The priesthood according to Saint John Chrysostom

by Fr. John Behr,  Dean of Saint Vladimir’s Theological Seminary

In his work on the Priesthood, Saint John does occasionally speak in very high terms of the priest as the liturgical officiant, but his main concern is with the priestly ministry more generally, following the example of Christ, Who came to serve rather than to be served. As he puts it, while the priesthood is ranked among the heavenly ordinances, it is nevertheless enacted on earth. And the tasks of the priest are numerous: he was the teacher and moral guide of the community; he was the liturgical leader, deciding which catechumens should be admitted to baptism, and he presided at the Eucharist; he was the spiritual guide for those who wanted to lead more ascetic lives; he received guests form other churches; he maintained an elaborate system of charity for the care of strangers, the support of widows, orphans and the poor, he cared for the women who were ranked in the order of “virgins”.

Judging from his writings, it was the concern for the widows, the virgins, and the poor which caused him the greatest anxiety: he speaks of the holiness and knowledge necessary for such work, and also the endless patience and ability to steward alms in an irreproachable manner (On the Priesthood 3:12). Elsewhere, he mentions that in Antioch there were some 3,000 widows and virgins who were looked after by the Church. One can only imagine the immense amount of work that this required!

When Saint John Chrysostom turns to speak of the tools or instruments that the priest has at his disposal, he focuses upon the priest’s words (On the Priesthood 4:2 ff). It is Christ’s own body that the priest is entrusted with, and he is responsible for training it to perfect health and incredible beauty, being vigilant to ensure that no spot or blemish mars its grace and loveliness. His whole energy must be devoted to making sure that the body is worthy of the Head (Christ) to which it is subjected. But unlike a doctor who cures physical diseases and ailment by prescribing medications, rest, or surgery, the spiritual doctor only has recourse to words, to exhortations and persuasions: In the case before us, it is impossible to use any of these things; there is but one method and way of healing appointed, after we have gone wrong, and that is the powerful application of the Word. This is the one instrument, the only diet, the finest atmosphere. This take the place of medicine, cautery and cutting, and if it be needful to sear and amputate, this is the means which we must use, and if this is of no avail, all else is wasted; with this we both rouse the soul when it sleeps and reduce it when it is inflamed; with this we cut off excesses and fill up defects, and perform all manner of other operations which are needed for the soul’s health. (On the Priesthood 4.3).

It is only through the words that a priest uses, Saint John is saying, that those under his charge can be persuaded to pay attention to themselves, to orient their lives towards Christ, to willingly cooperate in the surgery being applied by the priest, for this can only be done through words and cooperation.

Saint John Chrysostom by asking whether or not an exemplary life of the priest is sufficient, for this may well stimulate others to emulation. He concedes that this may well be the case for the ordering of our daily lives, but when it comes to matters of doctrine, which is not simply a matter of accepting abstract items of belief, but a matter of having the mind of Christ, so that the whole outlook of the Christian is informed and shaped by a Christian perspective. In such matters, an exemplary life is not sufficient: “Should a conflict arise on matters of doctrine and all the combatants rely on the same Scriptures, what weight will his life carry then?” (On the Priesthood, 4.9).

Even if a bishop or priest were able to perform miracles, as did the Apostles, even this is not sufficient:

“Even in the days of miracles the Word was by no means useless, but essentially necessary. For Saint Paul made use of it himself, although he was everywhere so great an object of wonder for his miracles; and another of those who belonged to the ‘glorious company of the Apostles’ exhorts us to apply ourselves to acquiring this power, when he says: ‘Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks of you a reason concerning the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), and they all, with one accord, committed the care of the poor widows to Stephen, for no other reason than that they themselves might have time “for the ministry of the Word”. (Acts 6:4; On the Priesthood 4:3).”

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In discussing the responsibility of the priest for the souls of his flock and his liturgical and sacramental functions, Saint John Chrysostom found in them a reason to ascribe to him an awesome dignity, a high honor, and even a character which is different from human: “When one is required to preside over the Church, and to be entrusted with the care of so many souls, the whole female sex must retire before the magnitude of the task, and the majority of men also; and we must bring forward those who to a large extent surpass all others, and soar as much above them in excellence of spirit as Saul overtopped the whole Hebrew nation in bodily stature: or rather far more. For in this case let me not take the height of shoulders as the standard of inquiry; but let the distinction between the pastor and his charge be as great as that between rational man and irrational creatures, not to say even greater, in as much as the risk is concerned with things of far greater importance.” (Book 2:2.

“For the Priestly Office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks amongst heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor Angel, nor Archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself (Holy Spirit) instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of Angels. Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers.” (Book 3:4). Saint John Chrysostom sees that the role of priests in the sacraments of reconciliation (Confession and Repentance), baptism and Eucharist makes our salvation dependent upon them! “For if anyone will consider how great a thing it is for one, being a man, and compassed with flesh and blood, to be enabled to draw near to that blessed and pure nature, he will then clearly see what great honor the grace of the Holy Spirit has vouchsafed to priests; since by their agency these rites are celebrated, and other nowise inferior to these both in respect of our dignity and our salvation. For they who inhabit the earth and make their abode there are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have received an authority that God has not given Angels or Archangels. For it has not been said to them, “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven”…this binding lays hold of the soul and penetrates the heavens; and what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his servants. For indeed what is it but all manner of heavenly authority which He has given them when He says, “Whose sins you remit they are remitted, and whose sins you retain they are retained?” What authority could be greater than this? “The Father has committed all judgment to the Son?” But I see it all put into the hands of these men by the Son. For they have been conducted to this dignity as if they were already translated to Heaven, and had transcended human nature, and were released from the passions to which we are liable.” (Book 3:5).

“For transparent madness it is to despise so great a dignity, without which it is not possible to obtain either our own salvation, or the good things which have been promised to us. For if no one can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven except he be regenerated through water and the Spirit, and he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink His blood is excluded from eternal life, and if all these things are accomplished only by means of those holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest, how will anyone, without these, be able to escape the fire of hell, or to win those crowns which are reserved for the victorious?” (Book 3:5).

Saint John Chrysostom reaches the conclusion that the authority of the priests over the Sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation (Confession and Repentance), and Anointing is a reason for them to be more feared and honored than kings and Jewish priests and to be more loved than parents: “These verily are they who are entrusted with the pangs of spiritual travail and the birth buried with the Son of God, and become members of the blessed Head. Wherefore they might not only be more justly feared by us than rulers and kings, but also be more honored than parents; since these begat us of blood and the will of the flesh, but the others are the authors of our birth from God, even that blessed regeneration which is the true freedom and the sonship according to grace. The Jewish priests had authority to release the body from leprosy, or, rather, not to release it but only to examine those who were already released, and you know how much the office of priest was contended for at that time. But our priests have received authority to deal, not with bodily leprosy, but spiritual uncleanness–not to pronounce it removed after examination, but actually and absolutely to take it away. Wherefore they who despise these priests would be far more accursed than Dathan and his company, and deserve more severe punishment…God has bestowed a power on priests greater than that of our natural parents…For our natural parents generate us unto this life only, but the others unto that which is to come…”Is any sick among you?” it is said, “let him call for the presbyters (priests) of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the Name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up: and if he has committed sins they shall be forgiven him.” Again: our natural parents, should their children come into conflict with any men on high rank and great power in the world, are unable to profit the: but priests have reconciled, not rulers and kings, but God Himself when His wrath often been provoked against them.” (Book 3:6).”

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Please note: Saint John Chrysostom truly has defined clearly the awesome Office of Priesthood. In Greek the Office is called “Ypourgema”. The Office of Priesthood is a vocation not a profession. It is a calling and not something that one chooses as a career!

It is very sad that over the years the understanding of this divine Office of Priesthood has been distorted by many Orthodox laity who understand and see the priest as an ordinary employee of the local parish. For years the laity in the Archdiocese have targeted the priests and have caused great hardship and pain to the priest and of course to his family. Practically every parish in the Archdiocese is guilty of persecuting their priests and driving them out of the parish they were assigned to by their bishop or Archbishop. By doing so they have brought the wrath of God upon themselves.

The church is not a business or a secular corporation with a board of trustees. It is the Body of Christ and He being the Head of the Body. It is a Divine Institution. It is a spiritual hospital which offers healing, peace, cleansing, restoration and salvation for those who are truly faithful to Christ and His Divine Commandments.

If you are guilty of being enemies of your priests you need to seek immediately forgiveness and reconciliation. May God have mercy on your souls!

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George

Original Here.

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