His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH's Address to the Faculty and Students of St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary
March 10, 2008 - Tuckahoe New York
Father John Behr, Dean, Father Chad Hatfield, Chancellor, Reverend Presbyters and Deacons, Seminarians and Distinguished Guests:
Over the ages, the practices of the Church have evolved in the ever-more difficult quest to save mankind from spiritual death. While our Lord, Jesus Christ, through His Resurrection, has saved us from the consequences of humanity’s fall, i.e., death and tyranny of the evil one, the devil’s temptations have remained relentless.
Although religion has played a major factor in shaping the identity of the American Culture, the secularization of the society is inflicting evil on the American mindset. The attempts of de-Christianizing the American culture are ruthless. These malicious attacks are driving the new generation to forsake their centuries-old culture for the sake of self-gratification and alleged compensations.
Whereas the American population is still manifesting religious observances, the genuine characters of these observances are not for the most part worthy of acceptance. Many Churches are undergoing the worst predicament of Faith and Morals in their History. The fragmentation of American Churches into conflicting bodies has uprooted the Christian ethos from the Churches.
For this reason, many individuals and groups are changing their religions and their denominations, inasmuch as they are changing their jobs, their habitation, and their spouses. Many adults leave their cradle faith for another one. Becoming a highly competitive marketplace, religion is a buyer's market where many groups dilute their traditional beliefs in order to compete.
Likewise, basic relationships that we took for granted 50 years ago are now becoming abstract theory. For example, young people are having severe impairments in relating to necessary authority, as their parents abdicate their roles as mother and father. Many children cannot even plainly state who their parents are, listing step-parents and foster-parents, their parents latest dating partners and even gang leaders as the authority figures in their lives.
Now, we see what was meant by God when He proclaimed through the Prophet Isaiah:
O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths. (Isaiah 3:12)
When true, and so I mean spiritual fatherhood is removed, human society collapses into decay and disintegration. Transformative spirituality is truly a longing for union and communion with God, the Most Compassionate Father. The capacity to live spiritually is the foundation of our Orthodox Tradition. Therefore, Orthodox genuine spirituality has a sacramental, pastoral and communal dimension which brings about the inner change in the spiritual children of the Church.
As a Bishop in the Church, I would like to address the way authority is exercised in the Church, and the relationship among the faithful and the clergy, in order to make others see and taste how our koinonia, is a koinonia with the Father and His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Having a spiritual communal tradition, the Church in this unique koinonia reflects the sacramental dimension of our Orthodox Christianity. Above all it will give testimony to our spirituality and show stability of faith and doctrine.
Although Orthodox priests are “men set apart,” their priesthood is not a hindrance in creating true Christian community. On the contrary, their status will create an indissoluble bond between them and their parishioners, as a reflection of the uncreated bond between the Heavenly Father and His Eternal Son. Without spiritual fatherhood, spirituality is not authentic, nor viable. In this spiritual relationship which stems from the communion with the Holy Spirit, the children’s behavior is transformed, as selfish desires are transformed into selfless love, kindness, compassion, mercy, and wisdom.
Loving fatherhood brings peace and order. Fatherhood, especially the fatherhood shown by the Bishop, the Priests and the Deacons, is not tyrannical, coercive or repressive. Sadly, those who have not experienced a good father, or are possessed by the immaturity of the passions, have no idea what real fatherhood is.
So, when we speak of a priest as ‘father,’ does anyone even understand what this means anymore? When a priest carries out his ordained duties in a parish, is he acting as a spiritual father to spiritual children, or is he merely a character in an exotic game of charades?
As a Bishop of the Church, it has been very difficult to get Americans to comprehend that their cultural understandings of pastoral authority are at odds with the teachings of the Orthodox Church. Sometimes it can be a source for despondency as I watch good men throw away the blessings of God because they were ordained too quickly, before they had a chance to deeply experience their God-given role within the Church.
Even now, the confusion in American Orthodoxy is a direct result of the failures to understand this problem, and to make this teaching a priority. We have neglected the fruits of the Holy Spirit attained through spiritual struggle.
The parish priest is at risk of becoming relegated to the work of being a task-master, frequently battling unruly parishioners who refuse to take even the most elementary steps towards being actual Orthodox Christians. Instead of being a place of koinonia with the Holy Trinity with each other, the parish itself may become a spiritually squalid place, stinking of egoism and the lust of power. In this case, clergy and laity alike forget the divine call of love.
In this country, parishes die because the people love only their own opinions, and will consciously drive out those they disagree with, from inquirers to Hierarchs. Some priests feel they are fighting against the parish community simply for their own survival. Others think that, after ordination, they owe their bishop nothing more on account of his failure to do the priest’s bidding.
I am speaking to all of you in the hope that you will come to understand that the pastorate of the Orthodox Church cannot be taken for granted. The pastorate is a cross, a burden borne for the sake of others. It is borne with our human weakness and God’s strength.
Unlike the worldly leadership styles of the non-Orthodox, who seek to exercise brute authoritarianism and subtle deception in order to trick people into doing what the pastor wants, the priest’s first task is to exercise his authority with love. He must love God first and foremost, and become co-worker with the truth (3 John 4 & 8: I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth. We therefore ought to receive such, that we might be fellow helpers to the truth.). This is as much a duty as it is a drive within his spirit.
After all, there are times when our love wanes and we grow cold. During such periods, the priest must continue to act lovingly until the awareness of God returns to him, and draws on himself the grace of the all-Holy Spirit. He must never forget that love is a verb, not a noun. If he does not love, he has no love.
Through the priest’s love of God, he receives the grace to love his people. He bears with them and encourages them, “not reckoning to them their trespasses.” (2 Corinthians 5:19). He also realizes that his love for them is not based on their cooperativeness or piety. They come to him broken, and they always desire to be healed. However, because we do not know the depths of their hearts, we must patiently endure their assaults and injustices in the hope that they will repent.
We must be spiritually ready to deal with their multi-faceted tribulations. If a doctor does not recognize the sickness of his patient and its causes, how can he prescribe the proper medicine? In the same way the priest who does not recognize the spiritual sickness of his parishioners, and how the enemy has captured them under sin, how can he expect a delivering power from the Lord and how can he offer the sacraments as a remedy and a treatment for them!
It is a powerful temptation to despair, since it feels like we are not doing anything for them. Yet, if we think in such a manner, we are using our human abilities rather than God-given grace. We must also never forget that only some people, even within the Church herself, will respond favorably to the Gospel. The Scripture proclaims the word of God:
Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7:14)
This necessitates a deep and abiding humility. We must accept that we cannot change the world, as we can hardly change ourselves. Look within, and you will find the same resistance to change that you will encounter in others. Our fallen nature resists change, because we have not yet renounced our selfish pride and accepted the protection and care of God. In fact, we doubt or even forget God in our daily lives, relying on our own limited powers.
The humble priest accepts his low estate. As a young and inexperienced priest, you do not yet have the spiritual tools bestowed through experience. Be humble, and know that you have much to learn. You are not entitled to people’s respect as a person, so do not demand it. Earn it through patience and endurance.
Our Lord did not demand worship, He demonstrated He was worthy of it through His love and humility. You must follow Him. “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (James 4:10). And, when you have been humiliated, berated and deceived enough times, enduring the indignity with patience and love, then spiritual people will respect you. Still, you love them and endure their assaults as blessings, for they perfect God’s work in you.
“But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you” (Luke 6:27-28).
Few men have been able to achieve such dispassionate humility as to live out this admonishment without failing, yet this is the perfection to which we are called. Only divine and perfect love can achieve such humility within us. Keeping the grace of the priesthood requires humility, spiritual knowledge, and care for the parishioners.
Part of this humility is accepting that you are responsible for the support and upkeep of your family. If the parish refuses to pay you what you need to care for your family, then find a way. Do not think you are entitled to a big salary and an even bigger housing allowance. Parishioners, in some cases, think they are doing well to get the least expensive priest they can, though they will also then complain of the poor quality. Sometimes, they seem to be demanding a Lexus for the price of a Hyundai!
Do not sacrifice your family for the sake of the parish, but also make sure you do not marry a woman who wants a lifestyle beyond that of a humble priest. These women are rare in our age, so treat them well.
If you are loving and humble, this ought to extend to your relationship with your bishop. Loving and obeying your bishop is not synonymous with always agreeing with him, and the same is true of your parish community and you. Just as you want the people to listen to you and obey, so you must heed your bishop and remember that he is the father and the Archpastor.
Humble obedience is a necessary part of the priesthood, because it is a sign of our love for God when we abandon ourselves to His care through obedience. True obedience is the greatest tool for spiritual development, as it is an active confirmation of our trust in God. Saint Peter says: “Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). Most of us practice carnal obedience, in that we obey those we already agree with.
Carnal obedience has become very popular because many people have not yet been healed of the Protestant mentality regarding the Faith. This mentality consists of the notion that obedience is only bestowed to those with superior intellectual prowess. In a word, if I can prove you wrong, I do not have to listen to you.
Therefore, people set about studying with the subconscious drive to ensure their being answerable to as few people as possible. They read and read and read to find answers that get them off of the hook for having to do things they don’t want to do, including the taking of orders from others. This is the pridefulness of religious intellectualism, which is rampant in American Orthodoxy.
Obedience in the Church is not bestowed through superior learning. Read St. Paul. Does he appeal to his superior grasp of the Scriptures as the reason he was to be heeded? No, rather, he appeals to his suffering for the sake of the Gospel and for the people he brought into the Faith.
We are received into the Church through the ultimate sign of obedience: Baptism. We are to die to ourselves, and are given the Holy Chrism symbolizing the Apostolic Succession of obedience that conveys the Gift of the Holy Spirit. When the Bishop lays his hands on the priest, God is calling him to obey his commandments especially in converting the un-baptized, and the Christians who have lost the benefits of their baptism, and in assisting those who are disqualified from the joy that derives from the presence of God in their lives.
Descending on the priest, the Holy Spirit makes him like a pool of light to the people around him. As the Spirit regenerates him, it changes him from son of man into son of God, and into an icon of God the Father. Those of us who are ordained have been ordained out of mercy, not because we are particularly bright. We are ordained out of God’s love rather than our merits. We are not vessels of information, but vessels of God’s love and mercy. If we reduce obedience to intellectual performance, how are we any different from the Gnostics?
Therefore, obedience is an act of love, and humility of mind is the beginning of its illumination. It is not about power, but about active confession of God’s love. Love is the living Creed because it is ultimately divine.
Therefore, the role of the bishop in teaching the Faith rests primarily in his ability to love people, and thus share the divine love with the people. As partakers of his ministry, the clergy are called upon to enter into a relationship of love with the bishop and then the community. The bishop must then bear the suffering of his people along with his own afflictions. To stand up under such heavy spiritual distress is beyond human ability. Only God’s grace can keep the bishop from being crushed entirely, as Saint Paul said: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).
Priests and deacons experience similar circumstances. In fact, the better men they are, the more hardship they can expect. Why? Because only through such suffering is God’s grace perfected. We are overburdened, we are hated and we are mocked for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our brethren turn their backs on us, and condemn us for our failures. There will be no consolation for our sins, real or imagined. Yet, we must not fail to act lovingly towards our friends and enemies alike. As our Lord before Pilate, we are called to remain silent, hoping that our patient example, out of love for our accusers, will wake them to repentance.
The Holy Fathers proclaimed love through their actions, which is also reflected in their writings. Again, I put their actions first before their intellectual accomplishments, because so many falsely place the mental achievements of the Holy Fathers ahead of their love.
Such Holy Fathers as St. John Chrysostom are considered saints not simply because they wrote excellent treatises and presented marvelous teachings, but rather because they excelled in the virtue of love. St. John suffered, yet he did not disobey. He submitted to hardship and injustice without complaint.
In his love and compassion, the priest should shed tears on the sins of his congregation. The voice of St. Gregory the Theologian bears witness to shedding these tears. For he says: “Let all offer tears, let all offer purification, let all offer (their) ascent and their straining forward to that which lies ahead.”
To be a priest means to be crucified to the world, and by the world. Priestly obedience, then, must be followed to the point of martyrdom.
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20).
St. Paul described his death to the world, and thus he could call the Galatians to obedience to his word as one speaking for God. He voluntarily gave himself over to martyrdom for the sake of the Lord. Are we prepared to do likewise?
Do you stand up for yourself? Are you the executioner of justice? Who has appointed you to such a high office, when you have not suffered? If you want to stand up for what is right, then you must first practice patience in the face of evil, because true evil seeks to elicit passions from us. The devil knows how we think, and he will take advantage of our pride by sinning boldly before us and provoking us to act without consulting God first. Then, when we stray from God’s will, the devil will separate us from the flock and kill us.
As priests of a diocese, you will have to lock shields with your brother clergy. Some are good soldiers, others are not. You are taught here to become well-trained soldiers in the spiritual army of Christ. However, this is what you have volunteered to do. You must resolve not to abandon your bishop or your brethren just because you think you know better than they do. In the end, if you break ranks, chances are they will band back together and leave you to face Satan on your own.
Disobedience is, first and foremost the byproduct not only in one’s own lack of faith in God, but actual fear for one’s selfish desire for singular salvation. By this, I mean that delusion which convinces one’s self that his salvation does not involve his brother. We know from our Holy Tradition that salvation is a work of the Church, which means that I am not saved, but rather that we are being saved. My salvation, my very relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, is intimately connected with my fellow believers.
The heretic thinks his salvation is a matter of his own purity apart from others, and so he rebels when he thinks that his bishop’s mistakes will somehow drag him down. What he fails to see is that his tolerance of others’ mistakes is an ascetical work that will save him. It is a cross to be borne, one that leads to humble exultation.
The Neo-Donatism that has come to characterize our modern history has gelled from a faulty understanding of salvation, and a very distinct lack of love. It is like a sinking ship: the loving person remains to help others either to safely escape from the ship or keep it afloat, while the selfish person shoves others aside as he dives into a life-raft to save himself alone.
The rebellious man denies his cross because he fears being wrong more than he fears abandoning his fellows. For those of you preparing for ministry, I ask you to remain faithful to your bishop and your brethren. If your bishop commits sin, remember your own sins and beseech God on his behalf for the same mercy you would hope for yourself. I tell you, it will be easier for you to beg for mercy if you yourself have been merciful.
If you find yourself judging your bishop or your brother clergy, what can you do? The only thing that works is genuine repentance for your own sins and mindfulness of your own sinfulness. Never allow the evidence of your fallenness to depart from your mind. This way, you will always remember God’s love for you and His mercy. You will excel in gratitude, and obedience will come easily.
Once the bond of love is strengthened, then you can not only obey, but also genuinely pray. From the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, we know that God does not hear the prayers of the proud. He turns His face from the rebellious man who trusts in his intellect over God’s divine grace.
I think that one reason so many bishops have fallen into controversy and scandal is because they are virtually alone. They are not loved. They are feared, or perhaps admired because they conform to the opinions of their admirers, but they are rarely loved. So, when they err, they are treated without mercy. Therefore, the bishops live in fear of their people, and so become captive to the passions, the same passions that dominate the people they are supposed to be helping.
We are losing our love for one another. We are growing cold. We are in danger of abandoning the Faith in favor of empty rituals and Gnosticism. We no longer catechize converts through prayer and spiritual experience, but rote memorization of facts emptied of their love.
Virtue is becoming a stranger. Men no longer recognize courage and honor, because they have been effeminized to value covert aggression and superficial etiquette. We are now more interested in courtly behavior or political intrigues than the quiet strength of loving humility and patience.
This effeminate understanding of love as a romantic emotional state is patently and completely evil. We must not confuse love with false emotive states. Love is not mushy, it is pure light and fire. It burns within the heart turned to God, and empowers us to undergo extreme hardship without muttering. The heart, which is not the romantic emotional center the modern world now makes it out to be, must be filled with repentance and a sense of its own humble estate so that it can be filled with divine love.
Being a loving pastor means not succumbing to the temptations towards using one’s authority and power to fulfill one’s emotional needs. Personal preferences must not be the rule, but rather loving obedience to the greater Church. No bishop, no priest, no deacon is his own authority, for each has been given a place under the authority of others for his own sake. God loves us by setting others over us, and sometimes that love can be painful when our self-will is challenged.
The Scriptures say we are to be known by our love for one another. Yet, it seems that love is all but forgotten. For example, when people complain about the overlapping jurisdictions in America, Australia and Western Europe, we never hear about love. We hear about people’s anger, despair and frustration, but those who complain almost never speak of their love for others.
I believe that God has allowed this present situation to teach us lessons that need to be learned, the greatest amongst these is love. Until we learn to love one another, we will not be united. In turn, the synod of bishops that takes up the cause of love will receive God’s blessing to shepherd the people of America.
We have hope, because God has not abandoned us. Nor will He allow the Church to be overtaken by her enemies. We have hope because God loves us.
And, it is this love that is all that we really have to offer. Everything else found in the parish can be found somewhere else in the world of much higher quality: better music, better food, better preaching, better art… the only thing we have to offer is love.
It should also be no surprise that it is love most of all that people crave. This world is starving for love. It is this desire to be loved that drives people to all kinds of extremes. People desperately want to be loved. They want to be appreciated, they want to matter. They want to know that God will care for them in a moment of crisis.
This is where we must begin. As priests, we must help people abandon those things that keep them from accepting God’s love. We first begin by living such an example of love that people become open to the idea that such love exists. Each day, we must resolve in morning prayers to turn to God for the strength to act in a loving manner towards all people. We must beg to be given the sense of God’s love, so that we do not forget His mercy as we go about our affairs.
If you want to know the will of God, it begins by being mindful of Him at all times. This is a great challenge which few achieve. But, this is our goal. This is the purpose of the Jesus Prayer, the icons in our homes, our prayer rule, Scripture readings, wearing the cross and countless other ways we remind ourselves of God’s intimate connection to each of us.
The modern pastorate is defined by an ever-increasing need for personal discipline. We can no longer count on society to keep us within the margins of morality. Rather, our popular culture is distinctly anti-spiritual and anti-God. We must now work harder than ever to hold on to what little faith we have.
The priest who abides in perfect love walks in this world, yet he is of another world. He sees through temptations because of his love for God and for others. When cursed and accused, he knows that he is guilty and already under the judgment of God, so what is the use of defending one’s self? He allows himself to be victimized, but he also stands up for the down-trodden.
Of the minister to God’s people, St. John Chrysostom wrote:
“He must be dignified but modest, impressive yet kindly, masterful yet approachable, impartial yet courteous, humble but not servile, vehement yet gentile…” (On The Priesthood, p. 93).
He is constantly on guard against men who sow discontent in the parish and in the diocese. When he feels weakened by the assaults of sin, he does not post his bile on the internet, but goes to his spiritual father and receives treatment for his wounds. He remembers that God will punish the wicked and bring eternal justice to the innocent.
As a father to a parish community, your duty is to love your people. Once you have inspired them to love, then dissent and paralysis will melt away. Those who love seek to please God and serve their brethren. The world says that we can motivate people without divine love, but we know differently.
“A priest who is a living witness to the Divine truth unconsciously accustoms his parishioners to think of God and their souls every time they meet him. The very sight of him will cheer and comfort them. In his person people will find their memory of God and of their highest spiritual values. Such a love is bound to be a blessing both for the flock and for the shepherd” (Shahovskoy, p. 55).
Archbishop John Shahovskoy perfectly described the iconic calling of the pastorate. Your love for your people will bring them to themselves, helping them to regain their spiritual focus and once again make progress on the spiritual journey to the Heavenly Kingdom.
When we hear confessions and deal with our people during their most vulnerable moments, we must share with them the healing power of God’s mercy. The hearing of confessions is a great burden, and experienced confessors find it physically and mentally exhausting, yet it must be done. Confessions must lead the person’s conscience towards freedom and healing rather than despair. So, look for the healing words coming not from your emotions or your mind, but from the small voice deep within you. If such words do not come forth on their own, then be silent and weep for the penitent. Sometimes we heal with words, but other times with silence.
Teach your people to submit to their hardships, for the hardships given by God lead to freedom. Bear your hardships with patience, and see how quickly they disappear. You must, first and foremost, learn loving and trustful obedience. This is the true meaning of the cassock for a seminarian. It is his obedience to something greater than his intellectual appetites. Do you come to class dressed like a slob? Or, do you come to class dressed in a respectful manner, showing respect to your instructors and gratitude to God for the privilege you have been given? When you put on your cassock, let it be a sign of your love and your willingness to sacrifice even your own worldly freedom for the sake of the Gospel.
If all the prophets were killed by their own people, there is no doubt that when you endure hardship for God’s cause today, even at the hands of your own people, you will “fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24). The martyrs and the apostles are the epitome of those who endure persecution in this world. To you a great calling is given, and a great hope is promised. This will take place if the people “give themselves to the Lord and to us.” (2 Corinthians 8:5).
If the Spirit is in you, you will assuredly understand from His effects in you what the Apostle says: “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Or “the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” If the Spirit is not extinguished in you, if the spiritual fountain springs up, the "unaffiliated," or even the atheists and agnostics will become aware of eternal life.
As I mentioned in the beginning, there is a constant membership turnover among most American faiths, because they remain dead, blind and insensible, and not conscious of eternal life. Only such spirituality will entice them to desire God’s own righteousness. People should hear and see how God’s righteousness is done from the heart’s desire. The knowledge of God can only be acquired with an attentive heart. It is your pastoral care that produces true holiness.
Give thanks to God for all things.
I have spoken a great deal about many things, but I hope you will remember the sacred calling of the priesthood is a calling to serve God and your brethren with love, humility, patience and obedience. May God have mercy on us all.