The great Church Father, St. John Chrysostom (+407AD), Archbishop of Constantinople, while still a layman, grappled with the meaning of the office of the priesthood. At that time, he was avoiding ordination; yet at the very same time, he wrote his great work On the Priesthood, which has been a Christian classic ever since. From generation to generation, faithful Christian men have been called to fulfill the office of ministerial priesthood; they have done so with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, even if they have resisted the idea initially as St. John Chrysostom did. What then are the duties of a priest?
First, according to Chrysostom, the priest is to lead the worship of the community and administer the sacramental mysteries. To implement this in our world today, the contemporary priest must realize that the Church (Grk: ekklesia, congregation) is most itself when gathered together to praise, glorify, supplicate and thank its Savior, Christ God. The parish priest has the great honor to lead this worship and the responsibility to see that “all the faithful be led to that full, conscious and active participation that is demanded by the nature of the Liturgy” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14). More good, or harm, can be done by the Sunday Liturgy than any other parochial activity. It is important to note that the priest is leading the entire congregation in its worship. It is not “his Mass” or anyone else’s. Rather, the Liturgy is the common work of the entire body of Christ, clergy and laity of all ranks.
On any typical Sunday, a Melkite priest will, before the Divine Liturgy, serve Orthros (Morning Prayer) and be available for the sacramental mystery of repentance. After the Divine Liturgy, the priest will often serve at memorial services, bless icons and cars and bless mothers and their newborn babes. Most marriages and baptisms are also celebrated on the Lord’s Day, although they are not limited to this particular day.
The parish priest is frequently called upon to visit the sick, anoint them with holy oil and bring Holy Communion to them and the shut-ins; frequently during the visit, he will bless the home as well. At the time of a death, he once again gathers the congregation and leads them as they bid farewell to one of their members.
Secondly, the priest preaches the Gospel to those both inside and outside of the Church. The most obvious modern exercise of this function is the homily (an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word), which is delivered at all Divine Liturgies and the celebrations of marriages, baptisms and funerals.
Teaching is yet another way of conveying instruction. Most parishes have religious education for all ages and further instruction sessions to prepare for baptisms and marriages. In his daily contacts and visits with people, a priest is called upon to answer questions and explain Church teachings. The parish bulletin, newsletter and website are also vehicles for this teaching office.
Thirdly, the priest is to be a spiritual physician to God’s people, diagnosing and healing their vices, sins and spiritual ailments. The Melkite priest does this most frequently through counseling and in the sacrament or holy mystery of repentance, but his eyes must always be open to spot problems and try to solve them. Frequently, this is the most difficult job of the priest, because his congregation must learn to trust him before they will approach him with the secrets of their lives. He, in turn, must always be patient – but firm – with his spiritual children realizing that he is not better than them, but chosen to serve them by the mercy of God.
Fourthly, the priest is to govern the Church according to the laws of God as His representative (Titus 1:7). The Melkite priest must follow the commandments of Christ, as expressed in the Holy Gospel, the greatest of which is love. These norms are also expressed in the sacred canons of the Church and the eparchial directives. Yet, their immediate application and enforcement is the province of the parish priest. In this, he is assisted by his parish advisory council, who should keep him informed of the affairs of the congregation and offer him timely advice. It must be noted that the Church is not a secular democracy. Dogma and ethics cannot be voted in or out; rather we follow our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, each baptized person has the Holy Spirit within him/her and individual opinions must be taken seriously in discerning the will of God for the parish and in building a parish consensus.
All the facets of the priestly vocation just mentioned are heavily dependent upon the personal spiritual life of the priest for their development and credibility (although Chrysostom does not mention this in detail). Ordination plants the seeds of the ministerial priesthood in a man who must cooperate with the Holy Spirit to make the plant grow. A priest who does not pray will exhibit this lack of spirituality in the liturgical celebrations. One who does not read and live the Gospel will find it difficult to preach the Gospel to others. The one who neglects his own spiritual growth will not be credible to others. He who lacks a fatherly concern for the flock cannot govern well in the name of the heavenly Father.
Anyone who is interested in becoming a priest can start their training immediately by obtaining a spiritual father to help him grow in his spiritual life. The road to being a good priest starts by being an even better Christian, by constantly growing closer to the triune God through prayer, the reception of the holy mysteries, fasting, spiritual reading and loving concern for others, both inside and outside of the Church.
Priestly formation takes place most effectively in community, for the Church itself is that community in which God is experienced as He reveals Himself in a communion of love and life. Therefore, knowledge of the history and mentality of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in general, and in the United States in particular, is of great importance. Thus, a Melkite seminarian must be open to developing within himself:
- The ability to appreciate the essence of the Melkite heritage and identity and to incarnate it in current American culture;
- An appreciation of the various ethnic groups of Melkite immigrants (Egyptian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Sudanese, Syrian and others) and the ability to work comfortably with them;
- Sensitivity to the problems of recent Melkite immigrants from abroad in adapting to American culture and American Melkite Church life and the ability to assist them;
- An appreciation of the customs, food, value systems, mentality and world-view of the various ethnic groups;
- Some knowledge of the Arabic language;
- A realistic awareness of the identity of the American Melkite Eparchy, neither inclining to a compromise that would dilute or absorb its heritage nor to a fear of foreigners, nor to a ghetto mentality, nor to an isolationist eclecticism nor a false ecumenism.
If you are interested in further exploring a vocation to the priesthood and to learn about our present seminary program, please contact the Director of Vocations.
O Jesus, our Good Shepherd, bless all our parishes with numerous priests, deacons, monks and nuns according to the needs of the entire world which You love and wish to save.
We especially entrust our Melkite Church to You. Grant us the spirit of the first Christian faithful so that we may be a cenacle of prayer in loving acceptance of the Holy Spirit and His gifts.
Guide the steps of those who have responded generously to Your call and are preparing to receive holy orders or to profess the evangelical counsels.
Look with love on so many well-disposed young people and call them to follow You. Help them to understand that in You alone can they attain complete fulfillment.
To this end, we call on the intercession of the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, mother and model of all vocations. We beseech You to sustain our faith with the certainty that the Father will grant what You have commanded us to ask. Amen.