by Fr. Gregory Jensen
This is the fourth installment of Fr. Gregory’s series of five reflections on the Priesthood.
Having outlined the vocation and the work of the priest, I want in these next two posts to sketch out what I see as the foundation of a vocation to the priesthood. As I said in an earlier post, the priest is called not primarily to a liturgical service–though Divine Liturgy, the other sacraments and the cycle of service does represent an important and essential part of his ministry–but to the tripartite ministry of governance, teaching and counseling.
Though not dissimilar to how the terms are understood in contemporary American culture, in the Church governance is NOT a form of bureaucracy, teaching is NOT about preparing someone to pass a theological exam, and counseling is NOT about adaption to societal expectations even if that society is Christian. Within the Church, the tripartite ministry of the priest is nothing other than the work of reconciling men and women to Christ and, in Christ, to each other and themselves.
Immediately we should see why the popular understandings of governance, teaching and counseling are attractive. It isn’t simply that they are objective, that they only require technical competency of the priest. Their real “beauty” is that precisely because they are objective and technical, they allow the priest to remain anonymous to those he serves. A corollary to this is that a technical or functional understanding of the Christian life allows the faithful to remain hidden not only from the priest, but from themselves and, ultimately (if futilely) from Christ.
The sign that the priest (and so, the congregation) has not transcended a purely technical approach to ministry is that he is rigid in his dealings with others. He may also be manipulative, bullying or sly with others. Whatever form it takes, however, underneath it all, the priest is motivated not by love but by fear.
The exact content will be different from fearful priest to fearful priest and need not concern us here. Suffice it to say that whatever maybe his rationale–dare I say his justification–the ministry of the fearful priest it is rooted in a lack of what the Apostle John calls “perfect love” (see 1 John 4:18). This brings me to my central concern in this series of posts: How do we form men not simply in the technical competencies needed for the priesthood, but in the perfect love that the priesthood–and indeed the Christian life–requires? Before I answer, let me offer a brief word on two factors that I think fosters a merely technical approach to priestly ministry.
The first factor is the very richness of the Orthodox Church‘s tradition. Theological, spiritual, liturgical, and ascetical there is simply so much there that a priest can be overwhelmed. How, he wonders, do I know what to pick? He may ask himself
“How do I apply this tradition to my own life and the life of my parish?”
Even if he isn’t fearful, such a broad and deep variety of options means facing a equally broad range of possible standards in light of which he can judge himself (or other judge him as) a failure.
Much easier then to intentionally or unintentionally narrow the tradition to a few elements and hold to them as the fixed standard. Even if it is not so at the beginning of his ministry, rigidity and defensiveness can, and often do, emerge. The emergent, and unintentional, character is important here. While I would not rule out that there are men who come to the priesthood seeking from personal power and self-aggrandizement, typically the manipulation or bullying that we see in some priests is itself a reaction to the limitations of a rigidly fixed approach to the Christian life.
A second, and more remote, factor that leads to a technical and not a vocational approach to ministry is the adoption (at least in America) of a professionalized model of seminary education borrowed from mainline Protestantism. Don’t mistake me, I do think that priests need good, professional skills in areas such as preaching, administration, teaching, pastoral counseling and spiritual direction. But these need to flow out of and support the priest’s vocational identity; these skills are not ends in themselves.
Unfortunately, and at the risk of over generalizing, based as it is in a non-sacramental understanding of ordination, Protestant seminaries have tended to adopt uncritically the techniques and values of academic theology, contemporary psychology and increasingly marketing. All of these disciplines have something to offer the priest. Too easily however we substitute mere technical mastery in these areas (and in the spiritual life) for sound a human formation.
If, as said above, the priest must be a man of perfect love how is it that we go about helping him become what he must be? Mindful that in the strict sense no one loves perfectly, what can be done to help a candidate preparing for holy orders live in such a way that he is
“a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of the human race (Program of Priestly Formation, Fifth Edition. Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, p. 30)?
In my next post I will look with you at the answer to this question. To anticipate, I will borrow from the US Catholic bishops’ document, Program of Priestly Formation, and the argument they make that to grow in perfect love priests need a sound
“human formation” that focuses on the “three-fold process of self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-gift—and all of this in faith.”
This is more than a psychological or moral process; it is an ascetical process meant to help the future priest become evermore
“perfectly conformed to the perfect humanity of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh” (Program of Priestly Formation, p. 33).
Until then, and as always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, they are actively sought.