucharist). What we need is to reframe how we look at the priesthood.
So, lest I end only on saying what we should “not” do (with the apophatic, if you will), let me suggest a few things we “should” do (the cataphatic, if you will):
- See the priesthood as flowing out of the priesthood all believers already have with regard to their standing within creation. The Church is to creation what the Levitical Priesthood was to Israel.
- Understand that the priesthood functions to facilitate entering into the depth of God’s grace–that the priesthood serves the purpose of entering into Thanksgiving (Eucharist) together as a community with God.
- Realize that priests have families and responsibilities first and foremost as heads of their households as much as any other baptized member of the church. This will mean reconsidering their salaries but also respecting their time. If done truly, it will mean ceasing to judge them with our “parishioner microscope,” if you will.
- Accept that the priest’s authority comes from Christ and to the extent that the priest adheres to the Gospel, not to the extent that the priest fulfills some wish/desire/agenda we have (be it political or religious).
- Allow for a freedom whereby priests feel they accept or resign a call without guilt. If a priest has been a full time priest for ten to fifteen years but wants a new career, and resigns the parish, let us not judge. He has not rejected the call of “the eternal source of Grace.” This is no small matter, either. If a priest went to the bishop and gave him a resignation as rector of a parish and asked not to be transferred to another, what would happen (at both the deanery and parish levels)? Ask yourself that.
These five points are not all encompassing. There is more that could be said, but if we are going to see Orthodoxy and/or Catholicism thrive in the 21st century, reframing how we think of the priesthood must be part of that. The alternative might survive, but sadly could do so all too easily for the wrong reasons.