Syosset, New York
Syosset, New York
But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thess 5:12-13)
These words—Saint Paul’s earliest reference to the ministry of those entrusted with watching over and caring for the People of God—refer to a particular ministry, one which finds its source and expression within the worshipping local Christian community.
The Pastoral Vocation
The pastoral vocation is the vocation of Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, Who unselfishly and lovingly offered Himself “for the life of the world” [Eucharistic Prayer]. Through His life of preaching, teaching, healing, and self-emptying love, He reveals that the vocation of all people, but especially of His priestly servants, is to offer themselves to others in love. It is in this pastoral love—a love shown to all—that the Kingdom of God is revealed and proclaimed to the world. And it is in manifesting this love—a love without which the world cannot exist—that the Church finds its particular vocation in this world.
As Our Lord began His ministry, He gathered around Himself a small group of disciples. As He traveled about, “preaching and bringing the Good News of the Kingdom of God” (Lk 8:1) to all who would receive it, He prepared and guided His disciples. He offered them a powerful example by His words, His prayer, His fasting, His humility, and His love for all. And He sent them into the world to preach the Kingdom of Heaven, to call people to repentance, to cast out demons, and to heal the sick.
After His death and resurrection, Our Lord said to His disciples: All authority in heaven and on earth has been give to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. (Mt 28:18-20)
Having assured His People that He would not leave them without shepherds—pastors to care for and guide His flock—Our Lord charged His apostles to continue His preaching, teaching and healing. As they traveled throughout the world, the apostles appointed bishops to oversee the life and growth of local Christian communities. The bishops, in turn, appointed priests and deacons to assist in the ministry of Christ. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7)
The Need for Priestly Vocations
The need for priestly vocations has been an ongoing concern for the Church throughout its 2000-year history. Today, for the Church in North America, there is a critical need to foster priestly vocations. Bishops and priests are needed if God’s People are to continue Jesus Christ’s work of preaching the Gospel, and if all who seek to embrace the Word of Truth are to be brought into the life of the Church. Shepherds, who have been called by God, are needed to stand in the place that belongs to Christ, the One High Priest (Heb 3:1), ensuring that God’s People will continue to celebrate the Kingdom and be nourished in the Eucharistic banquet, from which the face of Our Lord is radiated in and through the gathering of believers. Without those who preside as bishops and priests, the spiritual house in which the faithful “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5) cannot be assembled and transformed into the Body of Christ.
Within the Church there are many vocations and a variety of ways to serve Jesus Christ and His People. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kind of tongues. (1 Cor 12:27-28) While all of these ministries are necessary, none exists apart from the ministry of Jesus Christ entrusted to His bishops and priests. God’s People need pastors to administer the Church, to offer guidance, and to teach, preach and heal. And those who would accept the call to the priestly vocation need vision, training, formation and encouragement to pursue their ministry in the Christ-like manner. We have been blessed greatly inasmuch as our seminaries are continually expanding their curricula and offering more programs in theological education. Ironically, fewer men seem to be responding to the call to serve Christ and His Church as priests. Many flocks are left without shepherds, as there are fewer priestly vocations to fill vacant parishes. Over 100 parishes will become vacant over the next five years. If the Church can provide vocations, our senior clergy will be succeeded by a new generation of priests.
How might we foster and nurture priestly vocations? First, we need the cooperation of every diocese and parish community. Our parishes are the field in which priestly vocations are planted and nurtured. It is within the local community that our youth are able to discern and develop their unique calling to serve the Lord. Hence, our parishes must strive to create an atmosphere that fosters the activity of the Holy Spirit, one in which esteem and love for those called by God to shepherd the flock are present and evident. Rather than discouraging young people from dedicating themselves to Our Lord’s service, we must encourage those with budding vocations “to seek first [the Kingdom of God] and His righteousness” (Mt 6:33).
Nurturing a vocation to the priestly ministry is an organic process. A vocation must first emerge and develop from within a loving, supportive parish community. Everyone within the parish is responsible for ensuring that the community is one in which the Holy Spirit abides and works. Parish priests, together with their flocks, must provide the care and guidance a young man needs to clearly discern God’s call to serve the Church as a pastor. The parish priest must display love and concern for his own ministry, showing by his labors that he is doing the will of God and building up the body of Christ. His ministry, of course, is not just another means of earning a living or fulfilling his own aspirations, ecclesial or otherwise, at the expense of neglecting the People of God. Rather, he is called to “tend the flock of God that is in [his] charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in [his] charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:2, 3) and to “set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim 4:12).
As a teacher of those God calls to the priestly ministry, the parish priest must reveal the transforming power of the Holy Spirit through a life of ongoing repentance. It was Saint Gregory the Theologian, a fourth century Father and pastor, who yearned to see and know such pastors. With eloquence and clarity, he described a shepherd of the Church as a man fully immersed in the Divine Life: A man must himself be cleansed, before cleansing others; he must be wise so as to make others wise; he must become light and then give light; he is to draw near to God and so bring others near; he must be hallowed so as to hallow others; he must possess hands in order to lead others by the hand; and his life must be of wisdom so as to give advice. (Flight to Pontus)
Our Common Vocation
Beloved, let us commit ourselves to the common effort of nurturing vocations to the priestly ministry, joyfully accepting Our Lord’s declaration: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Mt 9:37-38). With one voice let us call upon our Savior to raise up a new generation of shepherds and pastors from among our communities. And may their leadership of love enable the Orthodox Church to continue her vocation to “declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9) throughout North America.
+ Metropolitan THEODOSIUS
and Members of the Holy Synod of Bishops
of the Orthodox Church in America