The Good and Faithful Priest - Part 3
April 24, 2009 Length: 26:19
Fr. Alexander Atty concludes his lecture on the Good and Faithful Priest. Next week he will begin talking about the Good and Faithful Parishioner.
I’m going to talk to you a little bit about the brand or stamp of evil pastors. We’re going to talk about a good pastor. Let’s talk about what an evil pastor is. They do exist, by the way. Evil priests exist for a reason. We always talk about the devil being the prince of this world. The prince of this world invades even the Church, at every level: from the laypeople to the hierarchy. There’s evil at every level.
I worry about my judgment as a priest. I worry about me selling Christ’s Church down the drain. It haunts me every day, especially when you reach a point sometimes where it’s easier to say, “Let them have their way.” And I’ve done that at times. I’ve had that temptation, and it’s… It’s not good, because it’s unloving, and it’s not truthful. Christ says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Sometimes we priests like to remove the word “truth.”
When I was first ordained, I ran into a priest who was 80 years old. He said to me, “You see this?” He had jet-black hair at 80. I thought one of two things: he must have used Grecian Formula or he just went with the flow. He says, “I need to give you some advice. You’re a new priest and I’m an old man.” And I said, “Sure.” Hey, I was open to anything, because when I was ordained and sent to Louisville, the Metropolitan said to me, “You’re like Joseph and Mary on their flight to Egypt. You’re going into the wilderness.” He says, “In four years, call me. You could come back to Pennsylvania.” Well, I said, “No. I’m going to stay there.”
But this priest, I asked him, and he had some advice to give me, and I gave him a blank response, but inside I was angry, because he said to me, “Don’t rock the boat. That’s why I have black hair: I never rocked the boat. Let the people do what they want. Make them happy.” And I knew darn well: that’s wrong. And I think you would know that’s wrong. And if your priests would be that way, then you know you’ve got the wrong priest. Not the wrong Church. One thing about Orthodox Christianity makes us a little different. Our Church is infallible, not us. Our priests, bishops, deacons, laypeople are not infallible; they’re fallible. Our Church is infallible.
I was sort of annoyed that I would get that out of someone who was a priest for 50 years. “Don’t rock the boat.” And when I was younger, I was a little bit of a smart-aleck, and I said to him, “I never read that in the Gospels. Never.” Needless to say, he never spoke to me again.
Here are some of the things that I think are… And there’s an excellent book on this. Archbishop John (Shahovskoy): The Orthodox Pastor. I love that book. I see all my faults in it. But there’s one particular chapter that I hope I’m never part of that list. And I’m going to read to you the stamps of evil pastorate. I’m going to list them for you.
Number one: Love of money, practical materialism, offering prayers or sacraments on the payment of a fee are a sin and perversion of God’s kingdom.
When I first moved to Kentucky, I established one practice. You pay me nothing for anything. I don’t take a nickel for home blessings, marriages, funerals, baptisms. Not a nickel. I get a salary; I learn to live with it. You know? My wife works. I think I live too good, haven’t suffered, but one thing I don’t like is a fee attached to everything that the Church has. St. Basil the Great will say, “It’s freely given. You don’t charge.”
I know that there was a period in time in the history of Orthodoxy in America where priests depended on every penny given to them, because they didn’t pay them. Our priests should be paid like professionals, even though I don’t like the word applied to priesthood. We’re not professionals. We have a vocation. It’s a calling, but we have to live, too. I’ve always had it as a rule in my church. You want to give me money? Give it to the church. Increase your tithe. Do something for the poor. I have too many blessings. I don’t need the money. So that’s one of the stamps of evil pastorate that I’ve heard about, read about, and seen, where the first thing is this: the hand is out. That’s in total conflict with our priesthood.
Number two: Pomp, show, and theatricality, as opposed to reverence, prayerfulness, and the surrender to God of all one’s flesh.
I think that’s self-describing, isn’t it? The Liturgy is not a theater. You could read Scripture about the rabbis in the marketplace being full of themselves and they wanted to be called “Rabbi.” It haunts me when people show a lot of that to me, personally. When I moved to Kentucky, one of the first things I did was abolish the head table. I sit with the people. I’m not above them. They’re better than [I am]. I never used the Liturgy for pomp. It’s not a theater. If I was going to do that, I’d work down here: 42nd Street. Don’t they have a theater down here, or is that the wrong neighborhood? I’d probably work there, too.
But no, I think the Liturgy, celebrated prayerfully and humbly, removes us from that pomp. You have to remember at the end the Russians say—I’m not a Russian expert, but they call the Sunday Liturgy “Slujba Boga.” It’s God’s Liturgy; it ain’t mine. Greeks: “Theia Leitourgia”: God’s Liturgy. And that means when we serve the Liturgy as a priest, it’s not… We’re not the spotlight here.
It’s not how nice I dress. I like beautiful vestments like everybody else does, that look proper and they’re neat and the church is beautiful and clean. It doesn’t have to be big and fancy, but when we celebrate anything liturgically, we have to have the passion for what we’re reading and singing and saying, in a respectful, reverent way, without being pompous.
I went to Athens one year, and the chanters there were trying to out-chant each other, [and] they got into a fistfight. And I’ve seen priests that way, too. When I went to Greece that year, I went to everything I could possibly do. I went to funerals, weddings, baptisms. They didn’t know who I was; I just went. I wanted to see what real life was in an Orthodox country.
I went to a cemetery one time, because in Salonika, they had a beautiful church in the cemetery, and they actually, I guess the people there didn’t go to their home parish to be buried. So I walk into the cemetery. I know a lot of Greek people there. They’re my friends, and I would ask them, “How do you do a funeral?” “Okay, Father, go over to the Anastasi Cemetery tomorrow; you’ll see ten of them.” He was right. I went there and I saw all these people lined up. They were like assembly-line funerals, and I’m not kidding you. It sort of unnerved me.
And he told me…and the people got very cynical, because they saw these priests—and this offended me, too, because I am a priest, and I don’t subscribe to this way of life, but these two priests got into an argument at the funeral, and the guy whispered in my ear. He says, “They’re arguing over who should bury this guy, because he had money.” He said, “Then next one doesn’t, and they were to alternate.” That was their job. They were strictly funeral priests. And they didn’t even know who the person was. The guy gets up there. The priest starts the service. He says to the lady, “[To] onoma [tou]?—What’s his name?” What?? You couldn’t find out before what his name was? You had to embarrass yourself and ask in front of all these people?
But, do you know, all those things sunk into my head as what not to do. That’s not what to do. And I think the pastorate today has to be shaped in this way. I read about all these priests that survived Communism, or these Romanians, or these who survived Islam. And what made them different? What made them so different and better and good at their vocation? They did it with love, that extra mile, not afraid to work, not afraid to get up in the middle of the night, or do services at any time. They tell you you can’t recreate that.
Every once in a while I hear people say things about ROCOR. They say, “Oh, they’re just trying to live in 18th-, 17th-century Russia.” That’s not true. Maybe some of them are, but I think our priests can live back then and still be priests in this country the right way, without worrying about all those things that people look for in us.
Here’s another one:
Fawning on the rich and powerful and a contemptuous attitude for the poor and humble.
The poor and humble. If anything about my reputation is… I don’t think… I don’t cater to anybody. That’s what my spiritual father told me: treat everyone fairly, rich or poor, black or white. All that stuff. That’s what Christ would do. You’ve got to ask yourself the question: “What would Christ do?” Remember when they came out with those bracelets: “What Would Jesus Do?”, those corny “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets? In many respects, it wasn’t so corny, because you have to ask yourself as a priest, “What would [he] do?” Just because someone has money or doesn’t have money… Even the poor could claim that they should get special treatment, because they’re poor. What’s fair is that we’re all treated the same, and I know there’s a great temptation out there.
I know of priests who have people give them cars, [pay for] their trips to Las Vegas. I know why: can’t preach the Gospel to people who buy you. I’m not for sale. [It’s] always been in my head: I’m not for sale, because that’s the way my parents raised me. My grandparents were millionaires. I grew up with black servants in our house. Not that my parents lived that way. My dad was exiled out of the family because he didn’t cater to my grandfather who was a millionaire. That’s why I love my father; he was principled. And when my grandfather died, they paid the bishop to come in and bury him, like that made it a special event.
I always tell my parishioners, “Just because the bishop comes and does a service for you doesn’t mean you’re going to heaven.” We’re the budget line to the kingdom… but no. I guess I rebelled against that because of what I grew up with, because I saw no fairness there. I want to tell you; I’ll go on record: I’m not the favorite of the wealthy. And yet, they get treated right and they don’t see me as a bad guy, either, by the way.
Preaching earthly values and attainments. Absorption in some side issue or work which is detriment to bringing souls to the one Shepherd.
It takes us back to the reality of this: we are there to bring people to Christ. Bring people to Christ. I never preach in my parish—ever preached in my parish—money. Never asked for a penny from the pulpit, and I never will. I don’t ask people to join any special clubs, special orders, nothing, because my job is to bring people to Christ. Once people come to Christ, they do the right thing. Well, we want to shortcut that and go for their portfolio or their wallet, and that’s not my style. I’m there to bring people to the Shepherd: the Shepherd, not me.
Another stamp of an evil pastor is one who seeks honor, glory for oneself: vanity.
It’s very easy for us to fall into that. When I was first ordained a priest, you know, people come up and kiss your hand. When I was young I thought, “Whoa. That’s neat.” Now I don’t want it. It’s not my hand, first of all, if I do it right. If I believe in it correctly, it’s Christ’s hand. I’m not worthy to have my hand kissed, and I think the… Fr. Schmemann said this, and I sort of think he’s right. He said, “When they ordain a priest, they should give it all to him.” All the bling—that’s what kids call this: “bling”—fancy hats—oh, back to the hat story again, Father. I got my first hat at Macy’s. Just kidding.
Fancy vestments, all kinds of titles, and then he says, “As you go along in your priesthood, they should start taking it away from you.” I think that’s true. I only wore this today because I’m a priest and I’m in… I hardly wear a cross in my own parish. I would prefer to be known as the janitor of the place over being the priest, but the longer you’re in it, and if you really take it all in, what the theology of the Church teaches about being a pastor, the less vanity we should have. That’s part of my stubborn persona.
Another stamp, and the last stamp, and then I’m going to open it up for questions, without answers.
Lack of care for the human soul.
That’s the sign of a real evil pastor: lack of care, which means we don’t tell people the truth. We don’t tell people the truth, and we’re afraid to tell people the truth, because we’re afraid that: (a) in my case I would say Englewood’s calling or (b) the people are going to threaten us that they’re going to quit the Church. I’ve come to both conclusions. If it happens, it happens.
The Archdiocese called me once in my 30 years, because I wouldn’t let someone run for parish council. They were right; I wouldn’t. He was a big giver to the church… I wouldn’t. And he asked me, “Why?” I said: because he doesn’t come to church. A guy that comes to church three times a year, he’s going to sit on a parish council and he’s going to tell us or the church how to be, how to run? Illogical. So I said no to this individual who was running, and when people don’t think I got my stripes, I’ve earned my stripes.
Like I said, people come to Louisville now and they think it’s DisneyWorld. We have about ten buildings on our campus; they’re all beautiful. We have nice gardens and trees, and the interiors of two churches, and all most people would just want is one. We have the chapel that’s absolutely beautiful. It’s breathtaking when you walk in. Our big cathedral’s that way. I earned my stripes not by that, but by listening to what the Fathers said about the priesthood: no compromise.
This guy that I sort of rubbed the wrong way, and I still can’t understand it, because I have such a nice personality… I rubbed him the wrong way, and he reneged on a major donation to the Antiochian Village. That’s when my phone rang. And I said to the Metropolitan, I said, “You know what? Haven’t you played enough games in Louisville? I’m priest number 25 in 46 years.” Mathematically, that’s less than every two years a new priest. Every time a priest is changed in a parish, do you know what happens to your church? There’s some people who like him, there’s some people who don’t like him, but stability loses. Roots are lost.
So I said to him, “No, I’m not doing this.” He said, “Put him on the parish council.” I said, “With all due respect: no.” And my spiritual father told me, “Be prepared to suffer, if you’re really going to be a good priest.” And it’s an awful long distance to call Mount Athos, especially when he didn’t have a phone! And I didn’t know what to do, but I told the bishop, metropolitan, as politely as I possibly could, that I was not doing that.
And I said, “You have two things you can do: you could move me, like you did 25 other priests—and if you move me, wherever I go, I’m going to be a problem… so just limit your problems to here—or you could tell me I’m right or just don’t answer the phone. Just do me the favor. You don’t have to defend me. Just don’t answer the phone.” He hung up on me. I told my wife. I said, “Well, Olga… Start packing.” Needless to say, by the way, this individual’s wife, who had all the money, told me I was the first priest that ever loved her husband enough to make him come to church. It changed him. He’s 93 years old, and comes even to daily Vespers.
And I think that’s our role. We’re to feed the sheep, not fleece the sheep. There’s a difference, and when I see those marks of evil pastorship, they haunt my conscience. They absolutely haunt my conscience, because the easiest thing for me to do is to get into my car and fleece the public.
[Do] you know how gullible people are today? I watch this guy preach on TV every once in a while. I think his name is T.J. Dukes or Jakes or something. I watch him. I watch the people’s faces. Every once in a while, the camera catches someone sleeping. They won’t have to work so hard in my church! But I listen to these guys, and I know what their success is all about. It’s all about making people feel good, and this is where, as a priest, it conflicts with me. And naturally, I want people to feel spiritually motivated, hungry for God, and if you motivate people spiritually, they do feel good, in a different way. I’d like to say that word is joy. There’s nothing more joyful than inspired people, spiritually inspired people when they approach the chalice and you see tears in their eyes. That’s the mark of our faith.
I walk into some churches and they’re so beautiful, and the aromas there, especially overseas. I went to Russia 20 years ago when it was still a Communist country, and I went to Zagorsk, and I walked in there, and if I’d had a heart attack, they would’ve only discovered it after church was over, because I was like this: I couldn’t breathe. And all I smelled was garlic and onions. I couldn’t even smell the incense, but the joy of that… The joy was there. The joy was there, and that’s what made it… Those are the kind of milestones in my priestly life that [have] kept me on the straight and narrow, as far as my church has gone.