July 25, 2010

The Role of the Priest in the Parish and in a Secularized Society

by V. Rev. Petar Jovanovich

The service of the priest is compared to a shepherd in the Holy Bible. In the story of the good shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ teaches what is the nature of the pastor's service and what is the mission of the flock which the pastor serves. The shepherd who is concerned with and takes care of his flock is extolled. A good shepherd watches over his flock, he worries about finding grazing areas, he is not as an employee, he is also worried about the sheep from another flock, and he is ready to give his life for his flock. The shepherd's life belongs totally to his flock, he knows his sheep by name, and they recognize him. Because of a close relationship between the shepherd and his flock, the shepherd doesn't utilize force to drive his flock in front of him rather they follow him. When he releases his sheep, he goes before them and the sheep follow, because they recognize his voice. (John 10:10-18)

To be able to carry out his mission, the priest is called, as the shepherd is concerned with his flock, to be concerned with the spiritual needs of his parishioners. He is called to be concerned with bringing every soul to God, that should be brought to God. That which brings harmony in a parish is love which should reign among the spiritual pastor and his flock, as exemplified by the love and sacrifice described in Christ's story of the good shepherd. Of that love as a unifying tie, for harmony in a parish community, St. Paul the Apostle writes to the Thessalonians, "We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is fitting, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all abounds toward each". (I Thessalonians 1:3)

With respect to the evangelical story, the ideal role of the priest would consist of love, sacrifice, caring and concern for the salvation of all people, because it is necessary according to the words of St. Paul the Apostle, " who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (I Tim 2:4)

The secularization of the world and life presents the greatest obstacle to the priest's service and work for people's salvation. The Holy Gospel mentions in many places selected from the holy apostles that the world exists as two extremes. In His forgiveness sermon, before His crucifixion, the Savior promised His disciples that He will send to help them " the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him." (John 14:17)

The spirit of God's truth is contrary to the spirit of man's truth. The beginning of fleeing from God and His truth began at the time of the first ancestral sin. Because of moral decline, God's likeness in mankind became obscured and the conscience lost of his original and true identity. Life again received fullness of mind when through the Holy Incarnation, God became man so that man could become godlike and take on his likeness.

The world in the form of contemporary society toward the end of the 20th century is no longer opposed in some great and drastic way directly with God as one higher existentialism or power. The time of strict thought of atheistic societies is past. Today's society which offers mankind its secularistic teachings under various names promising people fortunes (such as: humanism, materialism, technology, new world order) is contrary to the God-man Christ who is referred to as "the way, the truth, and the life". (John 14:6)

Within the mind of today's man, it seems there is no room for God in the living Holy Trinity. Usually, people like to say today, there is but one God, meaning some common Supreme Being, but they don't mention one Lord Christ and one Holy Spirit. For Orthodox Christians, only Christ as being true God-man, is a true measure of all things. However, earthly man has his vision of life. This meaning of man's life is in my view, "the existence of one zero". Man mainly leads his life toward food and drink, entertainment, to consume goods, to stay in the race after life's success ... In all this activity, man sets himself as the final value and this is why he acts like the Great Inquisitor from Dostoevski's Brothers Karamazov who forbids the God-man to interfere in his affairs and life.

Today's man spends all his time balancing his "horizontals", without any ascent of the spirit up the steps and ladders of a higher life vertically toward God. For that type of person, Fr. Justin Popovich says that the world and life he "observes from his complaints, his love of sin and lowly perspective," (from the Interpretation of John, p. 115). From the life of today's person, it is seen that he still lives in the domain of the Old Testament, with its lost understanding, of the total awareness, of his two natures, soul and body. Man behaves in his life as though his body existed in parallel with his soul, but often, toward the contemporary philosophy of existentialism and without a soul.

Someone said that in whatever condition the world is, it permeates one's whole life. There is a lot of truth in this. Every person from birth until death lives and is surrounded by constant contact with people about himself. He influences others and they influence him. And an Orthodox believer represents a part of society in which he lives and stands in direct relationship with neighbors and people around him. While for the Orthodox Christian the vision of society represents a community of faithful in Christ as one body, the world has a community in which worth is measured by the interest of people. In relation to the faithful, secular society appears as an Old Testament monster, Leviathan. In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbs wrote a book about political philosophy entitled Leviathan. In it, a picture of society is portrayed which is totally created on the foundation of egotistical interest and struggle for dominance, where every person is an enemy to each other. A question can be asked, but how can man enter into some fortunate and enlightening future in the 21st century driven by the reality of society from Hobb's time.

Orthodox faithful are always tempted to succumb to the influence of the community and society in which they live. Confused with various influences of materialism, to a man of faith it seems that life is somehow divided by his property and, in less of a degree, God's property. For example, one place serves as a place for the life of the soul and the other for the life of the body. Because of diversified religions, quite often with Orthodox people they are confused with the intent and organization of the church hierarchy, from which it first begins: down from the faithful or up from the bishops? The concept of freedom in the Church is mixed up with the concept of certain national or political freedoms. It is very dangerous for the Orthodox youth who succumb to the temptation of imitating the community in which it lives. One could cry watching how in many ways young people harm their bodies. In the name of today's fashion, they rebel against life or of the mentioned freedom, they commit terrible acts on their bodies. For the Orthodox faithful, the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul the Apostle wrote to the Corinthians, "Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore, glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's." (I Cor 6:19-20). Although quite often man's life is reflected in his soul which represents God's likeness in mankind, it is of great importance for the Orthodox faith to understand that he is called to live one undivided life everywhere and in every place. The faithful who are united in the Holy Body of Christ represent the living church wherever they may be: at home, at work, in the Holy Temple, and in the Church hall. St. Gregory Palamas says, "Man is not represented by just the soul or the body rather by both together, which God created in His likeness." (Participants in God's Nature, K.C., p.26)

What then is the role of the priest and how can he as good shepherd protect his flock from harm and negative influences of community and society? In the first place, the priest should not be afraid of the place and society in which he lives. He shouldn't say: I have a bad flock, so what can I do to change something? What farmer when he sows the field is afraid that the birds will eat the seed or that each seed won't sprout? Imagine how difficult was the time before the apostles than is our time! When before his death St. Seraphim of Sarov was asking forgiveness from his friend Fr. Timon, he told him, "Sow on good earth, sow on sand, sow on rocks, sow alongside the road, sow among the bushes. Maybe it will happen that the kernel will grow and bear fruit." (St. Seraphim of Sarov, p. 65)

St. Paul the Apostle in addition recommended how a priest can be successful in parish when he said, "... I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (I Cor 9:22) The same apostle gave advice to his most dear student and coworker Timothy with these words, "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and teaching." (II Tim 4:2) Just as the shepherd opens the gate for the flock to enter, the priest needs to work on the heart of man, so it will open and allow Christ to enter. The Holy Gospel teaches that a good flock is a flock that has a good shepherd who isn't a mercenary. The fruits of one's work are not realized overnight. What is necessary is a lot of patience and work, sometimes as long as 20 years, so that a great harvest is realized in a parish. The parish, as a part of today's society and a concrete reality, presents a challenge to every priest. In our American society, there are two important factors of crucial significance for organizing a parish community. The first factor, parish community. The first factor, is expressed in the material condition and progress of our parish. Prestige in our secular society is expressed by material well-being, which is expensive and large: a large car, a large house, a large parking lot, a large church building, and a large church hall. If in a large church and hall, there is a large faith, then there is nothing wrong with any of this. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself also had rich friends. Of course, it is easier for a priest to achieve the first factor, even though there are many difficulties, but in that we have all more or less contributed for the good. Paralleling building up the material well-being of the church, the priest is faced with a great many problems in building and elevating the spiritual side of life, that is the "living" Church. In this instance, the good example of the life and work of St. Sava can be of help to the Serbian priest, as can our other great spiritual architects, while erecting our churches and monasteries, at the same time were successful to build within them our greatest centers of Orthodox spirituality and living faith.

In the story of the Good shepherd, the Holy Gospel points out that love is the main strength of the true shepherd. That is the driving force behind every spiritual shepherd. Based on experiences of priestly service the best manner is if he approaches people in a friendly manner. A child is easily led by the hand when trust is established. A man who becomes our friend is easier brought to Christ. Zaccheus felt great joy when the Lord said, "I must stay in your home today." (Luk. 19:5) St. Augustine, who lived a very sinful life until 32 years of age, became a Christian only after he was influenced by his friend Pontitias. Christ approached his first apostles as a friend, when He helped them to catch fish from Lake Galilee.

The priest's role additionally not only brings him to lively preaching during worship services God's word in the Holy Temple, but also on every occasion and gathering of people. Priest must minister his flock in many ways: as a teacher, an educator, family counselor. The task of the pastoral work is actually not a knowledge to be acquired, but a life to be lived according to God's will. Once when a person becomes a participant and member, other Holy Body of Christ and begins a liturgical life, he will be selected from the world by the Holy Spirit to enter the heavenly kingdom. Of that community with the God-man Christ, who is the one true measure in the world for everyone and all, St. John Chrysostom says, "For as the bread consisting of many grains is made one... so are we conjoined both with each other and with Christ" (Homily 24, verse 17, p.140)

Being a part of contemporary and secular society, parish is a challenge to every priest. The priest must be aware of the danger to succumb to the influence of the community. It may happen, instead the priest to lead people in his parish, that they might lead him. The stoics teach that one can achieve the happiness if one flows with the river, or in other words, by identifying one's will with the "world will". Orthodoxy does not follow the will of the world. God's will must be always above man's will. Priest must be like the salt, said Christ. "You are like salt for all mankind. But if salt loses its saltiness, there is no way to make it salty again." (Mat.5:13)

Someone once said in a discussion that Orthodoxy should protect itself from the community of godless people with destructive souls as did the Amish group who by their way of life isolated themselves from every civilization. Orthodoxy's nature is not to run away from the world, rather a way of life, constant and without fear to wrestle with the world. Archbishop Anthony Bloom said, "Neither the desert father nor ascetics, separated themselves from the world with the thought of running away from it, in order for man to find a better place of peace and tranquillity, rather it is just a better strategy among many others in worldly battles." (God and Man A. Bloom, p.73) In closing, let us remember Christ's words to His disciples, "In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)

June 18, 1997, day of St. Petar of Korish
San Gabriel, CA