A Talk by Archimandrite Touma Bitar, abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite and founder of the Holy Trinity Family—Douma at the meeting of the priests of the Archdiocese of Tripoli, al-Koura, and their dependencies at the parish of Bshamzin on August 8, 2010, entitled:
A Letter to the Priest
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God, amen.
The subject which they asked me to discuss has two parts:
The first part: the life of the priest,
The second part: pastoral care for the priest.
Naturally, when you ponder these two subjects or these two parts you notice that they are interconnected with each other. And so the way in which I would like to discuss them is one that takes account of the interconnectedness of both parts.
I do not want to give you a talk or a lecture. I will just give you some observations which have struck me, in fact, from my experiences, my knowledge, my reflections, and my studies.
To start off, I would like to let you know a little about myself. Some people think that I have been a monk for twenty years and do not know what I was doing before I became a monk. I was a parish priest like yourselves for fourteen years. I served parishes whose numbers ranged from fifteen families to fifteen hundred families. After fourteen years in parishes, I turned to monasticism and for the past twenty years I have been a part of the Holy Trinity Family community in Douma. So what I am going to talk about with you is not only what I found in books and it is not abstract theories. Rather, it springs forth together from expertise, from tradition and from knowledge coming out of personal experience.
Within this framework, I will focus on the bases of priesthood. Within the bases of priesthood, the life of the priest and the work of the priest are interconnected. In order to talk to you about the bases, I want you to understand “basis” according to its basic meaning. “Basis” means what the priesthood is based on. And what is priesthood based on?
The priesthood is based on six basic things out of which many secondary things arise.
The first basis of priesthood: Holiness.
The priest begins with a strong preoccupation for holiness. Naturally, the strong preoccupation of the saint is to first of all be a faithful person in every meaning of the word. We consider faith to be axiomatic with regard to a priest. If a person becomes a priest, it means that he is faithful. The truth, however, is otherwise. The truth is that there are a number of priests become priests without being faithful. They only have feelings and sentiments, and this does not mean faith in the strict sense of the word.
What is the meaning of the word “faith”? When we say that the priest has faith in the Lord Jesus and that means that the priest or one who wants to become a priest starts off from belonging to Christ and being a servant of Christ and submitting his life to the Lord Jesus Christ and staying within the orbit of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is alpha and omega for him, He is the starting off point and He is the endpoint. And so faith is a very practical life. Faith is not abstract belief. Faith is not abstract feelings. Faith is an existential position relative to the Lord Jesus Christ. When one takes the Lord Jesus Christ as Lord and God, when he considers himself to be a servant in every sense of the word, as dust and ashes before the Lord Jesus, when the Lord moves his heart and his soul in one way or another in his leadership of the Church, when one is able to speak about true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, from this point it is possible for this person who is faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ to become a priest or not.
It is not enough for one to hope to become a priest! The priesthood has prerequisites and they must abound in that person. Not every faithful person can become a priest! There are faithful people who are able to become other things, but the one who wants to become a priest must have specific qualities in abundance. For this reason I said that I will talk about the many bases of priesthood.
The basic starting off point is that the priest or the one seeking to be a priest must be concerned with holiness, he must be preoccupied with holiness. Holiness must be his central preoccupation. When we say central preoccupation, this means that all his life must be a struggle for holiness, that his life is centered on Jesus Christ, that his first and last concern is the Lord Jesus Christ, that his heart belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ, that his effort in his every thought and deed is towards what will lead him to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The priest is the one who strives for holiness and is not concerned with anything else other than holiness! If he has a concern other than holiness than he deviates from the priesthood towards something else! He becomes a person alien to his place even if he is wearing a kamelaukion and a riassa and he has a beard and he presides over a service. If he does not have an upright heart, if he does not have a sincere heart, then the person becomes an alien, a mercenary, a stranger, out of place, and he is not working for Christ and Christ’s Church but against Christ! If holiness is not the basic concern for a priest, then his concern becomes what wages he can extract from priesthood and what he can gain from it: his position! People’s high regard for him! His honor among people! His glory! His concern is not what draws him to Christ and what draws his flock to Christ! If his center is not the Lord Jesus, then the priest clothes himself in necessities and forms and principles other than what pertains to the Spirit of Christ! His priestly life becomes one in form, but he is empty on the inside and there is nothing divine within him. If what is in him is not holiness, than it becomes worldliness—this world, love of this world, love of the self, love of the glories of the world!
And so the first primary basis is holiness. We start off from here. If this preoccupation is present then from there we can talk about the priesthood. And if this preoccupation is not there, then we cannot talk about the priesthood.
The second basis of priesthood: poverty.
It is not reasonably for a person to seek holiness without also at the same time seeking poverty. His profound internal attitude should be that of one poor before the Lord who considers his wealth to be from God “my strength is from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” The priest is one who adopts poverty voluntarily. For him, Christ is riches. He always strives to be filled with these riches, the riches of the Lord. Even if he has much, he strives to live on little and he requires of himself a life of poverty. He might be able to buy a silk robe, for example, but he will not buy it and spend five thousand dollars because this is contrary to the spirit of poverty. The question is not whether or not he is able to provide himself with comfort, the question is whether he can use what little he has to keep himself in the deepest sense poor, because if he does not strive to keep himself poor then he simply cannot strive for the riches of the Lord! On the subject of poverty, there is a nice saying from Metropolitan Georges Khodr in one of the issues the bulletin of his archdiocese from 1995. He said, “One who volunteers for the priesthood and is chosen for it cannot but love poverty as a path to freedom. It is not permitted for a priest to seek affluence and luxury, even while it is necessary for the parish to save him from being destitute. He should be pleased with what God brings him. He should rely on Him and give thanks for everything.”
And so, as I said, the priest adopts poverty voluntarily but no one can say to him, ‘you are a priest and so you have to be poor and for this reason we will only give you 400,000 Lebanese Lira (= $267) a month to live. That is unacceptable! The parish must surround its priest with great love and give him everything he requires! But as for him, he must treat what he receives with a spirit of poverty, whether it is a little or a lot. The question is not related to the amount that the priest receives or what he can receive, the question is a question of his internal, personal attitude. The priest must choose to live on a little because he wants that, so that his relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is a relationship characterized by divine riches, be it in prayer or in fasting or in every remembrance of God! Afterwards, if the priest has a surplus, there is never any need for this and it is inappropriate for him to store it up for the future as though he has become able to take care of his own needs, thinking that when he gets old that he will use it and that he needs to plan to make his future secure with it. This kind of thinking is unacceptable. This is an impure attitude and it never corresponds with the spirit of poverty and reliance upon God.
There are some priests who think that since they have a family, they need to secure the family’s livelihood. They need a house because if anything bad happens to the priest, that the parish can ask the family to move out of the rectory. And this happens sometimes. For this reason priests are afraid and fear leads them to rationalization and rationalization leads them to inappropriate behavior. At this point they exploit their stole in a way damaging to Christ’s Church and gradually the priest’s concern becomes centered on how to secure his position and his life, now and in the future.
I remember that when I was responsible for the office of priests in the Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon, once it was pointed out to the metropolitan that there was a priest who was misusing his stole. The metropolitan told me to go and ask him what he was in need of. He told me to offer him an increase of his stipend and to make the parish council give him twice what he needed so that he would stop exploiting his stole because this was scandalizing people. I went to him. I sat down with him and talked to him. I offered him six thousand lira a month (the priest at that time was receiving one thousand lira and living off this) so that he could be at ease and so that he and his family’s livelihood would be secure. His response was “God provides”! For him, this was God’s way of providing! He said exactly these words to me! For him, this was God’s way of providing and he wanted to live off of it! When a priest reaches this level of decadence in the way he deals with money, this means that he has fallen greatly and from that point on he cannot pastor anyone. He pastors his passions and passions his own desires, and by chance he might pastor some people here and there. Even when he does tend to some people, he does so for the sake of his honor and his personal ego, for the sake of self-conceit and promoting his leadership role in the parish. In reality, all these things necessarily occur when the priest leaves the path of holiness, when he leaves the path of voluntary poverty and submission to God.
This point that I mention is not something optional, that if a priest wants he can act in this way and if it’s not necessary he can be an employee. Unfortunately, there are many priests who have the mentality of an employee and go do their job then go home. Their concern is their leisure more than their parish.
The priest is not at all an employee. A priest is able, in addition to his priestly service, to work with his hands to make things easier on his parish. That is, to take a specific profession to provide for himself and his family and to help the parish as he is able. This is possible. But for us to consider the priesthood to be a profession as though the priest is simply hired labor is completely unacceptable!
The priest submits his life to the Lord, whether he has much or he has little. His heart trusts on the Lord. He has faith in the One who said, “I will not neglect you and I will not leave you.” He has faith in the One who said, “Do not worry, saying ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘what shall we drink?’ or ‘what shall we wear?’ because your heavenly Father knows that you are in need of all of this. Rather, seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all of these things will be added unto you.”
It is natural for a priest to feel fear, but it is unacceptable if he has faith in the Lord Jesus to give himself over to fear. He must put himself at all times in the hands of the Living God. If he sometimes passes into difficulties and fear or he faces a serious problem with regard to his livelihood, then this need is from God so that he might learn how to submit himself in a more complete fashion. Fear for the future, as I said a little earlier, paralyses faith. The One who feeds us now is able to do this later. The One who takes care of us now is able to take care of us in the future. Perhaps you remember in the Paradise of the Fathers the elder who was walking with his disciple once and it happened that the disciple got thirsty. Then the elder prayed and water flowed out in front of them. The disciple drank as much as he could and then he filled a flask he had with him. The elder asked him, “My son, why did you do this?” He responded, “So that we do not get thirsty again along the way.” He answered, “The one who satisfied your thirst now is able to satisfy it later.”
What is important is that one must learn to submit oneself to God. If not, he will not be faithful at all. He must always hold fast to his personal relationship with the Lord when he is in a dangerous situation. If he does not put himself in God’s hands and he is in such a situation, if he does not submit himself to the Lord and accept that he is in danger, then his faith will gradually die. There is no such thing as theoretical faith. In order for the Lord to remain alive within us, we must always pass through pains and troubles without giving ourselves over to fear and anxiety. Instead, we must give ourselves over to prayer. We must give ourselves over to God and the Lord God will always takes care of us because He said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and everything else will be added unto you.”
Fear for the future not only paralyses faith, it also leads to sin and it leads to selfishness. In the Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon, they were always holding priests’ meetings. Not a one of these meetings happened, as far as I remember, without the problem of priests’ livelihoods being raised. The question was always “How can we live?” If one’s priestly life is centered on this concern, then at this point it has lost one of the bases of priesthood.
Giving ourselves over to fear always leads to seeking wealth and in reality seeking wealth becomes limitless. One who is not filled with God, even if he ate Egypt and drank the Nile would not be sated! Giving ourselves over to fear makes us fall into the love of money, into the worship of Mammon. So for this reason, adopt poverty, trusting in God and seeking His riches. This is one of the basic signs of love, and so one of the basic and essential signs of the priesthood. I will once more say that the priest is one who seeks poverty voluntarily and no one forces him into it, not the bishop and not the trustees of the Church and not influential people. They should provide him with everything he needs with generosity and godly zeal. Virtues are not forced on people, virtues are accepted freely. All this is regarding the priest’s internal life, not his external life!
The third basis of priesthood: Prayer and Fasting.
The basic work of the priest is prayer and fasting. All pastoral work that he undertakes must be anointed with prayer and fasting! If a priest who does not have personal prayer, then his group prayer is not for him but against him. The basis for leading the group in prayer is his expertise in personal prayer. This means quite simply that a priest must have a daily rule. He must pray and do prostrations and fast during all the fasts. Where there are extraordinary circumstances which keep him from completely performing his rule, this is another issue. However, he must practice prayer and persevere in fasting. When his personal prayer is alive and the Lord Jesus Christ moves his soul, and Jesus Christ breathes His spirit into him, then that man becomes able to truly pray with the group. There is a great difference between Liturgy and rituals. Anyone is able to perform rituals, that is to memorize them and perform: “Again and again in peace let us pray to the Lord…” for example. Sometimes a person does not notice himself or is unaware, and despite this he is able to easily perform the rituals. The Devil himself is able perform rituals. Indeed, in reality the Devil participates in every Liturgy that turns into mere empty ritual devoid of prayer.
Prayer comes first of all to hearts that are oriented upwards. When one seeks prayer, that is a connection to God, sincerely and faithfully, at that point his prayer comes alive and the group prayer becomes very effective. But if this element is not there abundantly, then it is natural for him to become distracted by other things: noises, the vessels, gossip, if the service is long or short, etc. At that point one leaves prayer for formalities. Ritual, in itself, is nothing but a vessel which is filled with prayer through the Spirit. If it is not like this, then ritual can become very deadly and scandalous.
Personal prayer is very basic in order for the Spirit to be ignited in the heart of the priest, who is chosen to be a prayer leader. From there comes one of the basic concerns of a priest with regard to prayer and fasting, which is sanctifying the life of the faithful and the world! This means that the priest makes the people and their needs holy and puts everything which they undertake into the framework of prayer. The priest must pay attention to all human needs or else he will be worried about a need and not put it into the framework of prayer. The work of the priest is to surround his parish with constant diligence so that the Spirit of God will spread among them through prayer and blessing. The priest sanctifies the world—homes, crops, all human works. Naturally, this means that people pay attention to what is appropriate to this sanctification. He prays with people, for people, and over people. Every issue that is presented to the priest, ever problem that faces the parish, or that faces one of the sons or daughters of the parish, is taken up by the priest in personal prayer, and if necessary in fasting for its sake. The sanctification of the people and of the world must be the chief concern and occupation of the priest. Then the priest keeps track of all the concerns and issues that the people have. Everything finds its appropriate place in prayer. For this reason we find in the Epistle to the Philippians, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.”
As for fasting, it is the constant companion of prayer. Fasting aids prayer and accompanies prayer because true prayer comes from hunger and not from satiety. This means that we fast, in truth, in order to be made able to pray in freedom and power. Prayer does not come out of full stomachs. Stomachs need a certain amount of hunger. Through the course of the year, there are a great many days set aside for fasting. The Church arranged all of this so that we can practice continuous, living, effective prayer.
The fourth basis of priesthood: Personal Qualities Specific to the Priest
There are personal qualities and there is spiritual maturity. There is a distinction between the two. There are some people who want to become priests who have favorable qualities which are appropriate to the priesthood and some people have unfavorable qualities which are inappropriate for the priesthood. For example, it is very necessary that one who accepts the priesthood to have self control and to accept to learn self control. If one does not know self control, this means that he is liable to quarrel with anyone. If he is a person who is quick to anger, then he will enter into quarrels with others for the slightest reason. This means that he is not able to pastor anyone. So, it is necessary for one who advances to the priesthood to be able to control himself.
He must be gentle in how he treats others. He must be ready to listen. Most priests love to talk but don’t love to listen. The priest must not only listen, he must also be a good listener in the sense that he must be prepared to listen to others and to what others say to him, and what others express to him.
Then he must be respectful of others. When a priest makes fun of someone, this means that the priest has lost him. The priest must have a very respectful attitude towards people because he is Christ’s servant and he must treat every person with the regard he has for an icon of Christ! On this basis he honors people, but without flattery. He treats people well, or strives to treat people well, but without being overbearing. And so he must be patient, especially in times of temptation.
The priest must have a sharp and well-ordered intellect. If he does not have a well-ordered intellect, this is a great hindrance which hurts his ability to pastor. Likewise he needs to be able to express himself clearly. If he has a problem in doing this, like if he does not know how to speak or to express himself, then he will say something but mean something else. Such a person can’t enter into sharing words with another.
Next, one of the personal qualities that is important for the priest is a spirit of leadership. A spirit of leadership needs a steady personality and the ability to take initiative, but with great humility and great love. Otherwise, his leadership will become oppressive and damaging to people and they will avoid him! So it is necessary for a priest to have leadership qualities without oppressiveness and without being trivial, and he must always be ready to serve people and not people’s passions.
The priest needs to be someone that people are comfortable with and not someone they flee from. The presence of the priest must cause love in people. They should rejoice at his presence and existence. Naturally, this comes to a great degree from his being a man of God and from his being loving and from his breathing the Spirit of God to others! He cannot accept to be too eager to please people and he should not be interested in giving in to people’s passions. Many times people the people want the priest to be as they like, and so they make him be as they like. They encourage him to do things that they want, and then they make fun of him for having done them.
The priest must not be pugnacious and he must not be a lover of conflict. Naturally, for a priest to not be a lover of conflict this does not mean that he cannot have convictions or that he cannot be firm in his convictions as long as he is not oppressive with them. Also, the priest must be flexible in his dealing with people without changing his opinion in accordance with the dominant atmosphere in order to please people and their desires.
The priest must be a reliable person. This means that when people need a person to rely on, to bring them up from a situation or a problem or a worry, it is very important that they think of the priest right away and regard him as the first person they can rely on to help his parishioners and also those outside his parish to solve their problems. It is important for the priest to be trustworthy with people. For example, Father Habib Khashi, that saint and martyr from Damascus, the priests would complain about him. Why?! Because all the people gave to the poor through him. They did not have trust in the other priests because when they would give through them at least a little of the money would wind up in their pockets when they assumed that it would go to the poor! It is important for the priest to be trustworthy in the eyes of the parish and for him to have a balanced personality and to not have prominent or acute issues. This is something that needs to be taken up with care when we prepare our priests, either at Balamand or elsewhere. In general, we do not look to see if the priest has a balanced personality or not! There are priests with issues. It is possible that a priest suffered from an oppressive father and so his personality reprises this and he himself is overbearing. Without a doubt a certain kind of scrutiny needs to be applied on a personal level to find out if the one seeking the priesthood is a person with a balanced personality or not! Sometimes someone seeking the priesthood grew up in a poor household and so he became extravagant or miserly. Sometimes he suffered from his father’s abuse of his mother, and so he comes to hate the image of fatherhood in general! In reality, there are many things that can have an impact on the personality of someone seeking the priesthood. If careful attention is not paid to them, then the Church can greatly suffer from this person’s issues. For example, someone can become a bishop and if he has issues of this sort then he could become miserly with his people and his priests and think that it’s something very natural because this is the usual personal environment in which he lived.
Very often, people who have intractable issues put their issues within a theological framework and give them a theological coloring without even knowing!
Among the personal traits that it is important for a priest to have, he must have a gregarious personality and not be an introvert. He must be inclined towards people and find joy and satisfaction in being open to people. Naturally, this extends to his family. There are priests’ wives who do not like it when people come to their homes because they get bothered and annoyed. Sometimes we limit the priesthood to the priest and we place his wife outside the priesthood and so there comes to be a fissure between the priest, his wife, and his children and this has a negative impact on his priesthood.
The fifth basis of priesthood: Spiritual Maturity
Without a doubt, spiritual maturity softens a person’s temperament but it does not necessarily change him. Spiritual maturity and personal maturity are inevitably interconnected. Among the signs of spiritual maturity is for a priest to be watchful of himself, watchful of his thoughts and behavior, for him to have an inner eye through which he looks within himself and sees what happens there, what the thoughts are that circulate in his mind, what motivations are moving within his heart, etc.
And so, a priest must be watchful of himself, of his thoughts, of his intentions, of his behavior, constantly struggling to correct himself. A priest who is spiritually mature knows where his shortcomings are and his first concern is to observe his personal shortcomings. He is not concerned with defending himself and accusing others, with self-justification. This is not at all a sign of maturity!
The priest must always learn to pay attention to himself, and if he notices that he has done another person wrong he must be prepared to ask forgiveness. Some people consider this to injure their honor. Perhaps it does injure their honor before people, but this raises their honor before the Lord and this is what is most important.
I know a priest who once raised his voice with an elderly person. This elderly man was annoyed with how the priest raised his voice at him, but the priest just had to put his palms on top of the other and go over to him and ask to kiss his hand and ask his forgiveness, confessing his mistake saying, “I sinned against you.”
Naturally, if a person is not mature he won’t do this but will rather seek to whitewash what he did in some way or another. But if a person is great in the Spirit and great before the Lord, then he will be prepared to wash people’s feet. We sometimes talk about washing people’s feet, but in reality we only perform this in words.
One of the signs of spiritual maturity is for a priest to not be self-conceited, that means that he should put his sins before his own eyes rather than his virtues and that he should always be prepared to be humble and to deny himself before both the great and the small and to confess his sins and shortcomings. He should not be concerned with his image others have of him as much as with the image God has of him. Spiritual maturity makes a priest forgive with ease and not bear grudges and it makes him ask for forgiveness with ease. He accepts others however they are and he knows to accept what comes to him. He does not veto anyone. He embraces people but does not always necessarily embrace their ideas. He knows to love his enemy. If he has a difference of opinion with anyone, he loves him more not less!
Here we will move from the subject of spiritual maturity to a subject that has become very familiar to the priest in his parish. The attitude of the priest toward controversies within his parish. If a priest is spiritually mature, then it is not appropriate for him to enter into the parish’s quarrels and it is not permitted for him to enter into partisan activities within his parish. The priest should not enter anything that has anything to do with politics and he should not have any opinion about politics. The priest should not have any political opinion or attitude that he expresses. He can have his personal analysis which is private to him, but he is not permitted to declare it and he is not permitted to convey it to others! Very unfortunately, there are very many priests to deal with politics in a harmful way. This causes many parishes to divide against themselves. Our allegiance is above and not to anyone on this earth! Among the signs of spiritual maturity are also patience, forbearance, piety, mercifulness, love, that the priest be resolute in his determination, that he be tender in his feelings, that tears come easily to his eyes! The priest who loves God must, from time to time, have tears flow from his eyes, even if only internally. Also among the signs of spiritual maturity is that the priest loves peace and is a peacemaker, striving for it, warm in his relationships with people without stickiness and at a distance from people without coldness! He should not deal with people as peers and he should not allow people to treat him as a buddy. With the priest, truth is truth and sin is sin. “Let your words be yes yes and no no.”
The limits of the spiritually mature priest are the Law. Between him and the people there is the Law and the commandment of the Kingdom of Christ. His limits are the Law and God’s love for people. A priest must be a man of confrontation whenever necessity calls for it. One who flatters others is a liar. Whenever necessity calls for confrontation, he must confront. Naturally, he confronts with much calmness, love, and kindness. But he must be able to confront. The priest who cannot confront cannot be a man of God. He is a man of the people! The people buy and sell him at a low price. The priest must correct with mercy and he must be strict when necessity calls for it. At times he must cause people pain like the Apostle Paul caused people pain, but he caused them pain in order to correct them. And so the priest corrects with mercy but he gives comfort generously.
A priest must be modest in his eating, in his clothes, and in his behavior. What applies to him applies to his family as well. It is never true that his family is on one side and he is on another side. Never!! There is no uglier picture than that of the priest who has put on his full outfit while he is on a pastoral visit while his wife is dressed immodestly because that is the fashion. Shameful! A priest like that is in effect condemned for it! He can never talk about anything called modest dress or modest behavior or modest demeanor. He is condemned and people find fault with him on account of his wife. If he is spiritually mature he must have a pious wife who helps him and is concerned with his priesthood and he must arrange his household well and have children who are submitted to him with all honor, as the Apostle said.
These are some aspects of the spiritually mature priest and also of the spiritually mature priestly family.
The sixth basis of priesthood: Theological Education
Theological education is required of the priest. There are two things without which there is no healthy spiritual life.
1- True knowledge of the Orthodox Faith. It is not enough for a person to have piety without knowledge of the Faith. This is false piety. Piety comes from knowledge and not from ignorance. Thus healthy spiritual life does not exist without knowledge of the Orthodox Faith.
2- Theological education is required so that the priest will be able to teach and to defend the faith in the language of the people. If he does not study and read, he will not be able to transmit the faith. The priest must dedicate time to reading every day. He must know how people think and he must learn their language. Otherwise, how can he transmit the divine word to them?! How can he evangelize them with the Gospel?! If a priest goes to the house and he is ignorant, and the people in the house are educated and cultured, then how will he talk to them? He must know how to speak to them and know their language.
Thus we know that in reality knowledge is the bearer of the divine word. And so every priest is required to have attained a certain measure of knowledge of what is in books. From there, every priest must become the student of holy priests. They should study their necessary pastoral experience. For us to ordain a priest and put him in a parish so that he will train himself by himself is unhealthy. This is not a healthy way at all! Many priests, even if they studied theology need to spend some time in training before they enter into parish work. It is best for them to spend some time in a monastery in order to acquire the monastic habits which will be useful for him in his pastoral care and so that he can benefit from holy priests.
This pastoral knowledge does not come intuitively, that is, by the priest visualizing things in his mind. One problem priests have in general is that when they become priests they think that they have graduated from the university of knowledge and now know everything. They no longer ask anyone anything and they play around with the priestly services. For example, we notice that every priest performs the service of baptism in a different way from all the others. He considers himself to be the leader and that he has become his own master. This is a great danger. Some consider it humiliating to ask other priests about a specific question!
There are two temptations with regard to theological education that we always encounter.
The first temptation: To consider theological education to be the basic requirement of preparation for the priesthood and to turn a blind eye, in practice not in theory, to the basics of the spiritual life and the other bases of the priesthood, except in the most general terms. This is a great temptation. In practice, this means that bishops send students to learn theology and after they obtain their degree they often consider them to have obtained all they need. The bishop is in need of a priest in a certain place and so he ordains him to the priesthood. However, before ordaining him has he checked with his spiritual father to see if he is fit for the priesthood or not?! He has studied for many years, do you not want to know if he is mature or not, personally mature or not? Is he prepared or not? Because if we do not pay attention to the quality of the priests, there will come a time when we are no longer able to correct errors that have been committed. It is easy to ordain a priest but it is very hard to depose one! And so, theological education alone is not enough. Those responsible at Balamand are always complaining that the bishops ordain without inquiring about the candidate with those responsible for him, if he is fit for the priesthood or not.
The second temptation: It is contentment with just performing the services and not paying attention to book learning and education in the faith.
Knowledge is very important and the acquisition of experience from prominent or noteworthy priests is something important. And so, both temptations are great dangers for the Church of Christ.
Likewise, there is a need for knowledge of Islam and for knowledge of heresies and novel doctrines and for knowledge of the religious and intellectual movements that exist in our country. It is necessary for there to be a certain amount of attentiveness to them so that the priest will be able to discern the face of the Lord wherever His face appears in a given thought, even if it is outside the Church and so that he will also discern the face of danger to the Church of Christ in the wars that are waged here and there against her, and so that he will be able to defend his Church and resist her detractors in the language that they themselves use and with the ideas they resort to. Naturally, the Lord God gives wisdom to those who fear Him, but the priest must do what he can in earnest to cooperate with his Lord so that he will not be found lacking. Our Lord gives us grace, but with the grace of our Lord we must labor and acquire a certain degree of ability! These are the six bases of priesthood that I wanted to convey to you and naturally much branches out from them.
There are four points of discussion that are necessary and very basic for the priests to examine and which should not be left without study and discussion:
The first point of discussion: Work toward a manual for the priest.
Priests should discuss among themselves the publication of a manual for the priest. Each priest should have a manual so that the practice of priestly service will be one and so that matters will be set straight. There is a need for there to be a manual covering canonical issues, pastoral issues, and liturgical issues so that we will not be like a scattered mosaic and so that we will be prevented from what the Church does not permit and so that we will hold fast to what she teaches us.
The second point of discussion: Media education in the parish.
Today, one of the greatest dangers to the Church is media chaos. What is our role in the parish and in the diocese? There are many people who do not know what is harmful and what is helpful in this regard. There are people who do not know, for example, that if we put a child younger than two years in front of a television that his nervous system will be greatly impacted! Children cannot be put in front of the television because the family has something to do other than to look after their children. This is a sin! There is a culture that must be learned. There are things that are harmful for people to avoid. There are beneficial things that we must encourage people towards. It is very important for people to know that there are very harmful television programs that they may not watch. Churches which respect themselves publish a monthly guide about things that are harmful for the faithful to watch and things that they need to be informed about. Then there is the question of the internet, Facebook, and things like this. All these things need to be studied. The Church needs to enter into these matters so that she will have a role in educating the faithful and in helping them to avoid many of the dangers of the media. If we are able to control things to a certain degree through education, then this greatly helps the parish. It may be necessary to start by extending this topic to thinking about alternatives to watching television, such as organizing weekly activities for the parish. When someone sits in front of the screen for five to six hours a day, he will be deeply influenced by what he watches. We need to find other solutions for entertainment and education besides television and the internet. Unfortunately, we are in a country without public libraries and without public gardens. We must organize appropriate activities in the parish for the benefit of the faithful and gather them around the word of God. The topic of media education in the parish, then, is important.
Here I will point to another issue which some people have been talking about, which is the establishment of a radio station for the Archdiocese. I believe there are people who have worked for years to obtain a license to establish a radio station. This is an important plan. This will establish a connection between the priests, the bishop, and the diocese. Media is important and we cannot see ourselves as unconcerned with it.
The third point of discussion: The priest and pastoral workshops on the diocesan level.
I hope that there will be workshops on the diocesan level at specific times of the year, once or twice, since there are urgent issues that need to be examined. The priests are called to study these issues and there are people who will prepare these studies. The issue of workshops is essential to serious Orthodox churches which respect themselves.
The fourth point of discussion: The priest and his spiritual life.
This point of discussion is connected to the topic of personal retreats for the priest and the topic of group spiritual retreats, confessions, spiritual fatherhood… All aspects of spiritual education are in need of attention. The priests need to pursue things on this level. Does the priest only confess people without needing to confess himself? If a priest wants to be serious and sober, he must constantly practice personal confession!
It is very appropriate to organize a retreat for the priests one or two times a year with prayers and discussions and examination of spiritual issues, not just practical issues, but also issues that are specific to the life of the priest. The priest needs to take care of himself and to be taken care of so that he will be constantly corrected spiritually and grow. All of this is reflected positively in his whole parish.