Priests are God's Agents of Hope
Vocations to the sacramental priesthood and monastic life can only flourish in an atmosphere of holiness and spirituality, only in spiritual soil that is well cultivated and tended with saintly living and devoted prayer. Christian communities that live the missionary dimension of the mystery of the Church in a profound way will never be inward looking.
If we are to cross the threshold of hope in building and sustaining vocations to the priesthood and religious life, the challenge must be faced with equanimity and hope. There is no question that today people put more trust in witnesses than in teachers, in experience than in teaching and in life and action than in theories. They want to see the faith of Christ actually lived and evidenced in priests and monastics. The challenge and remedy for the vocation problem lies not so much in imaginative awareness programs, but in the countercultural voice of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. "Actions speak louder than words." If secularism and relativism want to engage in a shouting match, there is no stronger call than the truth that comes through genuine decipleship. So it is priest and monastics who first of all must be careful they live authentic priestly and monastic life, not their interpretation or understanding of these sublime truths.
Priests and monastics who live more fully their vocation to priesthood will help attract more men to answer Christ's needy invitation. The words of inspiration are already written in the gospel message. We must first of all downplay numbers for authenticity. Quality, without question has more value than quantity. We need witness to the cause of Christ, not a better or more attractive advertising program. The greatest obstacle, first of all to foster healthy and courageous men and women for service in the life of the Body of Christ is the epidemic of mediocrity surrounding us and with which so many are preoccupied. The merging trend of narcissism and self-indulgence would in time anesthetize even the impact of grace in the Holy Spirit without steadfast determination.
Unquestionably priests and monastics are agents of hope. The remedy for the vocation crisis is in letting priests be that for which they are called by our heavenly Father, without stifling the budding grace of the Holy Spirit within them. Subjecting them to secularistic pressure in many parishes and insisting they "wise up" to reality in such instances only kills and destroys the flow of grace. The priestly presence in a parish is not enough. Their being and doing is still the strongest fraternal witness for enlivening the parish faith family. The priest in the parish, the man in the trenches still needs to pray the gospel of hope as empowered and commissioned by his vocation in Christ. He cannot compromise the priestly identity as is so often the case, so that he is called upon continually to "rubber-stamp" ideas and practices which have no meaning among believers and still worse, have their singular source in values of the fallen world.
Parish priests are called to labor very hard. No one knows better than those who have run the race and fought the good fight. Unfortunately, at times, priests may feel defeated because they wonder if their work really does make a difference. The primary duty of a priest is the proclamation of the Gospel of God to all. Fulfilled within the sight and hearing of each communicant of any parish should be the example of a lively priestly vocation which is eager to empty itself for the salvation of souls. More prophetic preaching to stifle apathy is vital but cannot be subjected to a judgmental attitude from those who are called to hear and live it. We might more spontaneously think that the primary duty of priest is the celebration of the Church's sacramental Mysteries which then from a particular perspective makes him a mere liturgical functionary, or the pastoral care of the People of God, or leadership in the Christian community. If the priest is a vibrant and convincing preacher of God's truths, all other relationships and perspectives of the priesthood will be accepted and followed. Yet if the words of Christ fall from the convincing and prepared lips of the priestly celebrant and steward, the proclamation of the gospel becomes primary so believers are nourished and challenged on all levels.
Priests as agents of hope will always be held to a standard that requires common fidelity to their vocation and not just to the notion of priesthood. The difference is often what distinguishes a true vocation and its broadening in a particular life from merely an infatuation with the nobility of the idea, perhaps inspired by old movies and unrealistic expectations of friends and parents. Priests cannot play church which often happens so is engendered among parishioners that they should also approach the Church in the same spirit.
Priests, challenged and privileged with the Word can never water down the message. The heart of a priest is meant to move, enliven, affirm and sometimes even astonish the faithful into believing not only who they are but what they have the potential to become in Christ. Priests can never forget they are co-workers of Christ, agents of the Holy Spirit.
Today's young people are not searching for a way to live out their faith any less than earlier generations did. They are, however, less likely to revisit or reconsider a lifestyle that at first glance seems unattractive. They are drawn to priests and monastics who live a vibrant, principle-oriented way of life that reflects serious soul commitment to something far greater than popular trends. What young person really wants to follow in the footsteps of a tired, burnt-out and angry and inept priest when he has so many better choices? But would not that same young person, filled with passion and an idealism, look twice and consider the man who is lively and honest and vibrant in living out his dream to serve Christ in a real and radical way?
Who has not had a favorite parish priest, one who inspires others to one day becoming just like him? Are we as priests sending the right message? Are we as lay people transmitting a deep and abiding response and love for our priests not only young people so they would be eager to pursue the same ideals they see personified in their parish priest? Do our priests stand out as leaders in our faith communities or have they assimilated themselves to anonymity because that is the overwhelming desire of the parishioners, that they not really affect anyone's life in a real way?
Looking upon seminarians at study is renewing and astonishing for idealism an enthusiasm to bring the gospel to a world so in need of it. As we honestly embrace the duties of priestly and monastic formation, we do so with sacred reverence for the vocation that is entrusted to us by our heavenly Father and the Church.
Parishioners who are serious about priestly and monastic vocations must ask themselves the serious question whether they are willing to accept the heavenly and divine concept surrounding vocations or their own interpretations and likes and dislikes continually infused into the life and functioning of divinely called priests. Until Orthodox people are convinced of the divine character of the priestly vocation and how it must be faithfully lived, our priests are going to be at odds with people and the vocation problem will never be resolved. The human dimension and its interference with priestly functioning is destroying the response of people with vocations from answering honestly and truthfully. Truth is, the limited human requirements of people have supplanted the unique heavenly requirements of our God and done unquestionable damage!
Vocations to the priesthood and religious life are out there, they even abound, but so are many distractions in a culture too quick to settle for the path of least resistance. Vocations are not born in seminaries, monasteries; instead they are realized and nurtured by faith-filled believing communities and by those who are devoted to identifying them and pursuing them despite the odds.
Even as we speak of priests as agents of hope, the truth is that without families, nurturing communities and organizations surrounding and enhancing the life of the Body of Christ, few would be living a priestly life.
There is a courageous brigade working behind the scenes of every vocation for which the entire Church should be grateful. Growing up in an Orthodox setting is a blessing often taken for granted. The family must pray together and parents ought never be ashamed to bow their heads and humbly place themselves in the presence of the Lord. Growing up, witnessing the prayer of parents and family members, seeking God's mercy and relying on his grace provides the hotbed in which vocations can successfully spring forth.
Outside immediate family life affirmation should be shown in the parish family by those who work to foster vocations and living those values which define us as genuinely Orthodox. Family life which must always be characterized of zeal and passionate determination to follow Christ must be the general norm. What is born of the Holy Spirit, endures by the Holy Spirit!
The old saying, "Out of sight, out of mind," reminds us that if we drop the ball in realistically promoting and protecting vocations, then we betray our own identity as believers and as agents of hope. If we live our faith response to Christ, we will not be afraid what the future brings and always will be challenged to live our faith without hesitation and truly become agents of hope!
A vocation to the priesthood and monastic life is a providential act as our heavenly Father selects some person in preference to others for the work of saving souls and confers on them particular grace for its faithful extension. Among the gift of grace are characteristics of faith and perseverance. A young man is driven by God as he makes his way down the countercultural path that leads to priestly ordination. While many of his peers may be guided by pop culture and other similar nonsense or seek to express themselves by their clothing, or lack of it, hairstyles and tattoos, the one called to the priesthood is invited directly by the timeless Word of God.
The parish is the place where a young person with a vocation can thrive because in the atmosphere of the world it is a bit countercultural to express a sense of vocation. Believers must be a part of the crowd that assists in discerning a particular vocation in a young person and then committing themselves to advancing it by all sorts of support, including that of intercessory prayer. Faithful believers need not be told they ought support, encourage and pray for future priests. Faithful and devoted souls do not sit back, wait and watch, but encourage by example and prayer that God's will is completed and fulfilled.
Preparation for the priesthood is a big role in very small steps in that advancement in studies and spiritual life takes time to grow in giftedness from God. If Christian communities are faithful to their ideal, providing youth and adults with constant ongoing education, because vocations will flourish in a spiritual soil that is well cultivated. An anticlerical environment will produce precisely that: anything but Christ-like lives.
In this nation, in families of this nation, even elsewhere, there is a lot of calling that is not answered because there is really no chamber for it to exist and echo, it simply formulates and is dissipated. Parents should do nothing to discourage it and when the resonance assumes a serious tone, parents and family members must remain quiet so it can be distinctly heard and pursued. Then all should encourage it.
When a vocation to serve God is not understood or perceived as divine, some will ignore and easily dissuade it. The story is told of a well-known and respected priest's wife, apparently so unhappy and unfulfilled or maybe abused in her own circumstances, who forbade other priests from encouraging the vocation that was evident in a son, who today lives in abject misery and infidelity along with other siblings who do not at all attend church. The consequence, therefore, of forbidding, of discouraging vocations is far-reaching and dangerous for souls because it violates and interferes with the will of our heavenly Father. Every believer, then, has a basic investment to make in promoting and assuring vocations are answered with the same generosity and zeal as the Holy Spirit issues them, a stake in helping the Church grow and in increasing personal faith as well.