I lost my patience recently. Then, I lost my temper. These are two things that I rarely experience, and, as self-flattering as this pronouncement may appear, they are behaviors I would like to believe would not be associated with me by those who know me. Yet, under the escalating weight of a host of professional demands and other pressures that had been building for several weeks, I reacted with anger and indignation at two young men, both of whom are my juniors in age and station, and both of who unfairly suffered my misdirected frustration. My immediate embarrassment and my subsequent apology to these two young men were genuine and sincere, but I remained very upset and disappointed with myself. I shared my distress with a Greek Orthodox priest and friend who himself was privy to the situation that had produced my pique. In so doing, I was reminded why priests—good priests—matter.
I have been a steward, and, in some cases, a parish council member, of Greek Orthodox communities in places as diverse as a predominantly working-class, immigrant parish in an industrial city in northern Indiana; an enormous suburban church in New Jersey; an affluent, professional congregation in Manhattan; and a large, once-thriving parish in a Boston area town. One thing that I found to be a constant in all of these different congregations was the decisive, determinant role that the priest played in shaping the life and character of the parish community. Priests clearly at peace with themselves and happy with their pastoral ministry tended to lead communities that were united, whole, and spiritually alive. To what extent each—priest or parish—had either a positive or negative influence on the other could be debated. Nonetheless, what was clear and recurrent in my experience was the simple, and perhaps not surprising, fact that priests who were in harmony with their calling not only deepened the unity and well-being of their parishes, but, in those instances where churches had experienced strife, they were able to restore health and love to their communities. Conversely, priests in personal crisis, whose calling was imperiled, inexorably exported their own crises into their parishes.
We are all “priests.” Indeed, Orthodox Christianity proceeds from the understanding that inasmuch as the whole body of the faithful—His Church—forms a holy and royal priesthood, we, the people of God, are all priests. Nonetheless, it is recognized from the time of the Apostles that within the universal priesthood of believers there is a special, sacramental priesthood, hence the distinction between clergy and laity. The sacramental priest—known originally and formally as presbyteros (from “elder,” as in the Jewish rabbinic tradition)—is established through the sacrament of ordination. Ordination, which invests a new priest with the ecclesial authority to administer sacraments, is performed by a bishop, with the consent of the people of God—meaning, in practice, a congregation which completes the ordination by shouting “Axios, Worthy!”
Dispensing the sacraments—holy rites, mysteries, in which Orthodox Christians experience the reality of God through the enacting of His Grace—are the exclusive responsibility and prerogative of the priesthood. Nonetheless, the effectiveness and fullness of the sacraments are not dependent on the personal virtue or character of the administering priest. Precisely because the sacraments are understood to constitute the presence of Christ acting through the Holy Spirit, the priest, despite considerable popular misunderstanding among Orthodox faithful (and even among some priests), is neither a vessel nor an intermediary between God’s Grace and God’s people. Instead, Orthodox teaching explains that the priest is an icon of Christ. His role is weighty, a fact reflected in every aspect of a priest’s life, both public and private, both pastoral and non-ministerial.
The priesthood is a calling, meaning a dedication to a way of life, not merely a chosen profession. In short, this means that a man has been called by God to commit his life to serve God’s Grace. The priest assumes throughout his life the responsibility of uniting all the people of God together in Christ and sacramentally manifesting the presence of Christ in the Church.
In carrying out his calling, the ordinary parish priest must do extraordinary things: he must preach the message of Christ; promote love and peace; enrich the religious and theological literacy of his communicants; deepen his community’s understanding of the teachings of the Church; and foster awareness and respect for the Orthodox Church’s history and traditions. Furthermore, he has to accomplish all this in the midst of answering the day-to-day needs and demands and challenges of a parish community. Above all, the priest must live a life that is always unwaveringly centered on Christ’s love, and that is consistent with the principles, morality, and ethics he—the priest—preaches. I recall from my youth, a visiting priest at my parents’ Sunday table confiding to my sympathetic father that the priesthood is simultaneously both the greatest blessing and the greatest cross to bear. Truly, only a genuine calling can lead to the making of a priest capable of facing and fulfilling such imposing, yet stirring, responsibilities.
I have known many extraordinary priests. Few among us have not had our lives blessed or have not been inspired by a great priest. All the same, Orthodoxy correctly affirms that priests do not manifest the presence of Christ through their talents, charisma, knowledge, or other personal attributes, but through their sacramental function, which is not affected or influenced by a priest’s qualities. But what is also clear is that a priest’s imprint extends beyond his sacramental functions. In that sense, and in that sphere of life in the Church, we most often encounter the benefit and grace of a good priest.
The priest in whom I confided my recent story of pressure, anger, and regret is an extraordinary priest and a good man. He responded to me with this liberating Christian perspective:
Aleko, I understand. Just know that there is so much love in the world, that no matter what others say to us it can never diminish God's love for us. Try to focus and search for this love even in the most trying circumstances. You will see that you will find joy in even the uncomfortable times and with the most difficult people. God loves you, as do I.
In my friend priest’s earnest words to me I sensed the presence of Christ’s message of love, and so I was reminded of why good priests matter. Their commitment to live according to God’s love, along with their ability to fervently convey that love to the world, is what makes priests not only important, but also, good.
Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.