Christians make a profound ontological claim. Joining St. Paul, we say that “it is no longer I who live but Christ (i.e. the God who is the Logos and Creator) who lives in me!” (Galatians 2:20)
Being a Christian is more than a change of clothes, or even a change of heart… it is the creation of a new and godly man. This new man – the one that every Christian claims to have become – is completely dedicated to holiness, the worship of God, and ministry to his neighbor.
Because I am the Vocations Director of the UOC-USA and because of my work with the Good Guys Wear Black website and podcast, I get to talk to a lot of people about vocations. Almost all of them want to talk about priests and the priesthood. That is wrongheaded; every Christian is called to serve, every Christian is called to be an evangelist, and every Christian serves as part of the royal priesthood (Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:9; Dionysius the Areopagite, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Chapter 2)
I have talked before about what happens when you put a soldier’s uniform on someone without first changing their identity (remember: it’s not about skills, it’s about a change of self) and you know from reading the news (if not from personal experience) what happens when we put a cassock and vestments on someone who has not completely given themselves over to holiness … is it any different for lay members of the royal priesthood?
Again, it’s not about skills. A priest can give good homilies, bake nice bread (my personal specialty), serve the liturgy with a strong voice, and know the services inside out… but if he has not surrendered His life to Christ, if he has not humbled himself and taken up the cross, if he has not completely given himself over to the love of God and neighbor … then he is a dangerous charlatan and mercenary. Again, you have seen the damage uncommitted and compromised priests do to their parishes, the faith of their parishioners, and to their communities. It is disastrous, and part of our work at the seminary is to protect our parishes from such dangers. Moreover, it is the duty of every priest (and especially me, the first among sinful priests) to make sure that our “old man” does not wreak damage among the communities we serve. Good priests take this very seriously because the stakes are high.
But I ask again, Is it any different for the rest of the royal priesthood? What happens when we have parishioners that have not given themselves to holiness? Parishioners that have not submitted themselves to the Gospel? What happens when we have lay leaders that have not put to death their old man so that Christ can live them? In most parishes, lay leaders – like priests – are selected based on their skills and their willingness to serve. But is this enough? Is it enough for a president to have leadership experience, a treasurer to know the books, the choir director to know how to sing, the chanter know the tones, or for the subdeacon to know how to serve? Lay people can offer all kinds of wonderful skills and service to the parish… but as with the priest, if they have not completely given themselves over to the love of God and neighbor… then they, too, are dangerous charlatans and they, too, do damage to their parishes, the faith of their fellow parishioners, and to their communities. As with priestly hypocrisy, I have no doubt that you can think of examples of parishes that have been harmed by technically skilled but spiritually malformed lay leaders. Priestly failures are almost always more obvious, but I am willing to say that the spiritual immaturity of lay leaders has contributed as much to the decline of our parishes as have the (many) failings of our priests. But what institution plays the functionally equivalent role of the seminary (and bishops/ordination) in the formation and selection of our lay leaders? The system we have now allows many people to offer their talents (which is awesome and necessary), but it also gives space for antagonists, narcissists, and other unrepentant sinners (and we are all sinners!) to wreak havoc. As with dysfunctional priests, these may be a tiny minority, but they still do tremendous harm. Good laymen – and especially lay leaders – take this very seriously because the stakes are high.
It may seem that I am preaching to the choir. Perhaps I am. The lay leaders of the parishes I have served have taken their calling seriously (glory to God). If you are reading this, the odds are that you take your calling serious, as well.
But here is my point: we do right to hold our priests up to a high standard. We should expect our clergy to be more than just competent at doing priestly things; we should expect them to be living and growing in Christ.
But if this is true for priests, then it also true for every single member of the “royal priesthood” (of which priests themselves are a part); we should expect them to be more than just competent at doing their assigned and chosen tasks; we should expect them to be living and growing in Christ.
God has called every single one of us, clergy and layman alike, to be apostles and evangelists to our families, our friends, and our communities. We fail them and Him when we do it hypocritically or as mercenaries. Let us, the royal priesthood, rededicate ourselves to our high calling!
Fr. Anthony Perkins (based on a homily given on 10/9/2016 at St. Mary Protection of the Holy Theotokos (Покрова) Cathedral in Allentown PA
The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (Chapter 2; Topic 3; Section 5)
Yet it is not possible to hold, conjointly, qualities thoroughly opposed, nor that a man who has had a certain fellowship with the One should have divided lives, if he clings to the firm participation in the One; but he must be resistless and resolute, as regards all separations from the uniform. This it is which the teaching of the symbols reverently and enigmatically intimates, by stripping the proselyte, as it were, of his former life, and discarding to the very utmost the habits within that life, makes him stand naked and barefoot, looking away towards the west, whilst he spurns, by the aversion of his hands, the participations in the gloomy baseness, and breathes out, as it were, the habit of dissimilarity which he had acquired, and professes the entire renunciation of everything contrary to the Divine likeness. When the man has thus become invincible and separate from evil, it turns him towards the east, declaring clearly that his position and recovery will be purely in the Divine Light, in the complete separation from baseness; and receiving his sacred promises of entire consort with the One, since he has become uniform through love of the truth. Yet it is pretty evident, as I think, to those versed in Hierarchical matters, that things intellectual acquire the unchangeableness of the Godlike habit, by continuous and persistent struggles towards onem, and by the entire destruction and annihilation of things contrary. For it is necessary that a man should not only depart from every kind of baseness, but he must be also bravely obdurate and ever fearless against the baneful submission to it. Nor must he, at any time, become remiss in his sacred love of the truth, but with all his power persistently and perpetually be elevated towards it, always religiously pursuing his upward course, to the more perfect mysteries of the Godhead.
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. (1899). The Works of Dionysius the Areopagite. (J. Parker, Trans.) (Vol. 2, pp. 84–85). London; Oxford: James Parker and Co.