The Changing Image of Priesthood: When Priests Go From Respect to Suspect


I’ve been a priest for forty-two years. It hasn’t seemed long at all—unless, that is, I compare the development, if it can be called that, through the decades. Contrast would be a better term. One thinks of priests as Roman Catholic; however, I am an Orthodox priest; Russian, if an ethnic label helps to define me. My first few years were served in our Church’s New York City cathedral. It’s located in lower Manhattan, not far from Greenwich Village, Chinatown and the Bowery—a superb location to condition one’s ministry in the real world. The reigning hierarch of our Church at that time told me that a year in that neighborhood would prepare me for whatever eventualities I might possibly encounter anywhere else in the country for the rest of my life. He had in mind the variant personality types and the person-to-person situations that arise in a Christian ministry. Neither he nor I could have imagined the hurricane of social events that were to take place in just a few years from then, transforming the nation and redefining the role of clergy from that time forth.

Oddly, clergy were treated with more than deference in the early years of my clerical service, even in urbane, aloof Manhattan. It bordered on adulation in some circles. The early sixties were the time when women insisted on getting off the pedestal of special treatment, but generic Catholic believers left their priests on the plinth and all other clergy had a place near the edge. However, it was not comfortable to be there. To be treated like an object rather than a normal person makes for strained, superficial relationships. One is looked upon as a mobile religious statue: “Be careful of your language. See who’s here?” Or worse, like a naive retarded child: “Nice weather for golf today, hey Father?”

Christian clergy of all communions had been treated as creatures out of the normal everyday culture. Except for the Presbyterian minister miler in the movie, “Chariots of Fire,” I can’t recall in the media another positive, wholesome, intelligent leader type in the ministry, whether in television or the motion pictures.

All that passed into oblivion with the cultural explosion that had rocked our nation in the mid and late sixties, brought about by the anti-war protests coupled with the sexual and racial revolutions. Clergy indeed took part in those events on all sides of every issue. They were proud to be considered relevant, at long last, involved, committed, and finally taken seriously by the media and society at large. So we went from the observation towers of America, up high where nothing serious is accomplished, the place where folks go on vacation to have a look at the city and surroundings, but where nobody works except the elevator operator, then plummeting down below ground level to where today our black suits and white collars no longer bring on glances of honor and admiration, but something quite the contrary. And we think twice before we share normal acts of affection, even among the congregation. One blessing to emerge from the sexual debacle is the refusal of all clergy, not only from the various Christian communions but rabbis as well, to take up stones to heave at the guilty. If we have not all “like sheep, gone astray,” we realize the temptations that a society such as ours, so fixated on sensual pleasures, places before clergy and laity.

I took forty-two years to plunge from the tower to the cellar. We all have been humbled for the sins of a scant few. However, humility’s not a curse for true Christians; or what’s the Cross all about? Priests and all ministers will rise again. Neither from our knees, where we ought to be, nor to the observation tower, for we never really belonged there. The first floor is where all ministering clergy and we priests should be. Out in the streets and alleys, wherever God’s people move or assemble is the place for us.