There's no life like it!
by Reverend Fr. Bohdan Hladio,
Parish Priest, Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor of St. Vladimir,
Our Church, like almost every Church, suffers from a lack of vocations. We cannot fill the holes left by retiring clergy, let alone staff our parishes with the number of priests and other pastoral workers which they require to spread the faith and serve the needs of the faithful.
It’s true that we’re much better off than others-the Catholics, for example-but anyone who has ever been in a parish without a resident priest can attest to the fact that it’s a very difficult situation for all concerned. The lack of substitute priests is so severe that it’s become normal to “close the Church” when a priest goes on vacation or gets sick-even in large cities.
I often wonder why we don’t have more vocations to the priesthood. Speaking personally, I think it’s the greatest job on earth. It’s not easy, but neither is being a doctor, a lawyer, a factory worker, a waitress, or unemployed. When reading about plant closures, the economics of farming, mass layoffs by multinational corporations and such I always thank God that I’m personally not affected by such things. A good priest will always have a job.
It’s true that the priesthood is no longer a prestigious vocation. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In the past some men became priests because it was a path to sure respect. But a good priest, like Christ, isn’t in it for the glory. He’s in it to serve God’s people, to suffer with them, to lead them. Nowadays it’s not unheard of for priests to be publicly ridiculed. But if this was good enough for Christ, perhaps it should be good enough for me.
A priest is always assured of an interesting day. He never knows what awaits him with the next phone call, hospital visit, meeting, or church service. He’s on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can usually expect a call right after sitting down to dinner. He meets some of the most blessed, good and pious people in the world, as well as many who are maladjusted, lost, and downright weird. And just when he thinks he’s seen it all, something new and interesting (and usually bizarre) is sure to appear.
The word “vocation” derives from the Latin root word which means “to be called”. I’m personally convinced that we have just as many vocations to the priesthood as we have always had. It’s not necessarily “the call” which is problematic, it’s the response.
Perhaps one of the reasons that men no longer respond favourably to God’s call is the perceived difficulty of the lifestyle of a priest. The fact that a priest might have to move from place to place, or that financial remuneration might not be the greatest, or that he might have to get along with a parish council composed of not-so-nice people, could give a young man (or his family) the idea that being a priest is not worth it. Let’s look at these arguments.
Those making the greatest amounts of money in our society, professional athletes, must move often during their careers. Those serving in the military, in business, in the arts, in government, etc. regularly move from place to place as a consequence of their work as well, so lack of geographic “stability” isn’t an insuperable obstacle. Besides, the ideal is that a priest and a parish will “hit it off”, and the best communities are always those where the same priest serves for many years.
As far as money is concerned most priests are paid relatively well. The fringe benefits of a furnished manse with paid utilities and a car allowance are also worth a good deal. The general understanding among most Orthodox and Catholic churches is that a priest should make about as much a high school teacher, with the upper end being in the range of a principal. I know that there are priests who are not paid as well as they should be, and where this is the case it should be addressed. Both the Bishop and the parish council must realize that this issue not only affects the life of the priest, but also affects the good of the Church.
As far as being beholdin’ to people who might not be the best “Christians”, politicians have to do this all the time. Their jobs depend on it. There are really very few of us who don’t have to deal with difficult people at some time or other. Many of us have bosses who are difficult to deal with. This is a part of life. It’s no different for a priest than for anyone else.
Even were we to have enough priests to staff all our parishes fully, with a few to spare, we would still need more. Why? Because we don’t just need priests, we need good priests. Good priests, like good teachers, good leaders, and good friends are always hard to find.
What makes a priest good? First of all he must love God. God and the Church must take first place in his life, ahead of family, ahead of self, ahead of money or friends. This is why it’s so important to have a rich liturgical life in our parishes. If a young man or woman loves to be at vespers, orthros, moleben’ and the Liturgy when they might be watching TV or playing with their friends we know that they will make a good priest, monastic, leader or teacher.
A good priest loves people. The priest’s job consists of serving God’s people in good times as well as bad. He must be able to overcome evil with love. He must make the burdens of his parishioners his own burdens and bring them before God in prayer. He must comfort the grieving, feed the poor, give hope to the hopeless, and be able to bring diverse people together.
A good priest must offer his whole life unto God (this shouldn’t be scary. We hear these words at every Liturgy. “Let us commend ourselves, and one another, and our whole life unto Christ our God”). His family should be a pious family, attending all the services, singing, serving, and being active in the community. He must be an example for all. One of the main jobs of the priest is to teach, and we learn best by example.
A good priest must be self-motivated, using all of his God-given talents for the good of the Church. No priest can do everything, but those who are good organizers, or writers, or singers, administrators or counselors will have ample opportunity to use their talents in God’s service. A well-rounded education, as well as diverse life experience is also extremely important for a priest, as he must be as comfortable talking to a beggar on the street as he is talking to judges, businessmen and patriarchs. March is the “Month of Vocations”. We are asked to make donations to St. Andrew’s College, and to encourage the young people of our Church to consider studying at the college. St. Andrew’s is a great blessing for our Church. Men studying for the priesthood as well as “regular” students from diverse backgrounds live, study and pray together on the University of Manitoba campus, giving our future priests a chance to mature in the context of the society they will be called to serve.
Thank God we live in a day and age where we can realistically talk about the vocations of women as well as men. There is no reason that we cannot have female pastoral assistants in our parishes, helping the priest with his work, visiting, comforting, praying, acting as a cantor or choir director, etc. Given the current lack of priests this could be a very beneficial step forward for our Church, limited only by the number of qualified women and the financial will of parishes and parish councils to make it a reality.
Let us make sure that as our young people grow up and consider their life path service to God and the Church should be on the “smorgasbord” along with medicine, jurisprudence, farming, academia, etc. And when anyone, young or old, hears “the call”, they should know that the Church and the College are here to help them respond.