Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
Icon from the monastery of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Syria

Christmas Letter for the Year of the Priests

June19, 2009 – June 19, 2010

by His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios III

From Gregorios, servant of Jesus Christ,
by the grace of God, Patriarch of Antioch and of All the East,
of Alexandria and of Jerusalem,
to their lordships, the bishops, members of the venerable Holy Synod,to our dear priests,
and to our sons and daughters in Jesus Christ,
clergy and people, called holy, and to all those who are called
by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their and our God,
“grace be unto you and peace from our God and Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
(I Corinthians 1: 3)

“Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110: 4; Hebrews 5: 6)

“Thou art a priest forever!” so the Church tells the newly ordained priest and thus liturgical hymns address Christ on the day of his glorious birth, Christmas day, “Thou art a priest forever.” Saint Peter says, “Christ is the bishop of our souls.” (1 Peter 2: 25) Icons, like that shown on the envelope of this letter or above the bishop’s throne, represent Christ the High Priest dressed in priestly and pontifical robes.

The Feast of the Nativity is the feast of that High Priest, who alone enters the Holy of Holies, there to accomplish our salvation and redemption.

That is why we wished this Christmas Letter to have priests as its subject, since this year is dedicated to them.

We offer our cordial Christmas good wishes to all those who participate with us in this great gift of holy priesthood, our venerable brother bishops and our beloved sons, the priests. This grace gives the priest an authority above that of angels, as Saint John Chrysostom says [1] . “His soul ought to be purer than the very sunbeams, in order that the Holy Spirit may not leave him desolate. [2] ” What a level of purity the priestly soul must attain to be able to welcome the Holy Spirit!

We offer also our Christmas wishes to the wives of our priests and deacons, and especially also to those fathers and mothers who have given, or will give their children to holy priestly service.

May this Year for Priests be an opportunity for us to become holy, as our liturgical prayers invite us, “Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord!” (Isaiah 52: 11) “Be ye holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1: 16)

This letter was written at different moments (during the months of July, August, September, October and November) in Lebanon, Syria, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic and the United States of America. Whilst writing, I felt in personal, spiritual, paternal relations with my brothers and sons, the priests; I thought of them, their ministry, mission, problems… So this letter is the fruit of that communion with my priests, whom I carry always in my heart, thoughts, journeys and prayers, especially during the Divine Liturgy.

Year for Priests

His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, proclaimed on 19 June 2009 the Year for Priests, which lasts until 19 June 2010. He wished to mark thereby the anniversary of the heavenly birth (1859) of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney, patron of all parish priests. The goal of this year is to strengthen involvement among priests through inner renewal, for a more profound witness in today’s world.

Our Holy Synod took place before the proclamation of the Year for Priests. However, this important theme was not neglected. The Synod in fact began with a sermon given by our brother, Most Rev. Mgr. Issam Darwish, entitled, “The Priest in Saint Paul.” The Synod set up an ad hoc commission, presided over by our brother, Most Rev. Mgr. Salim Ghazal, to animate the year.

In addition, the Synod made the following recommendations:

  1. The Patriarch to address in the name of the Fathers of the Synod a letter to all Melkite priests, on the subject of their identity, role and mission
  2. To present the venerable Father Beshara Abou Mrad, Salvatorian monk, as a model parish priest
  3. To prepare a clergy congress
  4. To publish bulletins on the topic of priestly vocations
  5. To mount a strategy and plan, especially among pastoral movements, secondary schools, and universities to invite men to study philosophy and theology for the priesthood
  6. To finalize precise, well-defined criteria for selecting celibate or married eparchial priests and hieromonks.

The object of this present letter is to invite each and all of us to take care to live this year as if it were the first year of our priesthood. Let everyone embark upon an individual program, with all requisite spiritual exercises and readings on the subject of priesthood to animate this year. Every bishop is invited to create a priestly atmosphere in his own life and eparchy.

As this Year for Priests is the year of my own priestly golden jubilee, I am delighted to be writing this letter in collaboration with my brother bishops, the pastors of our Church, with a view to experiencing a beautiful jubilee year.

My congratulations go to those among my brother bishops and priests who are also keeping this year as their sacerdotal jubilee year, though indeed, every year of priesthood should be called a jubilee, as it is a cause for joy, happiness and gladness.

This letter for this year represents a unique, happy opportunity to speak to our beloved priests, (who number about four hundred – some belonging to eparchies and others to religious orders) as though we, Patriarch and bishops, were all speaking to them with but one mouth, message and meaning and with the love of Christ, the great High Priest, and saying to them, as our predecessor, Maximos V, liked to say to priests and seminarians preparing themselves for priesthood, “you are the apple of my eye.”

Though I may habitually address everyone with the phrase, “I love you,” yet with all the more reason do I say to each one of my brother priests, “I love you.” My brother bishops, your pastors, are also using this very expression and telling you, “We love you.”

We are speaking to our brother priests and (since the priest is the parish’s bishop) to one another, for we cannot be faithful to our episcopal, pastoral duty without our priests. We cannot serve our people without our priests; we cannot be pastors of our parishes without our priests; we cannot give our people spiritual food, the Word of God, the Eucharist and other sacraments without our priests.

Much has already been written about priests – by the Church Fathers, in church documents, especially those of Vatican II and the post-synodal papal documents. Yet this year still more books will be written and talks given on the subject of priests; all of them will serve as spiritual nourishment for our brothers and sons, the priests. Many sermons will be given on priests, priesthood and the priestly vocation during the whole course of this year.

This letter of the Patriarch and their lordships, the bishops of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church, bears a very special character. In this letter, we wish to sketch out the image of priests and their duties according to our Melkite Greek Catholic Eastern spiritual heritage with all its characteristics. Much of that has already been set out in the letter Orientale Lumen of the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II.

For our part, we would like to be able to put together a directory of our Church’s pastoral work this year and for it to be spiritual fruit for this Year for Priests and lasting priestly, spiritual nourishment and light in the life of our Church’s beloved priests.

This is a letter to Greek Catholic priests in the third millennium, in this Eastern Arab world and wherever throughout the whole world the Church is present, through our eparchies, parishes and priests in Europe, in North and South America, in Australia and New Zealand.

This letter will be based especially on the examples of our priestly predecessors, among whom is the saintly Curé d’Ars from the West, and a priest, the Servant of God, Father Beshara Abou Mrad from the East. Though based on the spirituality of yesterday’s priests, the letter is addressed to priests today and takes into account the demands of priestly life in current circumstances. However, if Christ, as Saint Paul says, is “the same, yesterday, today and forever, [3] ” so the priest carries in his personality, spirituality and activity, apostolate and service, basic, permanent features of the personality of Jesus Christ, God and Man, himself the great High Priest forever and the bishop of our souls.

That is the basic framework of this Synodal Letter addressed to the beloved priests of our Church today.

(i) Spirituality of Eastern priests through the Divine Liturgies of Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Basil the Great

The spirituality of Eastern Priests is characterized especially by celebration of the Divine Liturgy, which is both priests’ daily spiritual nourishment, food for their pastoral work, and that of the faithful, for whose salvation and sanctification they have been ordained priests, to guide and love them. No-one can give what he does not possess: so in the Divine Liturgy, the soul of the priest is charged with divine grace, which, as our liturgical texts say, heals the infirm and completes the imperfect, and has called the priest to sacerdotal service.

The holy Curé d’Ars was characterized by exemplary, daily celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist. In our East, again, Father Beshara Abou Mrad was similarly characterized. Moreover, each priest can feel that his day is hallowed through daily celebration of the Divine Liturgy, whence he draws what he needs to accompany his parishioners, nourishing them daily through super-substantial bread and spiritual drink, and guiding them into the fertile pastures of the Holy Gospel’s teachings, through preaching, direction, pastoral work, friendship and continuous contact, all ways of holy pastoral service.

Dear brothers and sons! let us, bishops and priests, walk together in the garden of the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. This is a very exalted priestly school, well adapted to enable holy priests to graduate from it with first-class degrees in knowledge of the Holy Spirit, as specialists in the divine economy of salvation, possessing Holy Wisdom and full of the diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit, equipped to help the needs of the holy faithful in Christ Jesus.

This journey is a spiritual meditation on everything that the prayers of the Divine Liturgy inspire in us and recommend to us.

The preparatory prayers comprise: the veneration of icons, the prayer said before the holy doors, the prayers for donning the holy priestly adornments and the preparation of the gifts, called the proskomedia. These preparations are of great importance. They are the entrance prayers and the introduction to the holy celebration. They put the priest into a suitable atmosphere of awe, reverence and metanoia before the holy icons of Christ, the Mother of God and the saints who are all participants with the priest in his service, overseeing the Liturgy and the celebrant. These prayers and actions are part of the priest’s necessary, gradual, spiritual preparation to enable him to pass from earthly, worldly cares and enter into the spirit. So the priest should not in the least neglect this very beautiful introduction to entering into the Holy of Holies.

A very important prayer in this preparatory part runs thus: “Lord, stretch forth thy hand from thy sanctuary on high and strengthen me for this thine appointed service: that standing uncondemned before Thy dread altar, I may celebrate the bloodless ministry. For thine is the power and the glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.”

Let us not forget the veneration of icons: kissing icons, kissing the altar are expressions of this great desire of serving the Divine Liturgy. That is what we do when we meet a lovable person and give that person the kiss of love (charity).

The priest also prepares for the celebration of the Liturgy through the prayers that accompany his donning the sacerdotal vestments and that really express most profoundly his spiritual preparation for daily, pastoral work and the charisms necessary for him to be able really to accomplish his priestly service in the best way.

In fact he is happy and content in his priesthood: that is expressed in the prayer of robing, “My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He hath clothed me in the garment of salvation, and with the vesture of gladness hath He covered me; He hath placed a crown upon me as on a bridegroom, and He hath adorned me as a bride with comeliness”.

It is the Lord who really accompanies and supports the priest, enabling him to walk in the divine commandments and guide the parish in their observance.

The prayers for donning the priestly vestments, to be said by the priest with great devotion as he robes in quiet meditation and joy, allude to these feelings and spiritual guidance.

Preparation of the gifts or proskomedia

This ritual peculiar to the Byzantine or Greek rite enables the priest to enter into the mystery of the divine economy and communion of saints and into a very personal relationship with his children, the sons and daughters of his parish. Here the priest prepares the Lamb, who bears the sins of the world and helps the priest in the ministry of reconciliation, penitence and confession. Then he commemorates the Holy Virgin and the angels, prophets and all the degrees of saints. He commemorates the living and departed of his parish, each by name, according to lists brought him by the faithful. So he is like the good shepherd who knows the names of the children of his parish and remembers all before God, asking for everyone earthly and heavenly good things and grace from the Lord. We note with great regret that some priests give the task of preparing the gifts to a sacristan or a layperson.

Liturgy of the Word

In this part of the Liturgy we find special prayers for priests and deacons in their relations with the bishop. They are his priests and he is their father. These prayers for priests are repeated four times in the Liturgy. The priest prays for all categories of his parish. How beautiful it is when the priest prays ardently for his parish, as if he were visiting them in their homes and seeing something of their situation and understanding it! That is in fact my patriarchal feeling when I pray, as if I carried at heart, as if I were in relation with, all our Melkite Greek Catholic daughters and sons throughout the world. Thus liturgical prayer and Divine Liturgy remain a marvelous meeting-place for the priest with his parish.

I would like to note here the prayer of the Little Entrance after the procession with the Gospel and before the entry into the sanctuary. How beautiful it would be if we sometimes prayed this prayer aloud! In fact in this prayer, the priest asks God, “O Master, Lord our God, who hast appointed in the heavens ranks and hosts of angels and archangels unto the service of thy glory: with our entry do thou cause the entry of the holy angels, serving and glorifying thy goodness with us. For unto thee is due all glory, honor, and worship: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” This reference to the angels is a call to the priest to understand the importance of his activity, of his ministry, and of what must distinguish this service: awe, majesty, beauty, fitness, and even grandeur in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, which the priest celebrates and concelebrates with the angels in heaven. He participates in the heavenly Liturgy and in his turn celebrates that Liturgy on earth, while the angels accompany him and help him to celebrate in the best way.

The idea of participation between angels and priest is repeated in the prayer that precedes the singing of the hymn Agios o Theos (Trisagion.) In fact this whole hymn is a description of what the angels do during the celebration and how they join the priest and people. In the same way, the priest and people join the angels, together forming a single choir, as they sing the hymn, Agios o Theos. Here the cosmic aspect of the celebration of the Divine Liturgy can be clearly seen. The priest is the essential celebrant in it, being commissioned to perform the Liturgy in the greatest beauty.

In fact there are very many prayers of the Byzantine Greek Divine Liturgy that highlight the importance of the priest’s work in the Liturgy and the importance of prayer for the people and the people’s participation in the celebration.

That is what we find in the prayer of preparation for reading and hearing the Holy Gospel, which is a prayer shared between priest and people. The same could be said of the first litany of the faithful, in which there is a petition for the people and for the priest, who must give witness with good conscience, in order to offer the sacrifice and make supplication for the people. In the same way, the second litany of the faithful again contains a petition for the people, while the priest asks for his soul and body to be sanctified, so as to be best placed to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.

Following that, the magnificent, great sacerdotal prayer preceding the Great Entrance with the gifts from the table of the proskomedia to the Holy Table is really a priestly prayer par excellence. (In it can be seen a parallel with the little prayer said before the Holy Doors.) In that prayer, Jesus is the High Priest; he is the chief celebrant who “offers and is offered, who both receives and is distributed.” The priest is clothed in the grace of priesthood, so as to participate with Christ himself in the celebration. It is very important for the priest to meditate during that prayer on the provisions he must make for his daily celebration of the Divine Liturgy.

Moreover we see the people themselves participating in the priesthood of Christ and joining the priest to form with the bishop one single, magnificent cortege. Indeed, priest and people represent the cherubim who celebrate the celestial Divine Liturgy. How beautiful is the hymn sung by the people, “We who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, let us now lay aside all earthly care, that we may receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by ranks of angels. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” This hymn is really central and fundamental among the specific characteristics of the Byzantine Greek rite and must be sung with very great beauty and solemnity. The same can be said about the priest’s prayer, which precedes or accompanies that hymn. We observe with great regret that some priests change this hymn, replacing it with a hymn to the Mother of God, to Christ or to one of the saints.

Participation in the liturgical service is a very special characteristic of our rite, both in its beauty and structure. That is what appears in the dialogue between priest and deacon after the procession with the gifts. One sees that the link in this participation is the Spirit himself, who, in the Liturgy of our rite, often descends upon the priest and the deacon helping him in the service, and upon the people present, so that the Holy Spirit accompanies the priest in his mystical and pastoral service and indeed throughout all the days of his life.

The Liturgy is thus in its very nature a route towards the Kingdom. For this, the priest prays after the preparation of the gifts, saying, “Accept us who draw near to thy holy Altar [4] .” It is really a way to perfection and spiritual elevation. That is why there is a very characteristic repetition in the priest’s prayers for his own personal sanctification and for the hallowing of the sacrifice through him.

The priest (or bishop) expresses this itinerary and its relation with the altar and the gifts there offered when he kisses the paten (diskos), the chalice and the Holy Table before giving the kiss of peace to any other priests concelebrating with him in the Divine Liturgy. This kiss is an expression of the attachment of the priest to the altar and his great desire for the liturgical celebration. It also reminds the priest of the day of his priestly ordination, when he was led thrice around the Holy Table, each time kissing its four corners with great awe and reverence, as if he were singing Psalm [84]83 LXX, “How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord God of hosts! My soul longs and faints for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh have exulted in the living God, or as if he were singing Psalm [26] 25 LXX, I will wash my hands in innocency and compass thine altar, O Lord.” How beautiful are these sentiments that accompany the priest and animate his celebration of the daily Divine Liturgy!

The priest arrives at the peak of the liturgical celebration in the great Prayer of Thanksgiving, which is really a cosmic prayer requiring the priest to make a very beautiful survey of the vast dimensions of the divine dispensation in all its stages: the Lord’s teaching, passion, death, resurrection, ascension to heaven and return.

Here again, the priest does not feel alone and isolated, but united to the cortege of myriads of angels who are similarly celebrating the Liturgy with him. We find the most beautiful expression of that participation, that communion between the heavenly and earthly Liturgy, in this little phrase, which distinguishes our rite from all others of East and West, to be found in the Thanksgiving Prayer, where the priest prays, saying, “We thank thee also for this service which thou hast deigned to receive at our hands, though there stand before thee, thousands of archangels and myriads of angels, with the cherubim and seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, borne aloft on their wings.”

That expression “though…” sums up, so to speak, the relationship between heaven and earth and expresses what the Holy Fathers say, describing the Divine Liturgy, that it is heaven on earth or rather also, heaven with earth and earth with heaven.

The priest is a great intermediary, despite his unworthiness, weakness and sin. He is an intermediary with the angels. He is an intermediary for the people, as he prays during the prayer before his communion, saying, “Hear us, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, from thy holy dwelling-place and from the throne of glory of thy Kingdom; and come and cleanse us ….and graciously vouchsafe, by thy mighty hand, to impart to us thy most pure body and thy most precious blood and by us, to all thy people.”

The priest must be in a continual preparation (proskomedia) during the Liturgy, so that he may celebrate it with most beautiful, fine sentiments and with the best liturgical preparations. At the same time he must pray and supplicate for the people present, who themselves are preparing for participation in the sacred mysteries, by means of the priest and through his hands. The priest himself receives Communion, the consecrated bread, from Christ’s hand, by taking the bread and placing it in his own right hand, as if it were the hand of Jesus himself giving communion to him. Unfortunately, few priests pay attention to this ritual liturgical gesture, which has marvelous, great, mystical, symbolic importance.

Here we should like to mention an incident recounted from the little way of little Saint Thérèse of the Infant Jesus, who for a while was responsible for preparing the sacred vessels and altar linens for daily Mass in the Carmelite Convent. In fact, as she herself recounts, she used to kiss the sacred hosts, so that Jesus, descending into the host would find already a loving kiss from Thérèse. We need such liturgical devotion and this intimate relationship with Jesus. That liturgical gesture peculiar to our rite, which is practiced especially when the priest concelebrates with a bishop, calls us precisely to this.

Finally another prayer, again for the priest and people all together, is an indication that the Liturgy is a beautiful, awe-inspiring celebration of the whole divine economy, a celebration that recalls Christ, risen from the dead and still with us. The priest, during the daily liturgical celebration with and for the people, himself participates and enables the people to participate in that divine dispensation.

To that the priest’s closing prayer (said in a low voice) of the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom clearly makes allusion, “Thou who art the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets, O Christ our God, and hast accomplished the whole dispensation of the Father, fill our hearts with joy and gladness, now and ever and unto ages of ages.” And in the Liturgy of Saint Basil, we read, “The mystery of thine economy, O Christ our God, hath been accomplished and perfected as far as is in us lay. Having commemorated thy death, we have seen the figure of thy resurrection; we have been filled with thine endless life, we have enjoyed thine inexhaustible bliss, which we beseech thee to vouchsafe us all in the age to come, through the grace of the Father who hath no beginning, and of thine all-holy, gracious and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

Liturgy of Saint Basil

In the different parts and special prayers of the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, there are several sacerdotal prayers, where we find repeated commemorations, with recommendations to have in mind the great ministry of the priest. In fact he is the servant of the altar, of the New Covenant. He is the steward of the sacraments, of the sacred mysteries; he has need of the power of the Holy Spirit, to strengthen him and make him capable of that service. The Holy Spirit is present through all the stages of the Divine Liturgy, as if the priest in the holy celebration were always under the influence of the Holy Spirit through a continuous epiclesis both in the Liturgy and in other holy sacraments. Nothing can be done without the Holy Spirit, as Saint Basil the Great affirmed.

Here too we see that the prayers are an exhortation to the priest to devotion and draw his attention to the importance of the holy action that he is doing, and that he is standing before the holy altar as if he were standing before the heavenly altar. (See the prayers during the transfer of the gifts.)

(ii) Spirituality of Eastern priests through the liturgical prayers of the whole year

In the Synaxarion (or the Lives of the Saints) we find commemorated the attributes, duties, and service of an excellent priestly model as we dwell on the hymns of certain saints.

We start with the chant, or troparion, for Saint Nicholas of Myra, whom we commemorate every week on Thursdays. It is also the troparion for bishops and priests. Saint Nicholas is called in this troparion, by his parish and because of his works, “a rule of faith, an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence. Thy humility exalted thee; thy poverty enriched thee.”

In the troparion or hymn for a bishop martyr, we discover the following attributes: “(He) gave himself to the apostles’ way of life. Inspired by God, (he) found the way to contemplation through the practice of virtue. (He) became a perfect teacher of truth, fighting for the faith unto the shedding of blood.”

In the troparion for a bishop, we find another bouquet of spiritual and pastoral offices, or duties, of priests. “(He is) the guide of right faith, mirror of piety and exemplary conduct. (He is) the bright star of the whole world and the ornament of high priests. (He has) enlightened the whole world by (his) teachings. (He is) inspired by God and the harp of the Holy Spirit.”

In the troparion for a hieromonk, we discover monastic spirituality, which describes a priest’s attributes as, “The faithful image of God shines forth (in him), for (he) carried the cross and followed Christ, teaching by deeds how to spurn the body, as it is perishable, and value the soul, as it is immortal.”

In a similar troparion, we read, “By the flood of thy tears, thou didst make the barren desert bloom and by the deep sighs of thy heart, thou didst make thy labours bear fruit a hundredfold. So thou art become a light for the whole world through the glory of thy miracles.”

In the description of the spiritual and monastic life, that must shine forth in the life of the hieromonk, we read, “Thou didst make the desert thy dwelling-place and become an angel in the flesh, and wonder-worker. Through fasting, watchfulness and prayers, thou hast obtained from God special gifts to heal the sick and sanctify the souls of those who run to thee with faith.”

In the troparion of the two saints, Dionysios and Hierotheos, the two bishops of Athens, converted by the preaching of Saint Paul on the Areopagus, we find this beautiful description of a priest, “Having learned goodness and maintaining continence in all things, thou wast arrayed with a good conscience as befits a priest. From the chosen Vessel thou didst draw ineffable mysteries; thou didst keep the faith, and finished a course equal to his.”

In the service of Thursdays, according to the Paraklitike in eight tones, we find many priestly features. “The apostles are the harmonious lyre on which the Holy Spirit plays. They have restored people to the light. They have worked the works of good faith and are vases of the Divine Spirit.” And we address them by this prayer, “Strengthen the house of my soul, which has been shaken and restore it by a precise divine industry. Ye are shining pillars of the Church, which ye adorn by the teachings of your faith.” In the sixth tone, we read, “Apostles, the Holy Spirit, descending on you, moulded by his tongues man mired in sin. As in a crucible, jeweller-like, he has made of these souls a new creation.”

We stop here, knowing that the troparia, chants and hymns of the feasts of saints are a spiritual paradise bearing the fruits of Christian virtues. We leave to the piety of our brother bishops and our sons, the priests, the possibility of discovering for themselves still further attributes, duties, service and demands of the priestly ministry and the spiritual and ascetic guidance to be found in daily liturgical services, especially through the feasts of saints and martyrs. These hymns are really abundant in their expressions of burning desire for Christ, for imitating him and attaching oneself to him and struggling for him. In these prayers, one finds repeated invocations and appeals to practise the evangelical virtues and beatitudes, such as service, self-giving, devotion, friendship and love for the poor, sick, afflicted, suffering and every Christian soul that is sorrowful and in need of God’s mercy, love and providence. Our prayers are really a spiritual, personal, daily directory, which sustains us despite our weakness and guides our steps towards the accomplishment of the duties of our holy, priestly vocation.

(iii) Spirituality of Eastern priests through the rites of holy ordination of bishops, priests, deacons and sub-deacons

Holy ordination is really a specialized agenda for priestly work, covering the different aspects and spiritual attributes requisite for priestly service to God’s people and wider society.

In the consecration of the reader, the one ordaining prays for him, saying, “Elect this thy servant and sanctify him. Enable him with all wisdom and understanding to exercise the study and reading of thy divine words, preserving him in blameless behavior.”

In the ordination of the sub-deacon, the one ordaining prays for him, with these expressions: “Keep thy servant uncondemned in all things. Grant that he may love the beauty of thy dwelling and stand before the doors of thy holy temple and kindle the lamps in the tabernacle of thy glory. Plant him in thy holy Church, like a fruitful olive-tree, which bringeth forth the fruits of righteousness. Make him thy perfect servant at the time of thine advent, that he may obtain the recompense of those who are well-pleasing in thy sight.”

In the service of the deacon’s ordination, we find these attributes required also in priests. One reads: “Preserve this man …that he may hold the mystery of faith in a pure conscience… that he may minister after thy pleasure the degree which it hath seemed good to thee to confer upon him …and show him as wholly thy servant … Fill (him) with all faith and love, and power and holiness, through the inspiration of thy holy and life-giving Spirit.”

In the prayers for the priest’s ordination, we find a spiritual, pastoral programme for the priest’s service. In fact, he receives, right at the beginning, the great grace of the Holy Spirit, “that divine grace which always healeth that which is infirm and completeth that which is wanting,” who preserves “in pureness of life and unswerving faith,” so that the priest may be a perfect servant, acceptable to God in all things, and behaving with conduct worthy of the great dignity of priesthood.

In another prayer, the ordaining bishop asks for these gifts and graces for the priest, saying, “Fill with the gift of thy Holy Spirit him whom it hath pleased thee to advance to the degree of priest; that he may be worthy to stand blameless before thine altar; to proclaim the Gospel of thy Kingdom; to minister the word of thy truth; to offer thee spiritual gifts and sacrifices; to renew thy people through baptismal regeneration; that when he shall go to meet thee, at the second coming of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, thine only-begotten Son, he may then obtain the reward of his good stewardship in the degree committed to him, through the fullness of thy goodness.”

How beautiful are the prayers that accompany the bishop’s ordination or consecration! It is really an administrative, ministerial, sacramental, pastoral, monastic, ascetic, spiritual program, a real school of perfection and holiness. Here are the invocations that the ordaining Patriarch makes, with his collaborators, for the new bishop: “Do thou, the same Lord of all, who also hast graciously enabled this chosen person to come under the yoke of thy holy Gospel and the dignity of the episcopate…strengthen him by the inspiration and power and grace of thy Holy Spirit as thou didst strengthen thy holy apostles and prophets, as thou didst anoint kings and sanctified chief priests. Make his bishopric blameless, that it may be adorned with all dignity. Present him holy, that he may be worthy to pray for those things that are for the salvation of his people and that thou mayest give ear unto him.”

In another, following prayer and invocation, we find a collection of virtues, qualities, guidance. “Make this man also to be a steward of the episcopal grace, to be an imitator of thee, the true Shepherd, who didst lay down thy life for thy sheep; to be a guide for the blind, a light to those in darkness, a reprove of the unwise, a teacher of the young, a beacon to the world, that having perfected the souls entrusted to him in this present life he may stand unashamed before thy throne and receive the great reward which thou hast prepared for those who have striven valiantly for the preaching of thy Gospel.”

The consecrating bishop says to the newly-consecrated bishop, giving him the pastoral staff, “Receive this pastoral staff that thou mayest feed the flock of Christ confided to thee, and be thou a staff and support for the obedient, but lead the disobedient and the wayward to correction, to gentleness and obedience; and they shall continue in due submission” – so, according to ancient tradition, a staff which inspires respect and leads forward.

We consider these prayers as a foundation for all the documents to do with priests’ apostolate, in all the degrees of priesthood, just as we heard them on the day of our holy ordination. May these prayers be the subject of our meditation during this year and a spiritual reference-point in our spiritual retreats, as we contemplate the sublime nature of holy, priestly service.

(iv) Saint Jean-Marie Vianney: model priest

We all know a great deal about Saint Jean-Marie Vianney. He is the patron of priests and of the Year for Priests which we are celebrating on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his passing to the High Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ.

I shall content myself with just mentioning a few details of his heroic life and citing some salient sayings on the subject of the priesthood.

He hesitated a long time before accepting priestly ordination, because of the lofty nature of the sacrament, saying, “How great is the priest! He will only rightly understand himself in heaven… To understand it on earth would make one die, not of fear, but of love.”

Speaking of the importance of priests’ spiritual life, he says, “The great misfortune for us parish priests is that our souls grow lukewarm…” and, “If we love the Lord with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind, we shall enjoy peace and joy. Seek friendship with God and you will find happiness. Man is poor; he needs to ask God for everything. Without priests, Christ’s death and passion would be to no avail. Priests must be clothed with the Holy Spirit like a garment.”

He would say, “All good works, taken together, do not equal the sacrifice of the Mass since they are human works, while the Holy Mass is the work of God.”

The church became his home: he would go in at dawn and only leave in the evening after the Angelus. There he was to be found in case of need. He was assiduous in visiting the sick and all the faithful of his parish. He would say, “Leave a parish for twenty years without a priest, and they will end by worshipping the beasts there. The priest is not a priest for himself; he is a priest for you all.”

He would say, “Lord, grant me the conversion of my parish,” and further, “The reason why a priest is lax is that he does not pay attention to the Mass! My God! how we ought to pity a priest who celebrates as if he were engaged in something routine!”

He was rich in giving to the poor and he was very poor in dealing with himself. He used to say, “My secret is simple: give everything away; hold nothing back.” He would say to the poor when he had no money left to give them, “Today I’m poor just like you, I’m one of you.” He said, “I no longer have anything. The good Lord can call me whenever he wants!”

How beautiful is the priestly prayer he would say every day, “I love thee, O my God, and my sole desire is to love thee until the last breath of my life. I love thee, O infinitely lovable God, and I prefer to die loving thee than live one instant without loving thee. I love thee, O my God, and I do not desire anything but to have the joy of loving thee for eternity…O my God, if my tongue cannot say in every moment that I love thee, I want my heart to say it with every breath…”

He would say, “A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.”

‛The priest … must be a man of joy and hope. [5] ‘ He would also say, “When we are traveling and see a bell-tower, this view should quicken our heart-beat, just as the sight of the roof of her beloved’s dwelling place quickens the bride’s heart-beat… The priest must feel the same joy at seeing our Lord whom he holds in his hands [as the Apostles felt at seeing their Lord after his resurrection.]“

While still a child, he would say to his mother, “If I were a priest, I would do anything to win many souls for God.” So, when he became a priest, he devoted himself completely to his parish, spending sixteen hours a day hearing confessions, giving spiritual guidance, preaching and turning penitents’ hearts towards God.

These and further details can be found in the book Le Curé d’Ars, Pensées, presented by Abbé Bernard Nodet, Desclée de Brouwer, Foi Vivante, 2000.

(v) A model priest from the East: the Servant of God, Father Beshara Abou Mrad, monk of Holy Saviour (Lebanon)

We are proud to acknowledge in the Servant of God, Father Beshara Abou Mrad, B.S. (1853-1930) a model Eastern priest-monk. It is difficult to imitate him, yet his good example may awaken the desire for holiness in the hearts of us consecrated bishops and priests.

We refer to his beautiful biography [6] , where we find a goodly number of “little flowers,” like those in the lives of the old Desert Fathers, and in the lives of the saints throughout the history of the Church, which is rightly called “holy,” because it is the place where holiness is seen.

Father Beshara really had to struggle to enter the Basilian Order of the Holy Saviour (in Lebanon.) Yet he only accepted being ordained priest through obedience, saying, “I entered the monastery for the salvation of my soul, and not to be a priest.”

His life was characterized by constant ascesis (mortification), including fasting both on the appointed days and outside them. He resorted to ascetic practices the better to serve the poor. We may rightly say that such ascesis is the daily bread of holiness, as can be seen in the lives of all the saints.

Here are some sayings of Father Beshara: “Let us open our heart to the poor; then Jesus will open the doors of heaven for us…The poor person lacks something; but the rich man lacks everything…I am ready to work with my parish like a labourer building the house of God…Nothing gives you victory over the devil, but confession and fasting.” His life’s motto was the verse from the Prophet Ezekiel, “‛Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; …and I will hold you accountable for his blood.’”(Ezekiel 3:17, 18b)

It was beautiful to discover the great similarity between the life of Father Beshara and that of the Curé d’Ars, as we realized while reading the sermons of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI on the Curé d’Ars, and comparing them with what we knew of the life of Father Beshara. So we see once again, that the saints are all alike, insofar as they are all in the same school, that of Jesus and his heavenly Holy Gospel. (More information on the comparison between Father Beshara and the Curé d’Ars)

(vi) Priests’ image according to the Canons of the Eastern Churches

Some think that canon law is a dry business, representing a harsh canonical attitude. However, canons, as we know, are based on the Church’s theology, on the one hand, and represent too the result of practical, ecclesial experience through the Church’s history. Since the Church is a society, it has need of laws regulating both shepherds and the flock, the Church.

On the other hand, one sees in ecclesiastical canon laws a summary of the identity of priests, their life, duties and rights. That is important in the life and service of priests. That way, they can straightaway realize the duties of their priestly vocation and understand that these obligations are not merely advisory guidance, but real obligations, for which they must give account before the Church, their own conscience and God. So they do not have guidance in the form of mere wishes or proposals which they are at liberty to accept or reject.

We also find an echo of canon law in the spirituality of the Gospel, in the life of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles, especially those of Saint Paul.

That is why we have found it suitable in this letter to present the duties of priests according to Eastern Canon Law, since it is very important for priests and parishioners to know what the former are obliged to do.

The identity of priests

Canon 323

1. Clerics, who are also called sacred ministers, are Christian faithful who, chosen by the competent ecclesiastical authority, are deputed through a gift of the Holy Spirit received in sacred ordination to be ministers of the Church participating in the mission and power of Christ, the Pastor.

2. In virtue of sacred ordination clerics are distinguished from the other Christian faithful by divine institution.

Canon 324
Clerics joined among themselves by hierarchical communion and constituted in various degrees participate in diverse ways in the one ecclesiastical ministry of divine origin.
Canon 325

In virtue of sacred ordination, clerics are distinguished as bishops, presbyters and deacons.

Canon 326
Clerics are constituted into the degrees of orders by sacred ordination itself; but they cannot exercise that power except according to the norm of the law.
Priests’ Training
Canon 328
It is the proper right and obligation of the Church to train clerics and her other ministers; this obligation is particularly and more diligently fulfilled through the erection and governing of seminaries.
Canon 329
1) The task of fostering vocations, especially to the sacred ministries, belongs to the whole Christian community, which, as its shared responsibility, must be solicitous for the needs of the ministry of the whole Church
a) Parents, teachers and other first educators of the Christian life are to take care that families and schools are so animated by the evangelical spirit that boys and young people called by the Lord through the Holy Spirit can freely hear and willingly respond to him
b) Clerics, especially pastors, are to take pains to discern and foster vocations both in young people and even in others of a more advanced age.
c) The eparchial bishop especially, joining forces with other hierarchs, is to stir up his flock in promoting vocations and to co-ordinate their endeavours.
2) Particular law is to provide that either regional, or insofar as is possible, eparchial projects for promoting vocations are instituted in all Churches, these ought to be open to the needs of the universal Church, especially missionary needs.
Canon 352
2) Students are to be instructed especially in the catechetical and homiletic arts, liturgical celebration, parish administration, dialogue of evangelization with non-believers or non-Christians, or with the less fervent Christian faithful, the social apostolate and the instruments of social communication, not neglecting auxiliary disciplines, such as psychology or pastoral sociology.
Canon 353
According to the norm of particular law, there are to be exercises and tests strengthening pastoral formation, in such areas as social or charitable service, catechetical instruction, but especially in the pastoral internship during philosophical-theological formation, and in the diaconal internship before ordination to the presbyterate.
The rights and duties of clergy
Canon 367
Clerics have, as their first obligation, to announce the Kingdom of God to all and to make manifest the love of God towards all humanity in the ministry of the Word and sacraments and even in their whole lives, so that all, loving one another and above all things, loving God, may be built up and increase in the Body of Christ which is the Church.
Canon 368
Clerics are bound in a special manner to the perfection which Christ proposed to his disciples, since they are consecrated to God in a new way, by sacred ordination, so that they may become more suitable instruments of Christ, the eternal Priest, in the service of the people of God, and at the same time, that they may be exemplary models to the flock.
Canon 369
1. The daily reading and meditation of the Word of God is incumbent upon clerics, so that as faithful and truly attentive hearers of Christ, they may become true ministers of preaching; they are to be unremitting in prayer, in liturgical celebrations and especially in devotions towards the mystery of the Eucharist. They are daily to examine their conscience and frequently receive the sacrament of penance. They are to honour Holy Mary, the ever-Virgin Mother of God and implore from her the grace of conforming themselves to her Son; they are to carry out the other pious exercises of their own Church sui iuris.
2. They are to attach great importance to spiritual direction and take time for spiritual retreats at the times established according to the prescriptions of the particular law.
Canon 370
Clerics are bound by a special obligation to show reverence and obedience to the Roman Pontiff, the patriarch and the eparchial bishop.
Canon 371
1. Having fulfilled the requirements of law, clerics have the right to obtain from their eparchial bishop, an office, ministry or function, to be exercised in the service of the Church.
2. Clerics are to accept and faithfully carry out, every office, ministry or function committed to them by the competent authority, whenever, in the judgment of this same authority, the needs of the Church require it.
3. However, in order that they may exercise a civil profession, the permission of their own proper hierarch is required.
Canon 372
1. After completing the formation which is required for sacred orders, clerics are not to stop devoting attention to the sacred sciences. Indeed, they are to take measures to acquire a more profound and timely knowledge and use them through formative courses, approved by their own hierarch.
2. They are to attend conferences which the hierarch has judged suitable for promoting the sacred sciences and pastoral matters.
3. Also, they are not to neglect to acquire for themselves, as much knowledge of profane sciences, especially those sciences more intimately connected with the sacred sciences, such as those which cultured people ought to have.
Canon 373
Clerical celibacy chosen for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and suited to the priesthood is greatly to be esteemed everywhere, as supported by the tradition of the whole Church; likewise, the hallowed practice of married clerics in the primitive Church and in the Eastern Churches throughout the ages is to be held in honour.
Canon 374
Clerics, celibate or married, are to excel in the virtue of chastity; it is for the particular law to establish suitable means for pursuing this end.
Canon 375
In leading family life and in educating children married clergy are to show an outstanding example to other Christian faithful.
Canon 376
The praiseworthy common life among celibate clergy is to be fostered, insofar as possible, so that they may be mutually helped in cultivating the spiritual and intellectual life and may be able to co-operate more fittingly in the ministry.
Canon 377
All clerics must celebrate the divine praises according to the particular law of their own Church sui iuris.
Canon 378
According to the norm of the particular law, clerics are to celebrate the Divine Liturgy frequently, especially on Sundays and holy days of obligation; indeed daily celebration is eagerly encouraged.
Canon 379
Clerics of whatever Church sui iuris, linked as brothers in the bond of charity to attain the unity of all, work together for the building up of the Body of Christ, and consequently, whatever their condition, are to co-operate among themselves and help one another, even performing diverse functions.
Canon 380
All clerics are to have a concern for vocations to the sacred ministry and to the life in institutes of consecrated life, promoting them not only by preaching, catechesis and other suitable means, but especially by the witness of life and ministry.
Canon 381
1. Clerics are to be ardent in apostolic zeal, an example to all in terms of charity and hospitality, especially towards the sick, the afflicted, the persecuted, the exiled and refugees.
2. Unless constrained by a just impediment, clerics are bound by the obligation to provide assistance to the Christian faithful out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the Word of God and the sacraments.
3. Clerics are to recognise and promote the dignity of the laity and the particular part they have in the mission of the Church, especially by testing the multiform gifts of the laity, and also, by channelling the experience of these lay-people, for the good of the Church, especially in ways provided by the Law.
Canon 384
1. As ministers of reconciliation of all in the love of Christ, clerics are to take measures to foster among all people peace, unity and harmony based on justice.
2. Clerics are not to have an active part in political parties nor in the supervision of labour unions, unless in the judgment of the eparchial bishop, or, if particular law so states, of the patriarch or of another authority, the need to protect the rights of the Church or to promote the common good requires it.
Canon 385
1. Imbued with Christ’s spirit of poverty, clerics are to strive to lead a simple life and thus to be witnesses to the heavenly goods before the world; using spiritual discretion let them designate their temporal goods to correct use; and from the goods they acquire on the occasion of the exercise of an ecclesiastical office, ministry, or function, let them first provide for their own suitable sustenance and for the fulfillment of their obligations and then devote and share the rest in works of the apostolate or of charity.
2. Clerics are forbidden to exercise by themselves or through any other business or trade whether for their own benefit or for that of another, except with permission of the authority defined by particular law or by the Apostolic See.
3. A cleric is forbidden to post bond, even from his own goods, unless he has consulted his own eparchial bishop, or, as the case may be, the major superior.

(vii) Spirituality of Eastern Priests between Past and Present

The Holy Father, Benedict XVI, has emphasised in his sermons on the subject of the Year for Priests, the spirituality of the Curé d’Ars, Saint Jean-Marie Vianney. Some think that Saint Jean-Marie Vianney is an outmoded image of the priest from the past: the priest of the third millennium needs another model, new and modern. Of course, it is a well-founded demand. Yet it is the strength of the Church that the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Church are in agreement with the demands of the age and the developments of society. That can be said just as well of the spirituality of Father Beshara Abou Mrad, a priest of our country and Church, and whose personality and spirituality we have outlined above.

However, there are firm evangelical and spiritual, pastoral and ecclesial elements that cannot be ignored and remain the basic foundations for priests’ spirituality, yesterday, today and tomorrow, despite the different conditions of modern life and the priestly mentality of today and the very varied and different living conditions of the people of God.

The Servant of God, Pope John Paul II explained that in a marvelous way in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, [7] (” And I will give you pastors.”)

Priests’ Training and the challenges of the Third Millennium

“‛Every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God.’ (Hebrews 5:1)

The Letter to the Hebrews clearly affirms the ‛human character’ of God’s minister: he comes from the human community and is at its service, imitating Jesus Christ ‛who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.’ (Hebrews 4: 1s) God always calls his priests from specific human and ecclesial contexts, which inevitably influence them; and to these same contexts the priest is sent for the service of Christ’s Gospel. …

Certainly ‛there is an essential aspect of the priest that does not change: the priest of tomorrow, no less than the priest of today, must resemble Christ. When Jesus lived on this earth, he manifested in himself the definitive role of the priestly establishing a ministerial priesthood with which the apostles were the first to be invested. This priesthood is destined to last in endless succession throughout history. In this sense the priest of the third millennium will continue the work of the priests who, in the preceding millennia, have animated the life of the Church. In the third millennium the priestly vocation will continue to be the call to live the unique and permanent priesthood of Christ.’ It is equally certain that the life and ministry of the priest must also ‛adapt to every era and circumstance of life…. For our part we must therefore seek to be as open as possible to light from on high from the Holy Spirit, in order to discover the tendencies of contemporary society, recognize the deepest spiritual needs, determine the most important concrete tasks and the pastoral methods to adopt, and thus respond adequately to human expectations.’”

I would like here to run through some basic elements that are recorded in the Holy Gospel, in the Epistles of Saint Paul and the Apostles, in the documents of Vatican II, and in the Pastoral Letters of the Popes, to which we have referred earlier and from which many extracts have been collected in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, as we have also said.

Some Basic Elements

Firstly, there is the daily Divine Liturgy, which applies to parishes. (See Canon 58) Of course, we know that the Curé d’Ars celebrated daily Mass in front of a little group of his parish’s sons and daughters. Whatever the number participating in the morning or other daily Liturgy, that little number has the right to spiritual, celestial nourishment and to a little sermon. Perhaps among this little group a spiritual nucleus is formed which, like a lightning conductor against evil, preserves the priest, protecting him and his parish, allowing the beacon of faith there to remain alight and glowing.

This also applies to the daily, morning, spiritual meditation, which should possibly precede the Divine Liturgy, or be a continuation of the prayer of thanksgiving after Holy Communion. Unfortunately we see fewer and fewer priests praying even a part of the thanksgiving prayers after the Divine Liturgy.

What shall we say, again, on the importance of daily liturgical prayer? In fact it has become richer and more spiritually intense, because of the new liturgical books, which God gave us the grace (one of the greatest of our life) to prepare and publish between the years 1992 to 2001. These books in Arabic are within reach of every priest and even of every faithful person. It is not permitted for the bookshelves of any priest here not to house all the volumes of these liturgical books.

General and particular canon law further mentions clearly those parts of the Divine Office which should be recited daily. These are Matins, one of the Hours, Vespers and Little Compline. (See the particular law of our Melkite Church, 57.)

Moreover, it should be known that liturgical prayer is daily spiritual food alongside the Divine Liturgy. One can consider that, like spiritual reading, it contains complete spiritual nourishment with all the nutritional elements, rather like a medical diet sheet listing how best to obtain the necessary daily calorie intake for the human body’s daily needs. In fact the daily, liturgical prayers in their fixed elements in the Prayer Book and the Horologion, or in their movable elements, such as the Paraklitike, Menaion, Triodion and Pentecostarion, are the quintessence of that spirituality based on Holy Scripture that our Fathers meditated upon and presented in their beautiful sermons to the people, and that afterwards hymnographers turned into chants. Our liturgical prayers really bring to all of us the spirituality of our beloved East – the spirituality of the Holy Fathers, of whom we are rightly proud. We scarcely need to go to the trouble of reading the Holy Fathers’ books of Eastern spirituality since we find within our reach very well-presented, pleasant, loveable and sweet Eastern anthologies in our liturgical prayers!

Means for the Spiritual Life

It is of great importance that priests should have their own spiritual life, a spiritual ascesis organised from elements common to the spirituality of all.

Concise, clear guidance is contained in the document Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, emanating from the Congregation for the Clergy, 1994. We cite the following paragraphs:

39. Means for the Spiritual Life.

Such a spiritual life must be embodied in each priest through the liturgy, personal prayer, his lifestyle and the practice of the Christian virtues, which contribute to the richness of ministerial action. The very conformity to Christ requires one to breathe, so to speak, in a climate of friendship and personal encounter with the Lord and in service to the Church, his Body, for which the priest will show his love through the faithful fulfilment and defence of the duties of pastoral ministry.

It is necessary, therefore, that the priest programme his life of prayer in a manner which embraces: the daily Eucharistic celebration, with adequate preparation and thanksgiving; frequent confession and spiritual direction already practised in the seminary; the complete and fervent celebration of the liturgy of the hours, on a daily basis; examination of conscience; mental prayer; divine readings; the prolonged moments of silence and prayer, above all in periodical Spiritual Exercises and Retreats; the affectionate expression of Marian devotions, like the rosary; the “Via Crucis” and other pious exercises; and the fruitful reading on lives of the saints.

Each year during the Mass of Holy Thursday, as a sign of enduring desire of fidelity, priests renew in the presence of the bishop, and together with him, the promises made in the moment of ordination.

The care for the spiritual life should be felt as a joyful duty on the part of the priest himself, and also as a right of the faithful who seek in him, consciously or not, the man of God, the counselor, the mediator of peace, the faithful and prudent friend, the sure guide to confide in during the more difficult moments in life to find encouragement and security.

I would like to draw the attention of my brother bishops and my sons, the priests, to something very important: ongoing (or permanent) priestly training. It is a duty incumbent on priests themselves, and indeed upon bishops, who must be priests’ monitors, companions and supports in this ongoing training. I shall merely list here the table of contents in the above-mentioned document in the third chapter (numbers 69-86) which are very significant in themselves and could already form a program. They are as follows:

  • The Need for Ongoing formation Today
  • A Continuous Task
  • Instruments of Sanctification
  • It Must be Imparted by the Church
  • It Must be Ongoing
  • It Must be Complete
  • Human Formation
  • Spiritual Formation
  • Intellectual Formation
  • Pastoral Formation
  • It must be Systematic
  • It must be Personalized
  • Organization
  • Priestly Encounters
  • Pastoral Year
  • Means
  • Sabbatical Periods
  • House for Clerics
  • Retreats and Recollections

The Need for Programming

For the rest, I would like to refer my brother bishops and priests to two basic documents from the Congregation for the Clergy: the first, Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests (1994) and the second, entitled The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium, Teacher of the Word, Minister of the Sacraments and Leader of the Community (1999.)

In these two documents, there are well-defined guide-lines that are simple, clear and concise, to do with the theology of priesthood, priestly spirituality, and pastoral, sacramental and administrative service. They contain small chapters with very practical content. I recommend priests to look at these two documents, especially the first, in order to find their bearings in their priestly life. I consider these two documents as a “spiritual director” for priests, within their daily reach, especially this year and for the future.

On this topic, I would like my brother bishops kindly to provide for their priests for this year the following basic documents:

  1. Lumen Gentium (Second Vatican Council, November 21, 1964)
  2. Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) (Second Vatican Council, December 7, 1965)
  3. Decree on Priestly Training (Optatam Totius) (Second Vatican Council, October 28, 1965)
  4. Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful (Christifideles Laici) (Pope John Paul II, December 30, 1988)
  5. Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day (Pastores Dabo Vobis) (Pope John Paul II, March 25, 1992)
  6. Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen (Pope John Paul II, May 2, 1995)
  7. Apostolic Exhortation A New Hope for Lebanon (Pope John Paul II, May 10, 1997)
  8. Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests (January 31, 1994)
  9. The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium, Teacher of the Word, Minister of the Sacraments and Leader of the Community (March 19, 1999)
  10. Pastoral Letter on the Priesthood Council of Eastern Catholic Patriarchs (2004)
  11. Canon Law of the Eastern Catholic Churches (1990)
  12. Particular Law of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church (2005.)

The Way of Unceasing Prayer

“Seven times a day do I praise thee because of thy righteous judgments.” (Psalm 118: 164 LXX) So as to put this verse into practice our Holy Fathers instituted the seven hours or prayer times per day. They are spaces through which we live the events of salvation and the mystery of Christ.

Thereby we realize the evangelical command to pray and that of Paul to pray without ceasing. (I Thessalonians 5: 17) Saint Basil teaches us in his rule: “Thus we live the atmosphere of prayer if we unite prayer to work and work to prayer. That means that the whole of life must become a continuous prayer. And what we call the offices of prayer (the seven) are but a part of that.” (Homily on Ascetic Discipline 3) Migne Pat. Gr. 31: 877

This is what Origen teaches: “Now, since the performance of actions enjoined by virtue or by the commandments is also a constituent part of prayer, he prays without ceasing who combines prayer with right actions, and becoming actions with prayer. For the saying “pray without ceasing” can only be accepted by us as a possibility if we may speak of the whole life of a saint as one great continuous prayer. Of such prayer what is usually termed prayer is indeed a part.” (On Prayer 7) Migne Pat. Gr. 11: 45

Practical Advice

While insisting on liturgical prayer as prescribed in liturgical service books, I would like to give some practical advice to help with unceasing prayer and similarly, so as to help with prayer during travelling or in circumstances, such as in illness, where service books are not to hand…

First of all, we have the Jesus Prayer, which is a form of personal, spiritual devotion widespread in the East since the ninth century. We pray on the woollen knots of the komboskini (prayer-rope) this cry, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” These short prayers may be repeated in various conditions at will, day or night, at any time, to express our faith, hope, love, repentance, thanksgiving, hopes, sufferings, joys, anxieties, at the heart of our pastoral life. May this practice spread among our priests and also among our faithful!

There are also other means of unceasing prayer: memorizing parts of liturgical services; practicing meditative mental prayer; pausing over one or other verse of a psalm of our choice; repeating it, singing it, meditating on it according to the situations in which we priests find ourselves. We can also resort to little booklets published by liturgical commissions for the major feasts; or the little services, such as the Paraklesis to the Guardian Angel, or to Most Sweet Jesus, or the Akathist…

One can also take the first of the volumes of liturgical books of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which corresponds practically, in the first 430 pages, to the old Prayer Book or “breviary,” and can be easily carried when traveling.

In giving this practical advice on prayer, I should like to add “the commandment of Saint Basil the Great to priests” on the subject of prayer, especially in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy,

“O priest! Try to act with care and faithfulness in rightly dividing the word of truth.

Do not begin the service if you are nursing a grudge at heart against anyone, lest the Paraclete abandon you.

Judge no-one. Do not quarrel while ministering. Persevere in church, prayer and reading until it is time to celebrate the divine mysteries.

Stand before the holy altar with a pure, penitent heart. Do not look to one side or the other, but rather stand before the heavenly King.

Do not hurry through your prayer. Do not abridge it to make time for worldly business. Pay no regard to people’s faces, but rather direct your heart completely to the King enthroned before you with the angels attending him.

Worthily carry out the divine laws. Do not concelebrate with people, with whom such celebration is forbidden. But be attentive to the One before whom you are standing; how you serve the Holy Mysteries, and to whom you give them.

Remember the Lord’s commandment to the apostles, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine.” (Matthew 7: 6)

Be vigilant so as not to deliver the Son of God into the hands of the unworthy.

Do not be abashed at that time by those who have earthly power and glory, but rather give the offerings to those who deserve them, freely, as you have been given.

Do not give them to those who have transgressed divine laws.

Take care lest any mouse, fly or other thing touch the sacraments and lest they be exposed to corruption or smoke or be affected by any abuse or unworthy object.

If you heed this advice and all that relates to it, you will save yourself and those who listen to you.”

(viii) Spirituality of Eastern priests through the tradition of pastoral work in our Church

Jesus Christ defined himself as the Good Shepherd, who gives his life for his sheep, who knows his sheep and the sheep know him and hear his voice and follow him. (John 10) Priests are called pastors (shepherds) in our religion and the sheep confided to their care are the parish and they must work, serve and watch, after the example of their Master, the First Pastor, Jesus Christ.

Saint Paul alludes to this parable in the Acts of the Apostles, when he speaks to the elders of Ephesus, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” (Acts 20: 28)

The holiest duty of priests is pastoral care, after the example of Jesus the Good Shepherd, an example rich in spirituality which Christ gave to his disciples. The shepherd is he who feeds the flock, that is, he must be in continuous relationship with the sheep, the flock. He walks in front of the flock, with the flock, before the flock, behind the flock, around the flock. He keeps the flock, he watches over the flock and he runs in search of those who have gone astray and if he finds them, he carries them on his shoulders and brings them back to the fold. He watches over his flock to protect it against danger: that is symbolized in the omophorion, the scarf which the bishop puts over his shoulders, when he puts on episcopal vestments. The bishop prays thus, when donning it: “Lord Jesus Christ, thou hast borne human nature on thy shoulders and when thou didst ascend to the heavens, thou didst bring it to thy Father.”

Pastoral duty is a mission common to the bishop and the priests his collaborators. It is up to the bishop to guide the priests in their obligations and pastoral and priestly duties.

The hierarchy of the Church

Christ is the Head of the Church: he is Alpha and Omega, the Bishop of our Souls, our Shepherd, Savior and God.

Pastoral work makes many demands, represented in the hierarchy and service of the Church in its eparchies. All these efforts must be combined to allow the Church, God’s people on earth, to progress successfully towards eternal life. It is useful for the faithful to be aware of that hierarchy, in its main outlines and the ecclesial canon laws governing eparchies. These canons appeared in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches in 1990. These rules or canons govern the life of the Church as a community and as individuals.

The chief hierarch is the Patriarch, (who is called head and father), and who has three titles, “of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem” and is himself in perfect communion with the Pope of Rome, the supreme head of the Church. At the head of each eparchy, is a bishop, who rules the Church according to this law. Canon law explains in detail the different organs that help the bishop in the running of the eparchy: they are, especially, the episcopal curia, made up of the Episcopal Vicar General, who has specific functions, such as deputizing for the bishop in his absence, the Chancellor, who helps him with his correspondence and keeping the eparchy’s archives, the Economos General, responsible for eparchial property, helped by an economic committee, the Treasurer, the accountant and the Tribunal and the Judicial Vicar. Added to them are the different councils, the Council of Priests around the bishop, and the Council of Pastoral Councillors, who help priests through their advice in all business to do with pastoral work for the good of the eparchy. The work also extends to lay-people in the Church, who are co-operators with the bishop and priests. That is why the bishop must, according to different needs, create a Pastoral Council under his direction with that of the priests. That council is principally responsible for everything to do with pastoral work in parishes. Other councils can also be formed.

Canon law speaks in great detail in twenty-three canons about parishes and parish priests and gives all the details about priests’ obligations in the running of their parishes. We wished to give all these details in this letter not only for priests, but also for the faithful, so that they have a clear idea of the administration of their Church, of their obligations and rights and so they can be more united to the Church and bound to it by love and faithfulness.

Parish Files

The priest should produce an almanac on the situation in the parish over the year. This should include everything to do with parish life, under various headings, such as pastoral activities and the history of the parish, including the most important events of its past. This should be brought up to date annually, with the achievements of the parish year on year, or daily, through a parish journal. It should include different statistics on the parish, the annual reports presented to the bishop, the Pastoral Council dossier, the Administrative Council’s dossier on the parish.

Each group within the parish could have its own file: for example, the Legion of Mary, youth groups, scouts, confraternities, choir, and Solemn Communions.

The files should also include: correspondence files, such as letters from and to the bishop and others; special cases, both spiritual and material, including juridical matters to do with different persons and families; a file on home visits, listing to whom and when visits have been made, house blessings and other matters of interest, to give a clear idea of the parish.

The parish priest must take great care to keep up to date and in order special parish files, which comprise: -

  1. Files on baptisms, weddings and funerals: these must be filled out correctly in every detail, as is fitting, and filed on computer if appropriate
  2. File on changes to community or religion, conditional baptisms and other juridical aspects to do with sacraments
  3. File on marriages: the priest must keep details on permissions to marry, questionnaires on the subject and all necessary information to be presented to the episcopal curia
  4. The priest must ensure that faithful accounts are kept and present them annually to the Economos General
  5. At the end of every year, the priest must bring up to date an inventory of all the objects in church and in other parish institutions

Components of Pastoral Work

In this part, I would like to describe the obligations or duties imposed in pastoral work on priests and on parishioners and that also describe the spiritual links of faith, the social, human links that unite priests and their parishes, so that together they form a real united local Church, in communion with all the other parishes and in fellowship with society. I leave aside the Biblical and theological considerations and go straight to the practical ones.

The obligations and duties of parish priests

I will describe the duties of parish priests under the supervision of the bishop. The spiritual obligations are summed up in bearing the Gospel message to all the children of the parish, without distinction, with great love and devotion and pastoral zeal. From that to the different duties:

  1. Celebrating the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and other feasts during the week, as well as other liturgical offices, such as Vespers, Matins, the Akathist, the Paraclesis, Great Compline during Lent and so forth
  2. Preparing a sermon for Sundays and feast days, explaining the Gospel. This must have a very important place in bearing the Gospel message, and for spiritual guidance suited to the parish
  3. Carrying out the ministry of the sacraments, including good preparation for baptism, chrismation and the Eucharist, marriage, confession, anointing the sick and carrying out with great respect prayers for the departed and everything to do with burials
  4. Carrying out pastoral work with vigilance for the faith committed to the hearts of all, great and small, young men and women, students, old people, the sick, young families and those in special situations in the parish
  5. Carrying out that all-important aspect of family visiting, as much as possible in situations of illness, bereavement, joy, journeys, new-borns, graduations…These visits should have a spiritual aspect, and be an opportunity to find out about the families, the Christian atmosphere, the religious, spiritual and social aspect of their life and then to pray with the members of the family, read the Gospel and engage in spiritual sharing
  6. Visiting homes at Epiphany (Theophany) and bless new homes and everything new in the home
  7. Taking part in the different activities of their parish, the Pastoral Councils, Youth Group meetings, spiritual retreats, congresses, outings, choir
  8. Meeting with men’s and women’s groups and holding spiritual meetings adapted to parishioners’ different needs
  9. These activities will be more intense during Lent and the preparation for the Feast of Pascha
  10. Being concerned with the spiritual education of different groups in their parish, especially with religious teaching, such as catechetical classes in specific centers, suitably equipped for such teaching. Besides that, priests will initiate conferences on religious themes and encouraging the reading of spiritual works by parishioners, forming perhaps little specialist libraries with suitable books, DVDs and films for the parish, and pastoral bulletins for the parish.

Social Obligations

Priests, with many other faithful of the parish, including male and female religious and so forth, will endeavor to fulfill their social obligations in the different situations of their parish and in collaboration with the different groups, especially the Welfare Society, the Pastoral Council, the Church Commission and the Youth Center. These social obligations are as follows:

  1. Helping the poor, especially families in difficult circumstances at the approach of feasts; helping with school tuition, though that is not an obligation upon the priest alone. The priest must help the faithful to be confident about their obligations to help other members of the parish, for example, by forming a special fund or funds to help with poverty
  2. The priest will have at heart organizing different social activities, outings, exhibitions, helping parishioners to meet one another, get to know each other and get together to help the poor and people in difficulties. So all the efforts of the parish will be united for mutual help in various situations
  3. Having monthly or other regular meetings, open to whoever wishes to come, would be useful to enable members of the parish to come for coffee, to meet, to talk and promote parish unity
  4. The parish priest is the father for everyone; he is the brother, guide and director. That is why he has a great obligation to keep family peace among his children, the parishioners, and invite everyone to friendship, while distancing himself from quarrels, but helping parishioners to overcome problems among themselves, and by brotherly, evangelical means watching over parish unity
  5. The priest will have at heart to encourage the faithful to help young people and students in schools and universities and other institutions, honoring those who excel in their studies. Similarly, he should institute a committee for employment and earning a living. He should maintain relations with other parishioners in other parishes and possibly cultivate relations abroad for youth exchange and so forth.

Parishioners’ Obligations

When speaking of the priests’ obligations, we saw that they could do none of them without collaboration with their parishioners. It really requires every effort from parishioners to bring about all those aspects of pastoral life.

Let us go over the different obligations of parishioners: -

  1. To come to church and participate in the life of the church in prayers, the Liturgy and other services and send their children to church services, take part in the choir, prepare for singing, for serving in church, being members of different parish committees, distributing brochures and pastoral news-letters, being ready to receive travellers and strangers into church
  2. To contribute to the expenditure of the church, cleaning the priests’ vestments, serving in church. Those who come less often to church should especially give donations in compensation for their absence
  3. It is good to have a little committee around each priest to animate the Liturgy and the other liturgical services
  4. To inform parish priests about everything new in their parishes, births, joys, illnesses, journeys, diplomas or degrees, moving house, or change of address
  5. To take part in different committees, meetings and outings, exhibitions and other activities, especially of young people and the faithful must help with other initiatives that priests might have, such as an exhibition, a talk, a feast, a day of spiritual retreat in a monastery
  6. To inform priests about birth-dates, and the dates of baptisms and weddings, panikhidas for the departed and the dates of their anniversaries
  7. To welcome their priests with friendship and joy to their homes and try to gather the greatest number of their family to hear their priests, pray with them and share the Gospel with them
  8. To inquire sometimes about their priests’ health, that of the bishop, greet them after a journey, congratulate them on their name-day, call to invite them to a family feast or walk, say good-bye to them if they travel, or invite them if the family are to travel
  9. To make ex voto gifts of things needed for services, oil, candles, incense, bread for the Eucharist and feasts; to hold feasts for patron saints for each family, as far as possible; to give priests the lists of the living, the departed, the sick, so that priests can offer prayers for them or commemorate them during the Liturgy
  10. To guide the children and young people, so that they understand their obligations with regard to priests, to respect them, to love them and be close to them in their role as brothers, friends and directors
  11. To encourage the children, the young boys and girls, to take part in different parish activities, such as catechism, the youth center and others
  12. To be interested in getting to know other members of the parish, their names, their work, perhaps having coffee together; meetings, excursions, where people can get to know each other, to feel at home with each other, prepare marriages through getting to know each other
  13. To give an offering to the church’s funds in return for documents supplied, such as baptismal certificates or marriage certificates, burials and so forth, depending on the different parishes. (That must be done in a friendly fashion, without making demands.)
  14. To give flowers to the church on different occasions, especially for the great feasts, the Akathist, the third Sunday of Lent, Great and Holy Friday, the Paraklesis, Saint Basil’s Day
  15. To think of encouraging a child in the family to consider a religious or priestly vocation, a consecrated life in a monastery, convent or seminary
  16. To have the desire to get to know the history of the parish, the church, the community, the rites and customs, so as to be a real child of the Church who knows his or her mother.

All those things animate the parish and make it a living Church, a united, believing community, living in fellowship, and an atmosphere of brotherly communion, so that faith is the same, the sacraments are one and common and all the other elements are there to build up a believing, better Christian fellowship, capable of giving witness to Christ and his Gospel in wider society, so as to bring to all the message of good and of happiness. Thus the parish, the Church, lives out its faith in the world.

(ix) Lay-people: apostles alongside priests

We are celebrating the Year for Priests and we cannot neglect the role of lay-persons alongside priests. Vatican II devoted a whole document to the role of the laity in the Church. However, that document is not a new discovery, but rather a continuation of the line of the Church’s teaching and experience with regard to the role of lay-persons in the Church. Besides, we find that the role of lay-persons was greater and more developed in the early Church. How could we forget the hundred or so collaborators of Saint Paul, most of whom were lay-persons, both men and women? (See our fourth letter on the Year of Saint Paul, entitled The Collaborators of Saint Paul, in which we have clarified the role of lay-persons in the spread of early Christianity.)

I would like here to quote some verses of documents from the early Church, especially the letters in which the apostles affirm unhesitatingly the role of lay-persons. In fact, we find in the history of the modern Church that we are less convinced of the role of lay Christians alongside priests. The meaning of the apostolate of lay-persons is really poorly known among us today, both among priests and among lay-people themselves. Let us review some verses from Holy Scripture, starting with the Apostle Peter, who, I think, most clearly expresses the priesthood of lay-people. I shall confine myself to quoting the verses without commenting on them.

Saint Peter says in his First Epistle General, “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2: 5) It is clear that this letter of Saint Peter is directed towards lay (not ordained) faithful, though some may have been consecrated, and that is what we find in the prologue to this letter, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father…” (1 Peter 1: 1) As for the presbyters (elders), we find in chapter five, “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind.” (1 Peter 5: 1-2) And at the beginning of Peter’s Second Epistle, he declares that baptized Christians “have obtained like precious faith with us.” (2 Peter 1: 1)Besides, these baptized faithful have all become “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1: 4) They all have a calling and election and he tells them, “Give diligence to make your calling and election sure.” (2 Peter 1: 10)

In the First Epistle of Saint John, we find such verses again. The faithful lay-persons “have fellowship with us” (the apostles.) (1 John 1: 3) Lay-people “have an unction from the Holy One.” (1 John 1: 20, 27)

We find in those verses a clear proof of the priesthood of lay-people, which they acquire through holy baptism and chrismation. That is why they must assume responsibility for bearing the message of the Holy Gospel to others, each in his or her situation and work. That is the basis of the work and attitude of lay-people alongside priests and under their guidance. We shall not go into details on this matter, but I should like to refer to the situation of our Church. The number of priests is decreasing evermore, perhaps because families are having fewer children or due to other reasons. That is why we have to take every needful care to develop the role of lay-persons in bearing the Good News to today’s world.

This development has many aspects. In fact, priests themselves must realise the true role of lay-people in their parishes and in their pastoral work and be convinced of it. Similarly, priests must learn how to behave with lay-people, so that they neither give them an exaggerated role, nor diminish their importance.

On the other hand, lay-people must also understand the importance of their role and that it is not a simple, optional thing, according to temperament, or for showing off one’s merits, but a real responsibility, rooted in what we have discussed above about the theological truth of holy baptism.

There is also a necessity for the laity themselves to understand that their fellow lay-people have a special role: that they can bring them the message of faith, alongside priests and under their guidance.

In fact, we find great ignorance, or rather, a will to ignore, the great role of lay-persons in the Church, both on the part of priests and on the part of the faithful themselves.

Perhaps it has become necessary to compose a detailed study on this subject, and for there to be special sessions for priests and lay-persons on the subject of lay-people’s role and giving precise, practical details of their work. Perhaps that could be one of the fruits of the Year for Priests, that we should promote that study in our Church and on the basis of that study, we can hold the necessary sessions on the topic of the lay-persons’ role in our Church in the third millennium.

So as to be able to gather the necessary, useful fruits on the role of the laity alongside priests, we should like to bring in here some passages from our letter entitled, The Collaborators of Saint Paul, knowing that the whole letter is evidence for priests of how they should behave towards lay-people, after the example of the great Apostle Paul:

Epistle to the Hebrews

At the end of this Epistle, Saint Paul mentions the leaders of the Hebrew Christians (Hebrews 13: 7,17) and gives them notice of Timothy’s being freed: “Know ye that our brother Timothy is set at liberty; with whom, if he come shortly, I will see you. Salute all them that have the rule over you, and all the saints. They of Italy salute you.” (Hebrews 13: 23-24)

Attributes and Responsibilities of Saint Paul’s Co-workers

Saint Paul describes his co-workers in glowing terms, using touching and affectionate expressions, but assigns them well-defined responsibilities, with precise guidance that is often harsh and demanding.

In his Epistles, his fellow-workers are “brethren,” “dear,” “sisters,” “parents,” “fellow-labourers in Christ Jesus,” “beloved,” “first-fruits” of those risen in Christ and elect of Christ, especially in the Epistle to the Romans. (16: 1-16) They give hospitality, scribe the Apostle’s letters, share in preaching

The Gospel and are collaborators of grace.

They are the Apostle’s joy and crown, being sent by him, as faithful servants, slaves of God with Paul, striving for the Gospel, laborers in preaching the Kingdom, zealous in service.

They are given apostolic, spiritual and material responsibilities, to do with founding, organizing and guiding new communities. Some also offer hospitality to Paul and his companions, putting a school at his disposal; others preach, explaining the new way founded on the teachings of the Gospel; guide new groups of faithful; preside at liturgical celebrations; co-ordinate the work of committees for collecting and distributing aid to the faithful of Jerusalem; choose presbyters; carry letters, messages and news of the Church’s life; and are asked by Paul to console and strengthen the faith of those who are suffering or persecuted.

So, Saint Paul has recourse to his collaborators; he asks even those who are new in the way of the Gospel, to help him carry the message. This is due to Paul’s ardor, as he writes, “Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel,” (I Corinthians 9:16) and tells his disciple Timothy, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season.” (2 Timothy 4: 2) Paul wants every baptized person to be a bearer of the message with him, giving him or her the same recommendation as he had to his disciple Timothy. That explains why we find such a large number of co-workers with Paul on his apostolic missions and travels, so that no Epistle is without mention of the Apostle’s co-workers; there is not a single town where Paul preached that he did not leave fellow-workers or found committees designed to continue the work of Jesus and the Gospel. (Cf. The Catecheses of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI on Paul and His Collaborators in the general audiences of 31 January and 7 and 14 February, 2007.)

It is really amazing to see how many co-workers are gathered around Paul, receiving from him very specific apostolic, sacramental and organizational responsibilities.

The Laity according to Vatican II

In the Decree Apostolicam actuositatem on the Apostolate of the Laity, of 18 November 1965, the Second Vatican Council alludes several times to the collaborators of Saint Paul mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles and points out that the mission of lay-people in the Church is based on their Christian vocation and baptism. That mission relates to various aspects of life, Saint Paul had already described in his Epistles, as we have seen above.

That was emphasized in the decree of Vatican II. In fact, there is not one of the sixteen conciliar documents which, in one way or another, does not allude to the importance of the lay vocation in the Church and in society.

The Conciliar decree on the laity says verbatim (numbers 2 and 3):

“In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission. Christ conferred on the Apostles and their successors the duty of teaching, sanctifying, and ruling in His name and power. But the laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world.

They exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, their temporal activity openly bears witness to Christ and promotes the salvation of men. Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ….

One engages in the apostolate through the faith, hope, and charity which the Holy Spirit diffuses in the hearts of all members of the Church.”

Furthermore, the Conciliar decree speaks of the family in these terms:

“Christian husbands and wives are co-operators in grace and witnesses of faith for each other, their children, and all others in their household. They are the first to communicate the faith to their children and to educate them by word and example for the Christian and apostolic life. They prudently help them in the choice of their vocation and carefully promote any sacred vocation which they may discern in them….This mission – to be the first and vital cell of society – the family has received from God. It will fulfill this mission if it appears as the domestic sanctuary of the Church.” (number11)

So lay-persons, especially in the context of the believing family, become witnesses of the Gospel and Christ. Hence, every faithful person is an apostle.

Let us also note the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II Christifideles Laici (30 December 1988) which contains the charter of the vocation and mission of the faithful in the Church in the steps of Saint Paul.

In fact faithful lay-persons are in a continuous relationship with the world, society and the daily social, political, moral, economic and ecological reality. They are the ones who are putting into practice Jesus’ mission and true Gospel values and living them out in the everyday reality of their society.

Canon law underlines the importance of the apostolate of the laity in canon 381 § 3 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (CCEC):

“Clerics are to recognize and promote the dignity of the laity and the particular part that they have in the mission of the Church, especially by testing the multiform gifts of the laity, and also by channeling the experience of these lay-people for the good of the Church, especially in ways provided by the law.”

The Mission of Lay-people in our Church

After Vatican II, the mission of lay-people was developed and many apostolic movements were renewed, which had to do with different aspects of the Church’s life. Such was the case with the former brotherhoods, which had existed for a long time in our Church, especially those of Our Lady of the Annunciation, founded by Patriarch Maximos III (Mazloum) and by Patriarch Gregorios II (Youssef-Sayyour) and movements of young workers and students, originating in the West, but adapted to Eastern, especially liturgical, spirituality. Thank God, there is a goodly number of these activities in the context of our eparchies, parishes and male and female religious congregations.

These movements are real schools of faith and spiritual life for young people; they are the pillars of parish life and of all liturgical, spiritual, pastoral, social and charitable activities. It should be noted that, among those involved in these movements, are persons called to the consecrated religious life and to the priesthood. We have mentioned several of these movements in the Assembly of the Patriarchal Eparchy in Damascus in 2003, and in the Patriarchal Assembly held in Rabweh in 2007; we noted about a hundred such movements.

We would like here to recommend and encourage most enthusiastically the different activities of these brotherhoods and movements in our eparchies and parishes.

Thus imitating the great Apostle Paul as far as the mission of the laity in the Church is concerned, we call upon the lay-people of our parishes to help us in our pastoral work, alongside priests and consecrated persons, monastic and other, to direct our concern to the needs of all the faithful

It is very important to train in every parish, lay leaders capable of carrying the Church’s values into our society, and of being the leaven and the salt in the dough of that society.

Collaborators and Colleagues

A word now to the bishops and priests who pastor our churches and whose experience of collaborating in pastoral service would fill volumes! We exhort them to intensify their relations with all the faithful in their respective communities, to gather around them keen and enthusiastic collaborators who bear with them and under their guidance the burden of the apostolate and message, and who can organize different services needed by the pastoral ministry.

We ask God, at the intercession of Saint Paul, for there to be in our Church between priest and all the faithful, such relations as obtained between the Apostle and his collaborators.

Following Saint Paul’s example, the pastor must not only be father, guide, educator and counselor, but also vigilant brother and close friend, whilst maintaining the distance that enables him to fulfill his spiritual and pastoral role. The pastor must rely on the lay-people, giving them well-defined roles, remaining always the guide and leader, adjusting the pace and being the watchful companion. He must have the mind of Christ, his teachings and his love for the sons and daughters of his community, especially for his collaborators and colleagues.

May this relationship be also inspired by the liturgical greeting which is exchanged by the concelebrants (and by the faithful among themselves), “Christ is among us. He is and always will be!” Let us be inspired by this final petition from the litany, “Let us entrust ourselves and one another and our whole life unto Christ our God.”

Such pastoral guidance is given in Paul’s two Epistles to Timothy and in the one to Titus.

Call

We are speaking to our children, in all eparchies and parishes of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church to invite them to listen to the call of Jesus, of Saint Paul, of their pastors and spiritual fathers and to be generous in voluntary service and work alongside the priest and under his direction and guidance.

We tell them, Jesus needs you! Paul is calling you, as he called the faithful of the first Christian communities. The Church is calling you. Your Patriarch, bishops and all your pastors need you.

Today more than ever, we need collaborators, lay-people who are faithful, keen, courageous, active, strong, who are highly capable, be it in business, politics or higher education, who are influential, prudent, wise, loving and selfless, experienced and, as the Psalmist says, “as arrows are in the hand of a mighty man.” (Psalm 127: 4)

We pastors need you faithful lay-people. You are our apostles and the apostles of Jesus for the world. You really make up the community, you carry the teachings, guidance and preaching of Jesus, the apostles, saints and monastics out into the world, into your society, among your work-mates and your fellow-citizens (whether or not of your religion.)

Saint Paul said, “We are the ambassadors of Christ.” And we say to you, that you are the ambassadors of Christ, our ambassadors as servants of Christ: we entrust you with the mission of carrying the Gospel into your society…

We need young people, those who are ever young in their love of Christ and their zeal to spread the sacred teachings and show the love of God for mankind.

(x) Characteristics of Melkite Greek Catholic Priests

I hope that I have not been too long in this letter, but I consider it as a brotherly, fatherly, spiritual conversation, a dialogue of friendship, affection, love – a priestly conversation, as if this letter were my patriarchal testament to my priests. This letter is a meeting with them in this year and in years to come and during all the years that the Lord will give me to live my patriarchal service and I shall do all in my power to be able, during this Year for Priests, to meet monks in their monasteries and mission centres, as well as eparchial priests, both married and celibate, in their eparchies.

I close this letter with various different, practical aspects of Melkite priests.

1. Priestly identity: this identity is defined by three aspects:
a. priests’ relationship with the divine economy
b. priests’ relationship with the Church and with the bishop, since they are the bishop’s companions and collaborators under his direction
c. priests’ relationship with society, with parishes – the basis and substance of the priestly vocation is for priests to bring to parishes and society the good news of salvation and redemption.
2. Priests are human:
in the Epistle to the Hebrews it is said that every high priest is taken from amongst humanity and ordained for humanity, in things pertaining to God. (Hebrews 5: 1) They are human, but possessed and transfigured by grace. This is said during the ordination to the priesthood and to the episcopate. “Divine grace, which at all times heals the sick and completes the imperfect…” So priests are called to be humane in all respects, with all the attributes of humanity, to be perfect, indeed, as Jesus, said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 48)
That means that priests are called to imitate Christ, the good Shepherd. It means they are called to divinization (theosis.) As Jesus Christ is true man and true God, so priests must unite in themselves the attributes of perfect humanity and perfect, invisible, intangible divinity. Thus their mission is both human and divine. Everything which is theirs remains, but will be divinized.
3. A Greek Catholic community:
As I have mentioned, our priests in our patriarchal Church number some four hundred. We can thus, given this small number, make up a close, very harmonious priestly community that is loving, strong and excellent and which could reflect the image of the first Christian community as described in the Acts of the Apostles, where the Christians “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread and in prayers. And they continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat in gladness and singleness of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people.” (Acts 2:42, 46-47) Similarly, the first Christians “were of one heart and one soul; neither said any of them that ought of the things that he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:32-33) Those first Christians were worthy to receive pagan testimony, “See how they love one another!” [8]
I call upon my brother bishops and sons, the priests, to form in the third millennium just such a community as this first Christian community. So together we shall form a priestly family in a continuous relationship using all means of contact via modern media, trying constantly to deepen the elements of common life among priests who love each other and are in fellowship with each other, helping one another and bearing one another’s burdens, encouraging each other so as to attain the perfection of priestly life and model priestly service.
Let us try, as bishops and priests, to concur in deepening the initiatives and efforts at encouraging a common life among priests in each eparchy: liturgical prayer now and then together, celebrating together from time to time the Divine Liturgy, even outside the Great Feasts, spiritual retreats and monthly meetings, sessions of in-service priestly training, the big annual retreat, church and parish feasts that will be places of common festal rejoicing, celebration of the Priests’ Day once a year and in each eparchy, to gather together our Church’s priests from time to time, either at the level of all Arab countries or at the level of each parish or eparchy. On such occasions, we can exchange pastoral experiences; help each other to resolve problems common to us all; boost each other’s morale and give an example of friendship, meeting, and solidarity in the view of our parishes, so that we return to our parishes with new energy, strength and experience.
4. Priests along the way:
Greek Catholic priests and Eastern priests generally excel in their closeness to people, especially in pastoral visits, of which we have already spoken, recalling the basic duties of priests. I would like here to insist on the importance of pastoral visits to homes. The faithful like to see priests in their homes. They like to see priests walking along their way and in their district.
However, it is important for these visits to be real, spiritual visits, to take stock of reality in these families. They are not social visits. Priests should make a little program for the pastoral visits they make in their parishes and communicate that to their faithful, so that the visits should not be longer than an hour at most and include a spiritual aspect, Gospel reading, sharing over the reading, inquiring about the spiritual health of the family, so as to make the visits powerful moments in Christian life, like the conversation between the priest and deacon at the beginning of the Liturgy, in which it is said, “It is time for the Lord to act.” That is what Saint Paul says, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season.” (2 Timothy 2: 4)
My dear priests, let us walk together along people’s way so as to meet them and bring them Jesus, who is the Way and the Life.
5. The open priest:
our Melkite Greek Catholic Church is a Church which has excelled throughout its history by its openness in all respects – patrimony, culture, social outlook, East-West dialogue, Orthodox dialogue, Islamic-Christian dialogue in the context of the Middle East, the Arab world with its Muslim majority. Our ecumenical role throughout history and our involvement with the Palestinian cause in an excellent way both in Palestine and outside Palestine, the growing presence and witness of our Church worldwide – all go to make up a great inheritance. Priests should keep it and develop it through their pastoral work and priestly ministry, which must really reach all citizens in all sectors of society, so that they may bring to all the sweet savior of Christ and that they themselves become that sweet savior.
6. Continuous priestly progress:
to bring about this objective, it is important that priests of our Church apply themselves to continuous priestly training, which we have discussed above and which is primarily the responsibility of priests themselves, as it is also that of the bishop. The priest must educate himself and grow like Christ in age, wisdom and grace before God (Luke 2:52) and before all the people, especially his parish, so that he may always remain the shepherd, guide, director, educator and reference point and be able to guide his parish, with capable dignity and competence towards the pastures of life and way of salvation and of the Kingdom.
7. “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9: 3)
Our parishes, be they great or small in number of faithful have need of a greater number of priests. Our priests in our patriarchal Church today number about four hundred: in fact, we have need rather of eight hundred to be up to the strength required for our pastoral duties. Let us not forget the countries of emigration and expansion throughout the world, where the greatest numbers of our faithful are, many of whom are “lost” or “hidden.” We do not know where they all are or what has become of their spiritual life and their faith, yet we are responsible for them! For that reason, there is an absolute, ordained and imperative duty for all priests to work, especially during this year, to win new priestly or religious vocations. What do we have in practice? Currently we have in all eparchies and religious congregations between eighty and one hundred candidates for the priesthood. Now, if we calculate correctly, we should have as many seminarians as priests, some four hundred, so that they can carry the holy, sacerdotal flag in future in the place of the four hundred priests currently working in our Church.
It is a responsibility which falls on us all, bishops, priests, religious and fathers and mothers.
8. The importance of singing, eloquence, rhetoric and preaching:
Our priests are educated in the seminary in philosophy, theology, church history and ecclesiastical sciences in preparation for priesthood. However, in order to enable this great spiritual, theological and historic treasure to pass to the people it must go through the Divine Liturgy, liturgical services, sacraments, preaching and spiritual guidance.
The channel and instrument of all that is chant, sermon, eloquence, rhetoric so that the Word of God and proclamation of the Gospel and the meaning of the services may pass through the ears, to the hearts and minds of the faithful and to their lives and society.
All that is an art, a science and a technique and one cannot attain it without a continual effort, practice and participation in different specialist sessions. There can be no excuse, nor plea of incapacity, for failure to attain these skills requisite for the priestly role and for the seed of the Word of God to bear the expected fruit.
9. Joyful priests:
They are happy, grounded, convinced, spiritual, believing, trusting, attached to their priestly vocation with love and enthusiasm, completely consecrated to Christ. They are priests in aeternum, without looking back, change of heart, or hesitation. They are courageous, adventurous, and ready to give, generous, devoted, committed, open, and fearless, without spiritual, social or family complications. As Saint Paul says, he is ready for his blood to be shed as an offering on God’s altar and in the service of his parish. (cf. 2 Timothy 4: 6)
They are happy and joyful inside. That is evident to their parishes and to everybody, to all citizens and to everyone who comes to them. They show their joy especially in prayer, preaching, celebration of the Divine Liturgy and other holy sacraments or mysteries, through their way of doing their pastoral work in various social contexts in their parishes, in visits to family homes, in sharing the joys and sad times of their parishioners and in all the different circumstances that they go through.
Priestly joy is a very important thing, as is enthusiasm for bringing the message of the Holy Gospel. It is also important in ongoing relations with society and its citizens of different persuasions, denominations and faiths. This joy is also important to support young people, especially, who are the Church’s future and who are the object of a very special care in priests’ ministry and pastoral work. Besides, the priests’ joy in their vocation and ministry is a great asset, which could attract new priestly vocations among young people.
They used to say about Saint Anthony of the desert in Egypt, that visitors and other monks saw in Anthony’s joyful face, the face of God. The Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, received the visitors to his monastic cell, with this expression, “O my joy, Christ is risen!” We have also shown the meaning of this Christian spiritual joy in our Paschal Letter (2007), entitled, “O my joy, Christ is risen!”, in which we have largely shown the meanings and causes of that Christian joy, based on the joy of the resurrection.
Expressions of joy are frequent in our prayers. So, the service of Vespers concludes with the hymn of Saint Simeon, happy about his meeting with the Lord, “Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation..” (Luke 2:30)
Similarly, the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom contains a closing prayer, said in a low voice by the priest, “Fill our hearts with joy and gladness at all times…” followed by the closing hymn, “Let our mouths be filled with thy praise…that we may learn of thy righteousness.” The priest, on removing his vestments, prays the song of Saint Simeon. The Liturgy of Saint Basil exclaims, “We have been filled with thine endless life, we have enjoyed thine inexhaustible bliss…” We all sing together in conclusion, “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith…”

(xi) The Holy Apostle Paul speaks to us in the Year for Priests

The Year of Saint Paul preceded the Year for Priests. That is why we find it useful to add to this letter some verses from the Epistles of the Holy Apostle Paul, in which he addresses bishops, priests and deacons with very impressive expressions. These passages are very clear and have no need of commentary, but can be considered spiritual reference points for priests, to illuminate their lives and pastoral service.

The divine economy of redemption and the call of all humanity to sanctity:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: that in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him: in whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will: that we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ. (Ephesians 1: 3-12)

Saint Paul to bishops:

And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, serving the LORD with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: and how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over them which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified. I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20: 17-35);

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (I Timothy 3: 2-7);

For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; but a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. (Titus 1: 7-9)

Guidance for every priest in his parish:

Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward. Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. (I Timothy 5: 17-19);

Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands. For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began, but is now made manifest by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel: whereunto I am appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day. Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us. (2 Timothy 1: 6-14);

Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers. Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some. Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, let everyone that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity. (2 Timothy 2: 14-19);

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry. (2 Timothy 4: 2-5);

But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses. I give thee charge in the sight of God, who quickeneth all things, and before Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession; that thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ: which in his times he shall shew, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords; who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen.. (1 Timothy 6: 11-16);

Saint Paul to deacons:

Likewise must the deacons be grave, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. (1 Timothy 3: 8-12)

“Keep that which is committed to thy trust”

Saint Paul sums up the teachings and guidance to his disciple, Timothy with this recommendation, wish and prayer, “Keep that which is committed to thy trust.” (1 Timothy 6: 20)

With this verse and other guidance, I would like to close this fatherly and brotherly letter to my sons, the priests and furthermore, this advice and guidance is good for all the faithful.

I would like to hide behind Saint Paul, since the Year for Priests is related to the Year of Saint Paul as the Holy Father announced the Year for Priests before the Closure of the Year of Saint Paul.

I would like to hide behind Saint Paul because he is the shepherd, priest and bishop par excellence, and since my letter is based on his faith and teachings and is in the line of apostolic tradition, which reaches us in all its purity and breadth in the third millennium. We priests are responsible for it, as the ordaining bishop tells us in our Melkite tradition, “Keep that which is committed to thy trust, until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will ask thee to render account for it.”

I would like to hide behind Saint Paul so as to express my zeal, love, pride and thanks to my brother priests with Saint Paul’s warmth, enthusiasm, zeal and love and to assure them that they are close to me and to their brother bishops. They and we have the great responsibility today to keep that faith entrusted to us in the hearts of our sons and daughters and in the whole of society. We are responsible for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth and for Jesus’ mission and that of the Church he founded. We are responsible for the salvation of society and of every soul among our parishioners. With Jesus, we are responsible for the salvation of the world.

Following the example of Saint Paul, I address my brother priests and all my sons and daughters on Christmas Eve, presenting my good wishes and telling them, “Keep that which is committed to your trust,” and exhort them in the words and love of Saint Paul:

“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Romans 12: 1-2)

With Saint Paul, we call you to unity and to attachment to your Orthodox faith:

“I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4: 1-16);

In praise of Saint John Chrysostom

I put the last touch to this letter on the Eve of Saint John Chrysostom, after celebrating Vespers with my beloved seminarians of Saint Anna’s Seminary, Rabweh, who represent the future of our Church’s eparchies. Therefore I would like to add the hymn of Saint John Chrysostom, whom Pope Saint Pius X declared patron of Christian preachers. This closes my letter with a wonderful description of the priestly service and mission, “Grace like a flame shining forth from thy mouth has illumined the universe, and disclosed to the world treasures of poverty and shown us the height of humility. And as by thine own words thou teachest us, Father John Chrysostom, so intercede with the Word, Christ our God, to save our souls.”

Mary, Mother of God, pride of priests

According to our Eastern tradition, we cannot close any prayer or hymn without especially remembering and calling upon the intercession of Mary, Mother of God. Therefore I close my letter to my dear priests, recalling the sweet memory of Mary, Mother of Priests and educator of the souls of the saints, and saying, “Hail, thou who fillest the nets of the fishermen (apostles and priests).. hail, thou life of the Mystical Feast.. hail, venerable pride of faithful priests.. hail, unshakeable tower of the Church.. hail, healing of my flesh; hail, salvation of my soul.. hail, thou through whom the Creator is born a Babe; hail, thou who gavest birth to God, the Lover of mankind. [9]

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,

May God bless us and sanctify his priests!

+ Gregorios III

Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem

Damascus 2009

Translation from the French: V. Chamberlain

   

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