A priest ought to be sober minded, and penetrating in discernment, and possessed of innumerable eyes in every direction, as one who lives not for himself alone but for so great a multitude.
John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, III.12
When one thinks of the word vocations, most immediately think about the priesthood or of seminary. We all have heard the pastor of our parish, or perhaps a visiting missionary, tell us of the importance of vocations to the priesthood. This is, and perhaps rightly so, because to most Catholic Christians, the priest is the centerpiece of the vocational call, for without the priest, our churches would be vacant, lifeless, ornately decorated buildings.
The priest has always been an integral part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Old Testament times, the priest was the one responsible for leading the liturgical worship of our Lord and God in Heaven. In particular, the high priest was one who held a very special position, for he was the only one who could enter the Holy of Holies, containing the tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, whereby he would atone for all of the sins committed by the Israelites on the Day of Atonement. Priests were also leaders in the community, often judging the people in daily matters such as Eli and Samuel did. They were expected to be models of holiness and love, welcoming all in the name of God, much in the same way that Melchizedek, priest and King of Salem, welcomed Abraham. The role of the priest was an indispensable leader of worship and an example of uprightness to all people.
With the coming of Christ, many things would change. For starters, no longer would the Jews and Gentiles need to rely on a strict interpretation of Mosaic Law and worship/sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem. With Christ’s salvific sacrifice as the High Priest who offered Himself as a sacrifice most pure, once and for all time for our salvation, He changed the whole face of worship. No longer was the believer in Christ tied to theTemple of Jerusalem for worship. No longer was the old Mosaic Law necessary for salvation. We found our salvation in Jesus Christ, who now leads the eternal and heavenly worship as our High Priest.
As such, the old model of worship that centered around the Levitical Priesthood and the Temple was shattered. No longer were the faithful required to make the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem in order to offer their sacrifice and worship to God. Because of Christ’s act of salvation, and because of the New Law inscribed onto the hearts of all believers, Jew and Gentile, the day had finally come that Jesus Himself spoke about in his words to the Samaritan Woman:
Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know; for salvation comes from the Jews. But the hour is coming – indeed is already here –when true worshippers will worship the Fatherin spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper the Father seeks.
John 4:21-23 (New Jerusalem Bible)
The priest is a humble, yet heroic man, charged by God with an awesome responsibility for those under his care. His responsibility is an awesome and terrifying one indeed, for at the end of the ages, the priest will have to render an account of his ministry to Jesus Himself, the High Priest and awesome judge, explaining what he did and what he did not do in his care for the people. Yet, the priest who is humble, placing himself totally in God’s hands, is a man in the true sense of the word, for with God’s spirit placed upon him via his sacramental ordination and living a humble and simple life of prayer and love, the priest lives his life as Christ did. The priest is a father, an image of God the Father. He is a symbol of love and compassion, just as Christ embodied the true sense of love and compassion. The priest is a man of peace and great wisdom, just as Christ was. He is the icon, the living embodiment, of those good male qualities that Christ had espoused in His life on Earth.
It should also be noted that in the Ukrainian Catholic Church, men who serve as priests do so either as a married priest, as a celibate priest serving as an eparchial (diocesan) priest, or as a celibate priest attached to a monastery or religious order. The married priesthood is not a new innovation – this practice hearkens back to the Old Testament where the Levitical priests of old were married (i.e., Aaron, Eli, Samuel, etc.). Married clergy was a part of the ancient Church. Practices of celibacy began to be introduced later for specific reasons – this is especially and particularly true in the West. For example, in the West, mandatory celibacy was imposed on priests and bishops around the turn of the first millennium due to abhorrent practices of nepotism and simony. These sins resulted in many problems, such as certain priests and their families treating their diocese/parish as if they were their own little fiefdoms. Thus, in abolishing the married priesthood, a whole theology of celibate priesthood arose in Western practice. But in the East, the married priesthood was retained. In the East, priests who were not married often came from a monastery; hence the practice of referring to a non-married priest as a “priest-monk” arose in many of the Eastern Churches, for he lived his life as a monk while attached to a parish, serving the faithful. Today, celibate priests can either be monastic, or “secular” in the sense that they are not attached to a monastery or religious order, and are not under specific vows, except for the oath of fidelity to his Bishop that he takes on his ordination to the priesthood. Married and celibate priests are expected to be exemplars of chastity, fidelity, and love to the faithful, living their lives as the image of Christ in everything that they do.
After Jesus’s death, the Christian faith started to take hold with fervor and spirit in both Jew and Gentile alike. While the New Testament does not strictly paint a clear picture where there are parish priests serving the faithful, there are many indications that Jesus had clearly instituted the priesthood for us as a living reminder of His presence in the Church. Many of the early Church fathers spoke about the relationship of Christ to the Church in terms of a bridal arrangement, with Christ as the head of the Church, the bridegroom, and all of the members of the Church forming one body, the mystical bride of Christ.
The priesthood today is the product of many things. While the priesthood has evolved over the years, there is a fundamental core that sums it up. Christ instituted the Eucharist as a living and dynamic sacrifice and memorial of the once and for all sacrifice that Christ has offered up himself on the Cross, as a perfect sacrifice in the person of the perfect High Priest, and is the priest who embodies Christ as the one who leads the assembly in worship at the Eucharistic offering. The priest, like the bishop, is the living symbol of Christ as priest, prophet, and king. While the priest’s kingship is not like that of the bishop, he nonetheless is the living reminder of Christ the High Priest present amongst us. The priest can also be likened to a consul of the bishop, for the bishop is the high priest who has pastoral care and responsibility for a territory. The priests gather around the bishop in unison with him, and as one body, they faithfully minister to their flock. The priest is present, assigned by the bishop, to teach the people the Word of God in his assigned parish or mission, to preach the Word of God who have not heard the Good News, to minister to the sick and imprisoned, be a comforting presence to the dying or those who are depressed, to lead the people in his flock and correct those who are unruly with love, humility, and compassion.
Regarding married priests, it should be noted that in our tradition, candidates for major orders (deacon and priest) must be married prior to their ordination. Once a candidate has been ordained to the diaconate, he cannot marry. Furthermore, married clergy cannot be considered for ordination to the episcopate – candidates for the episcopacy must be celibate (either professed as a monk or a celibate priest not attached to a monastery). While there is some evidence that in ancient times, bishops were married, over time, a tradition arose whereby bishops were expected to be celibate. Because of this, in some Eastern Churches, a tradition arose whereby bishops were selected from priests who were also monks, whether attached to a monastery or to a parish.
In short, the priest is a man who is called by God to be the image of Christ in everything that he does. In the Byzantine tradition of churches, of which our Ukrainian Catholic Church has a strong heritage, priests, by tradition, often wear a pectoral cross. An inscription on the back of the cross in Old Church Slavonic reads, “Be the image in everything that you do in life.” This is a reminder to the priest of what he is to be for the people. He must be like Christ in everything that he does in life, setting a perfect example for the people who are striving to live good lives as Christians and sending a powerful message to those who do not know Christ or His Gospel. Just as all baptized and confirmed Catholic Christians are called to put on Christ and live life according to His Word, even more so is the priest who is clothed with the Holy Spirit and mystically configured to Christ in a radical way to lead His Church ever closer to Christ.
Do you feel God’s call to service to his people as one of His priests? If so, first and foremost, PRAY. Without prayer, no one can hope to accomplish anything; only by surrendering to the Lord our God can we hope to discern His call in our lives. Second, talk with your pastor. Your priest is an invaluable asset in helping to discern your call – he is the one who can help direct you in your discernment process and will answer any questions or concerns that you may have. Also, ask your priest questions about the faith and learn from him, for your priest will help you to understand the Church and your faith. Get involved in Church activities – do not merely attend Sunday liturgies. Christianity is never merely just “go to Church on Sunday,” but is something that permeates every single aspect of your life. Let God shine his light within you and be receptive to the Holy Spirit in your life, so that way, God’s light may shine through you and with His help, your light will shine for others to see. If you are discerning the vocation to serve the Lord as a priest, you are in our prayers. May God illumine your soul so that in your discernment, you may see His divine light and boldly answer His call.