by Fr. Gregory Jensen
This is the third installment of Fr. Gregory’s series of five reflections on the Priesthood.
One sometimes hears from Orthodox Christians that the near universal practice of the Roman Catholic Church to only ordain celibate men to the priesthood reflect the Latin Church’s confusion of monastic life and the priesthood. The Catholic Church may very well have confused monasticism and priesthood but if so I am hard pressed to deny that a similar confusion doesn’t afflict the Orthodox Church.
While for the East this takes a form different than mandatory celibacy for priests, there is nevertheless a clear monastic influence in how the Orthodox Church understands the priesthood. Indeed this monasticization extends not only to the clergy–the vast majority of whom are married–but to the whole of the Church’s life. Examples for the clergy are easy enough to come by–the adoption of beards and long hair and wearing the inner and outer cassock as normal clerical attire are two examples that suggest a monastic model of the priesthood.
In the parish, service are often cut because the ordo reflects not needs of parish life but of monastic life. Some would argue that the Church’s fasting discipline is also more in keeping with monastic than the reality of life “in the world.” This way of referring to non-monastics itself suggests that it monks and nuns rather than the whole of the People of God who fulfill Jesus command to be “in the world” but “not of the world.”
All of this is simply ordinary Orthodox practice. It does not take into account the worrisome phenomenon of parishes that adopt (or worse, impose) aspects of monastic life on the faithful. I am thinking her of parish clergy who require obedience from their parishioners even as we see parishioners who seek a “blessing” from their parish priest for personal matters, great and small.
None of this is to suggest that clergy ought not to have beards or wear cassocks or that the services should be shortened or fasting rules easied. But it is to say that while the form might be different, a monastic model of the priesthood is common in the East as it is in the West.
While not wishing to minimize the importance of monastic life, viewed through such a lens had lead many to see the priesthood largely as a liturgical/sacramental ministry. The Greek Orthodox theologian Metropolitan John Zizioulas in Eucharist, Bishop, Church however offers us a model of the priestly ministry which while not contrary to the liturgical/sacramental model that now dominates our thinking does challenge us to think more deeply–dare I say, more patristically–about the presbyterate.
Based on his reading of the early Church, Zizoulas argues that ordination to the priesthood brings with it two gifts: governance and teaching. To these I would add a third, counseling. We’ll look at each in turn.
By governance, Zizioulas means something rather other than what we might call bureaucracy. To be sure, as I said earlier, ordination to the prebyterate does include administrative duties, but this is deeper than what is usually meant. For example, borrowing from Judaism, St Ignatius of Antioch (Epistle to the Trallians 3.1) refers to the council of presbyters as the “sanhedrin,” suggesting that, like the Jewish sanhedrins, they had not only an executive role but also legislative and judical roles as well.
Reflecting on the Syriac text of the Didascalia Zizoulas writes that the presbyters functioned
“as an advisory body whose purpose was to settle, together with the Bishop, differences arising between members of the Church so that those who repented and were reconciled could then receive forgiveness from the Bishop and . . . participate in the Eucharist” (p. 204).
So in the early Church the administrative duties of the presbyter were intimately associated with the spiritual and liturgical life of the Church. To use a more contemporary phrase, governance pertains to the economia, or “the divine plan for man’s salvation” as it is embodied in the life of the Church.
We see this as well in “the teaching ministry of the Presbyters.” While it was the obligation of the bishop to preach at the celebration of the Eucharist, “Presbyters function[ed] as teachers mainly outside the Eucharist.” Their teaching office included “preparing catechumens” for baptism and “admonishing the faithful through Scripture reading and prayer.” To use contemporary terms, a man was ordained to the priesthood to teach inquires and catechumens and to lead Bible studies.
Taken together, these two ministries not only manifestations of the gift of discernment and the virtue of prudence, but also of counsel. Whether as governor or teacher in the Church, the priest is called by God to help the faithful come to know and do the will of God in their lives. (As an aside, this is why the imitation of monastic obedience in the parish is so dangerous; it is a substitute for the proper obedience that should be practiced. More on that another time.) It is no wonder, as Zizioulas argues, that the presbyter eventually becomes the principle celebrant of the the Eucharist; he is not only closely associated with the bishop in the life of the Church, he is man who (ideally at least) has the trust and respect as a man of great wisdom and discernment (see Zizoulas, pp. 208-217).
For our purpose though what is important is this, it is not leading the Eucharist celebration that confers authority on the presbyter. It is rather his proven ability to govern, teach and counsel that results in his being entrusted with the celebration of the Eucharist in the bishop’s absence; it is the character and gifts of the man which are primary. Put another way, ordination is not so much the source of the priest’s authority in the Church but the confirmation of the work of God in a man’s life that makes the exercise of that authority not only possible but fruitful.
With this in mind I will in my next post, offer some suggests for the Church’s own discernment of who does, and more importantly does not, have a vocation to the priesthood.
Until then, and as always, your comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome they are actively sought.