Friday, June 10, 2016

Who is a priest? Seek and you shall find!

In a church which tries to express itself in the 21st century it is important for all to know who a priest who leads a church can and should be. This is important for the priest to minister well to the priest’s flock and for the flock to understand what to expect and how to work with the priest in a particular church. It is also important that the clergy and laity work together in the church so that everyone in church and society benefits from the policies of the church.

Looking at the clergy from the perspective of the laity is also important. It is this Orthodox understanding of the "laity" that discloses the real meaning and function of clergy. In the Orthodox Church clergy is not above laity or opposed to it. First of all, strangely as it may seem, the basic meaning of the term clergy is very close to that of laity. Clergy comes from "clerus" which means the "part of God". "Clergy" means that part of humankind that belongs to God, has accepted God's call, and has dedicated itself to God. In this initial meaning the whole Church is described as "clergy"— part or inheritance of God. But gradually the term "clergy" was limited to those who fulfilled a special ministry within the People of God, who were especially set apart to serve on behalf of the whole community.

This association of the clergy and laity is important to keep the clergy grounded in the grace and mercy of God instead of always talking of priesthood in terms of privilege that certain people enjoy over others. Pope Francis in his sermon to priests made a very critical observation which is valid for priests all over the world. He requested the priests to strive for a “conversion of our institutional mindset,” because if priests don’t showcase God’s mercy, they become something “bizarre and counterproductive.” A priest cannot forget that the basis of priesthood is the very humble grounding on the mercy of God. Priests would do very well for the church if they can come out of this institutional mind set mentioned by the Pope. It is not what we cannot do, but what we can do which makes a priest a listener, helper, motivator and provider for someone seeking the time of a priest.

The Pope continues “If we start by feeling compassion for the poor and the outcast, surely we will come to realize that we ourselves stand in need of mercy.” A priest will definitely go through several forms of crisis in pastoral ministry and family life. This should not be the reason to jump on the laity but a reason to love them more because our journey in search of God’s mercy should make us be merciful and reflect God’s mercy to others. That is why the Pope reminds us to “show mercy” in order to receive it. He makes this clearer by saying “The priest who has scarce pity for sinners is only half a priest. These vestments I wear are not what make me a priest; if I don’t have charity in my heart, I am not even a Christian.” The Pope uses the gospel passage of the woman caught in adultery. When Jesus encounters her, he’s asked “should she be stoned or not?” “He did not rule, he did not apply the law. He played dumb, and then turned to something else,” Pope Francis said, adding that in doing this Jesus started a process in the heart of a woman who needed to hear, “Neither do I condemn you.” It will do well in this era for a priest to understand the needs of a congregation and make it the best place available in an area to come to and be in. It should be a place where a congregation member can be herself or himself. A church will become a dark, judgmental place if the priest is judgmental.

Sometimes long years in ministry can slacken a priest and lead to disinterest in being a spiritual counselor and guide for the congregation. The Pope has a clear piece of advice here. He says “A shepherd after the heart of God has a heart sufficiently free to set aside his own concerns. He does not live by calculating his gains or how long he has worked: he is not an accountant of the Spirit, but a Good Samaritan who seeks out those in need,” the Pope said in a June 3 homily. “For the flock he is a shepherd, not an inspector, and he devotes himself to the mission not fifty or sixty percent, but with all he has.” “In seeking, he finds, and he finds because he takes risks. He does not stop when disappointed and he does not yield to weariness. Indeed, he is stubborn in doing good, anointed with the divine obstinacy that loses sight of no one,” the Pope continued. “Not only does he keep his doors open, but he also goes to seek out those who no longer wish to enter them.”

Even young priests could back track from their ministerial objectives because of the pressure they may have from seasoned and established seniors and lay leaders who may not agree with the free flow of grace and mercy. The Pope gives hope here by saying “Woe to the shepherds who privatise their ministry.” A shepherd after the heart of God does not protect his own comfort zone; he is not worried about protecting his good name; he will be slandered like Jesus. But rather, without fearing criticism, he is disposed to take risks in seeking to imitate his Lord. Blessed are you when they insult you, when they persecute you,” he said. A good shepherd excludes none of his flock and does “not await greetings and compliments” but is the first one who reaches out to others, listening patiently to their problems and accompanying them with compassion. “He does not scold those who wander off or lose their way, but is always ready to bring them back and to resolve difficulties and disagreements. He is a man (sic) who knows how to include,” the Pope said.The final exhortation of the Pope is passionate and he reminds priests “Dear priests, in the Eucharistic celebration we rediscover each day our identity as shepherds. In every Mass, may we truly make our own Christ’s words: "This is my body, which is given up for you”.

This is also true in the Orthodox church. Although Orthodox clergy are given considerable honor by the Orthodox Church, each ordination is also viewed as a kind of martyrdom. The Orthodox cleric agrees to be a servant of both Jesus Christ and of the people of the church; many of the vestments are intended to remind him of this. Much is expected of the clergy, both practically and spiritually; consequently, they also have a special place in the litanies that are prayed, asking God to have mercy on them.

The Priestly Commandment in most Orthodox churches include to teach people by good example and inspiring sermons, caring for the congregation as a father not a hireling, to work for achieving the food of eternal life which does not perish, rather than that which perishes, continuous growth in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. The priest must escape from the love of money which is the source of all evil deeds, must be aware of drunkenness and bodily lusts as it darkens the enlightened mind and converts a man to a lustful animal, must avoid envy and strife, unkindness, mockery and pride, so that he does not lose and destroy his service, must avoid gossip, boasting, hypocrisy and pretence, for they are terrible vices which cause problems and make people stumble. The priest must also avoid being double faced, double tongued, and false witnessing, must not frighten or dominate people, but rather, be compassionate and patient, must love God and all creation with all his heart and soul, must possess the virtues of righteousness, mercy, chastity, humbleness, content, contrition, endurance and patience, resembling his master and teacher Christ Jesus in His virtues and good behavior. The priest must not deviate from the true faith in our Lord Jesus Christ who is the foundation of religion and by whom all Christians are saved, must treat the congregation of God with compassion and skill, leading them by the tenderness of Christ, endurance and compassion, must care to acquire the first Christian virtue, which is love, by the sincerity of conscience and true witnessing, must care for the Holy Mysteries, especially the sacrament of Communion which are the Holy Body and Precious Blood of Christ Lord, and watch these treasures and gems as the cherubim guarded the tree of life (Genesis 3:24).

It is quite clear. Who is a priest? A priest is a person who serves, is merciful to others, looks at life as sacrifice, looks beyond an institutional mind set, does not judge but is rather a shepherd, and looks forward to martyrdom. It is our prayer that the church gets more such priests for ministry.

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