Presbyter is, in the Bible, a synonym for bishop (episkopos), referring to a leader in local Church congregations. In modern usage, it is distinct from bishop and synonymous with priest. Its literal meaning in Greek (presbyteros) is “elder.”
Presbyters, or elders, are mentioned very early in the life of the Church in the Book of Acts and the Epistles. It is evident that in each place a Christian community developed, elders were appointed by the Apostles to pastor the people. As time passed, presbyters were referred to in the short form of the word as “prests”, then as “priests”, in full view of the fact that the Old Covenant priesthood had been fulfilled in Christ and that the Church is corporately a priesthood of believers.
Priests are the leaders of the local communities of believers in mission, parishes, hospitals, educational institutions and the armed forces. Their heroic, sacrificial lives place the presence of Christ and His holy Church in the midst of the world, the nation, and the local society. They bring the fullness of the Gospel to their preaching. They preach, teach, make disciples, train others up in the faith so that they may evangelize the world and build up the Body of Christ.
As St. Paul says of himself,
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more… I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
1 Corinthians 9:19, 22-23
This is the essence of the priesthood: To win souls to Christ, to preach the Gospel, to teach the Orthodox faith, to sanctify the faithful through the Holy Mysteries and spiritual direction, and to sacrifice themselves in love as Christ sacrificed Himself for the Church. The priest was not understood as an intermediary between God and the people, nor as a dispenser of grace. It was the role of the priest to be the presence of Christ in the Christian community, laying down his life for his flock, as did Christ. And in the very capacity of being the presence of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ, the priest was to shepherd the flock of God.
Through the Mystery of Holy Orders, an ordination of a deacon to the priesthood is performed by the bishop. The priest is ordained after the Cherubic Hymn and Great Entrance so that he may, on the day of his ordination, participate in the consecration of the Holy Gifts at the altar.
A priest ministers to the people of God in the stead of the bishop. This includes:
- Preach the Gospel;
- Celebrating the Divine Liturgy, and other liturgical services;
- Teach and disciple those souls desiring to advance in the spiritual life and discipleship;
- Impart the Body and Blood of Christ to the faithful;
- Celebrating baptisms, marriages, funerals and other Mysteries of the Church.
Usually, a priest will
- Pastor a parish, including pastoral ministry and preaching
- Hear confessions. In some jurisdictions, this is allowable immediately; in others, being a confessor is something a bishop invites a priest to undertake.
It should be noted that a priest’s conduct does not inhibit the grace of God acting through them. Christ is the one who gives grace, merely using his ministers as ‘conduits’ to the people.