by George Benjamin Gapen
The current shortage of priests has resulted in the recruiting of candidates. Since the parish priest has a unique role in such efforts, this seems an appropriate time and place to remind you of a few things.
First, a vocation to the Holy Priesthood is something you cannot produce. Despite intuitions and wishes you cannot impose a vocation where God has not seen fit to grant it. It degrades Divine Providence and the Priesthood to suppose that Ordination can be added as a sort of ‘nice touch’ to God’s Will and plans. Our vocation is to Sainthood – and only occasionally and derivatively to the Priesthood. Though you may be so perfectly suited to Holy Orders that it is impossible for you to really separate sanctity and the Priesthood, this is not true of every man. “No”, “Not now” or “I must pray about it” are perfectly acceptable answers which you must have humility to accept graciously.
The holy ascetic, Schema-monk John the Fingerless (a disciple of Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky*) was so threatened by the prospect of Ordination and the loss of his true podvig that he cut off a finger — and so became canonically ineligible.
Second, though you cannot produce a vocation to Priesthood, your attitude and actions inevitably effect how others view it. This effect will be positive or negative and may (perhaps decisively) influence a man whom God is calling to the Priesthood. Here, as is so often the case, actions are more important than words – and noble attempts more significant than conspicuous successes. If you resent your congregation and their expectations, if you are always preoccupied with matters of finance and attendance, and if you neglect the Church (the People of God) – then your real attitude is all too apparent. Despite rationalizations, you are telling us:
“This is a thankless job which most do not appreciate (What a yardstick!) and, if I cannot do what I was Ordained to do (A Satanic suggestion), I must give my time and energy to peripheral matters”.
Who would be attracted by such sentiments, and who would be inspired by such a pitiful plight — a masochist? On the other hand, if God has granted you the Grace to recognize the Holy Priesthood as the most important thing in your life; if you are joyful in it and do not hide that joy; if your personal spiritual life and development is enhanced by the Priesthood — then you are already recruiting future priests in the most direct and realistic way. If one of your parishioners offers himself as a candidate for the Holy Priesthood, and his friends cannot imagine why, he should be able to reply:
“If you knew Father (N), you would understand.”
Third, the Priesthood is given to a man for his own salvation. Perhaps a man has asked,
“Should I be a priest?”
— and your gut feeling is that he should not. How you elect to handle the situation falls within the realm of pastoral theology and lies beyond the scope of this article: but responsible counsel cannot be given hastily, cannot be determined by your personal feelings, and must be constructive.
“I must pray about it” is, again, not only an acceptable reply but, perhaps, the only one that is ever really appropriate. Remember that your responsibility is not only to future congregations to whom he may minister, but to the man before you. God’s winnowing process will continue should you answer in the affirmative, and great causes and commitments have more than once made great Saints.
Finally, I would remind you that the Church recognizes but one Priest: Jesus Christ. It is He who ministers invisibly through you (hence the pious custom of standing slightly to one side of the Holy Table). If some priests like to be looked at, and others like to be looked to, the worthy priest seeks not to be seen at all. His unyielding attempts to cooperate with Grace and rid himself of all obstructions to its workings render him transparent. And those who look in his direction do not find him – but Christ. So the worthy priest is one through whom Christ can show us Himself and prepare us to recognize His voice. Then should He ask:
“Who can We send and who will go for Us?”
men will respond:
“Here am I, send me.”
*Paisius Velichkovsky: Abbot of the Ascension Monastery of Niamets and the Sekoul Monastery of St. John the Forerunner in Moldavia – he translated the Philokalia and the book of St. Isaac the Syrian into Slavonic.