How well do we know who priests are and what do we know about their ministry? Where did it originate from, has it become obsolete? Who can become a servant of God? Finally, do we really need a mediator between God and people like this, if Christ Himself became such a mediator 2000 years ago?
We chose ten questions about the priesthood, which are often asked by non-believers or those who have doubts. Questions which not every faithful Christian can answer. Fr. Sergius Pravdolubov, a holder of a masters degree in theology, the professor of The Moscow Theological Academy and the rector of the Holy Trinity Church in Troitsa-Golenistchevo village, will answer these questions.
1. Who was the first Orthodox priest?
It is unknown. However, the Book of Acts mentions the “church presbyters” in Ephesus, who were not bishops like Timothy, the disciple of Apostle Paul. In the first centuries of Christianity, there were also chorepiscopus or “country bishops”. Country bishops and presbyters differed slightly.
2. What is “a priest after the order of Melchizedek”, and why does this excerpt refer to Christ? Who is Melchizedek?
Melchizedek was “the king of Salem” and was also a priest (Genesis 14:18, Psalms 110:4). His origin is absolutely unknown and unclear. Salem is often considered to be Jerusalem. But it can also be interpreted as an unlocalized region which has unclear and probably Heavenly, origin. This symbolic obscurity of the place and origin is used in relation to the Lord Jesus Christ, Who embodies God, the King and the Priest in one Person.
3. Why do we need priests?
Do we need any mediator between God and the people after the coming of Christ, if He is a Mediator Himself? This is what the Protestants proclaim and continue to protest against the institute of priesthood for both the Orthodox and Catholic Christians. However, they forget one thing: Christ could solve this issue and cancel resolutely this “cult of priests”. He could pass everything to simple people and the heads of the families all over the world. Nevertheless, Christ blessed to remain this ministry, without which Christianity would soon exhaust and fade. God knows better the reasons why we need priests and the Church with the Holy Sacraments.
4. If Christ calls the faithful people part of the “royal priesthood”, then why are only special people allowed to celebrate The Holy Sacraments?
In the words of Holy Martyr Pavel Florensky, this is the argument of the “protesting priests”.
If someone is in danger of dying such as a new born who can die in the hospital then any Orthodox Christian can baptize that person. In this case the short version of Baptism is performed, with water being poured over the child three times while the required prayers are read. The Sacrament of Baptism has taken place.
Only after the child has recovered, a priest will anoint the child with the Holy Chrism in church. According to the life stories of saints, up until the 10th century a layman with a blessing of the priest could take the Holy Communion from only in case of emergency, and he give the Communion to another person. However, the Church, in which the Holy Spirit lives, took a decision to stop this practice and to forbid it in the next millennium.
5. What is the origin of the Sacrament of Holy Orders (Ordination)?
It originated from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself and His Apostles. Apostle Paul asked his disciple Timothy,
“Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” (2 Timothy 1:6).
If this practice did not fully correspond the words of Christ, then Apostle Paul and other Apostles would have certainly rejected and forbidden it. The early Christians did not leave any written commentaries on the issue, as it was clear for them. While our goal is to preserve this Apostolic and Holy Tradition.
6. Why are priests allowed to forgive our sins? Who give them this right? It is the right that belongs to God alone.
Our Lord Jesus Christ gave this right to the Apostles. This event is clearly mentioned in the Holy Gospel: “And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. (John 20:22-23) Bishops were ordained through the laying on of the apostles’ hands and received this right and those in turn thought ordination passed down this right to priests. Everything is very clear and simple.
7. How do people become priests? Who can become a priest?
Any person, who is “the husband of one wife”, who is kind and passionate by nature, who has necessary education and has gone through the practice of prayerful and ascetic life, can become a priest.
8. Do priests make any vows? Or do they have any specific prayer rule or restrictions?
A man of the age of 30 can become a priest (according to the canonical rules). At the age of 25, one can become a deacon. Exceptions are possible (for example, Bishop Timothy, the disciple of Apostle Paul), but only exceptions – not the rules. A priest must be the husband of one wife in the full sense of these words. A young man who is going to become a priest is not allowed to have carnal relations with a woman. It is a vital rule that is quite difficult to fulfill, but it is very essential. It is not obsolete, so we need to follow it and to explain children that otherwise it will be impossible to become a priest since their childhood. This is how our grandfathers and fathers taught us. And this is how I taught my own children. In my opinion, we must be firm in this question until the very death, just like in our faith – until martyrdom.
The same concerns the issue of the second marriage. It is forbidden. Either you serve as a priest, or leave this ministry if you are going to get married for the second time. This is the source of sorrows for the clergy, but we cannot reject this principle. Otherwise, the Church will fall with the course of time, and we ourselves will be blame for that.
Priests do have a prayer rule, just like laypeople do have one: you need to read the morning and evening prayers. Before every liturgy, you have to read the Prayers before the Holy Communion adding certain specific prayers for priests.
9. Is it true that for an Orthodox Christian layperson the word of the priest is the law? What does it mean to have “have despised the word of a Priest”? What is the extent of the priests influence?
Unfortunately, not all lay person and not all priests realize the fearsome power of the weapon that is the word. Although from personal practice it is known how dangerous and scary it can be. Despised would mean to stamp on. This is something that should not be done. If you are not ready to do as the priest says then do not ask since no one has taken away your freedom to do as you wish. But if you did ask then listen. This is the concept is more appropriate in relation elders. Saint Seraphim (Romanstov † 1976) would tell my elderly father:
“Please, dear priests, try not to be too specific and force someone to do something but instead quote a saint or a recommendation of another priest. Because if you end up being to specific and demand too much and the person you tell it to does not obey then he will face difficulties, hardships and it will not be to his benefit. Hold yourself back from commanding other.”
These are very wise and very practical words.
Most priest do not realize the extent of their power. Saint John Chrysostom best describes this in his words about priesthood and Saint Siluan the Athonite mentions the same topic.
10. Who is a spiritual father and how does one become one?
A priest can become someone’s spiritual father by default and because a person goes to certain church. The church that a person goes to and the priest that he confesses to can become his spiritual father. If a person is still searching for one then prayer would be the answer. God will send you the right spiritual father whom a person can understand, more responsive and someone who leads by Christ’s example. In Ancient times, the elder and wise priests were chose to be spiritual fathers. Here in Moscow we have two spiritual fathers for all of the clergy. As priests were also need to confess on a regular basis. A spiritual father is not required to be an elder or a saint. It is only required for him to be humble and simple, without being prideful over his parishioners, one who prays and fasts. Overall it should a regular and simple priest and thank God that we still have plenty of such priests.