The Role of the Priest in the Parish in Secular Society
by Fr. Nicholas Ceko

cross-smConsidering myself to be still among the youngest of the brethren, and hence less experienced then many, I approached this subject with fear and trembling ... not as much because I knew that this paper was going to be presented before the Bishop and my brother priests, but more so because, as are all things, it is presented before God, who is the one to whom we must answer for our every word. In thinking about this enormous topic, I drew from my experience growing up in this country and serving the Church in my adult life in various capacities for now 20 years. This includes my work as a lay person as well as my service to the Church as a priest. The seriousness of this subject is one which causes the most fear, because more and more each day I am convinced that the influence of what is commonly called secularism on the work of the priest and parish is greater and greater. Having heard the presentation of Fr. Petar Jovanovic on this subject, I have chosen to focus my presentation on The Work of the Priest and Pastoral Ministry in our contemporary American secular society. The question I hope to address is: How did the parish, and hence the role of the priest get to be what it is during century in the United States - What some have called the Missionary period - which was the bringing together of "our people" who fled their homes after the catastrophe of what befell the "old country."

The early part of this century saw the rise of "immigrant parishes" where our people came, so they thought, "To live in a better time and place." A new pastor of these communities also found himself as an "Eastern orthodox" in a Western society, with all of its western cultural thought and ways.

We have to try to understand that what was very important for those early "immigrant communities" - what was their great desire and what they longed for - was to be fully integrated, fully accepted into American life... to move beyond their own identity and mentality and often they asked the priest to help them do this. And we should not forget that all this was happening during a time when the church was struggling merely to survive. And so the priests and communities who came from a basically agrarian setting, began the difficult process of engaging the spiritual struggles of life in a secularized, non-agrarian, and industrial society. Among the questions raised during this time were Order and Procedure in the Church, as well as sacramental and liturgical discipline. When we look at our communities today, it appears obvious that in many ways they are the outcome of this beginning.

In order to fully understand the role of the priest in the parish in America today, the agenda of the secularists who have and are still dominating the educational system, the media, the entertainment business, the courts, and government, must be clearly stated. This secular agenda, this vision of life includes the following concepts:

  • The most important goal in life is feeling good about yourself.
  • Human worth is measured in dollars.
  • Life's purpose is to become a productive member of the secular super state and the global community.
  • The world is the place in which everything that is possible becomes permissible and modem science has no limits in this regard.
  • There are no truths that are non-negotiable, above debate, vote or "democratic" or general discussion.
  • Finally, secularism, as Fr. Schmemann put it is the "affirmation of the world's autonomy, of its self-sufficiency in terms of reason, knowledge and action." (From the book For the Life of the World).

In other words, according to the secularists, life is no longer a gift from God and the human person is no longer the image of that Gift-Giver.

How can people believe this to be true is best answered by the great Dostoyevsky who said "Once people stop believing in God, they will believe in anything."

From the Christian point of view it is obvious to us that this vision of life falls short of describing the reality of the human condition. There is no vision of life without God who created it. As St. John Chrysostom wrote in his Homily on Genesis, "To say that things which exist were gotten out of existing matter and not to confess that the Creator of all things produced them out of what did not exist would be a sign of extreme mental derangement."

Everyone in this country, including our Orthodox Serbs who live here should realize, and perhaps the clergy realize all too clearly, that it is this agenda that, as Fr. Paul Lazor on this subject clearly observes, dominates the educational system, media, entertainment business, courts, and government in this country. Hence, one must observe that the work of the priest and his pastoral ministry today is conducted in this environment. Pastoral Ministry does not take place in a vacuum. St. John in his Gospel describes the Good Shepherd as the one whose voice the sheep hear and who "calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. " (John 10:3). In order to do this, the priest must know his parishioners in all their personal particularity.

What then is church life like today? What predominant issues shape the expectations of our people and which parishes have of today's Orthodox priest? What are the types of communities in which he must carry on his pastoral work? These are among the most serious questions on this topic today. There are perhaps these main features to consider: Three factors applying to all parishes, regardless of how large or small or where they are located, for they are feature part of daily life on this Continent: they are intrinsic to the mass media, schooling, government, commerce and exchanges of any kind by individuals and any organizations.

1. Our Serbian people have experienced a total break with that life relative to the "old country". There the Orthodox Church was not a marginal or isolated identity to one's life-- as it often is here. Without exaggeration, the Orthodox Church may be likened as a leaven described by St. Luke in his Gospel, (St. Luke's Gospel 13:21) A small amount of leaven inevitably penetrates the entire dough. In other words, Orthodoxy was a formative element in the society and culture. It was linked in a real way to morality, art, literature, the rhythm of life, and civilization. I'm told by many that the church bells rang each day, the services and feast days were observed with particular customs in villages and cities, all people where baptized, married, and buried through the Orthodox Church. This in no way implies that Church life was easy in this setting, history records that it was not. But though it wasn't easy...yet ultimately, all people and all things, including all professions within society itself -all worked for the glory of God and all stood under His Judgement. And so, the role of the priest in this environment was clear. Maybe he was disrespected in such society too, but it was clear that he was the local "representative" of God in the church and who was recognized as such by all, regardless of how each person practiced the faith. His task was clear ... to maintain this organic way of life and to pass on its values to the next generation. But under the ever-intensified crush of secularism, this mode of life in our country has almost entirely disappeared. The result of this leads to the second feature:

2. Disorder & Confusion: Religion, like everything else in our American secular society is now governed by the iron principles of individual "rights" and privacy. This confusion is within the very life of the parish on, and any priest who has served but for a day in any parish in this country has experienced it. Outwardly, church life appears to go on as usual. Liturgical services and feast days go on and sacraments continue to be administered. But confounding perplexity abounds as priests encounter the confused way in which people often perceive these basic church activities. This condition in parish life sometimes goes so far as to even encounter parishioners who indicate beliefs in reincarnation, new-age religion, psychics, astrology and the like. Interestingly, the same person may at the same time want and often insists on having "Serbian Religion." The Sunday Divine Liturgy for many may mean nothing more than going to church in a vague, general, and content less sense. Influenced by secular thought, our parishioners may even attend the service to get what they are taught by that society is the purpose: "to get some relief, inspiration, guidance in positive thinking" and so on. Often the thought is also that the priest must care for his own personal fulfillment of the obligations to Orthodoxy, and that the parishioners should be allowed the individualrightand privacy to make their own choices about the fulfillment of these obligations. All this gives rise to a third feature:

3. Dissolution, especially of the young. The question here is: What is the church community doing today? Is it just one more variation of the same themes encountered in every day secular life: the struggle for power and rights, an atmosphere of mistrust and pettiness. Homes are ravaged by the breakdown of families, the workplace is dominated by cheating and profiteering of all kinds. Higher education is increasingly devalued. The utopian secular agenda is failing. Young people are provoked to hopelessness. The American Secular Dream promises so much, and delivers so little.

When the secular American dream fails, inevitably it seems the secularists initiate more programs, ask for more money, less traditional religion-- after all secularists have declared war on tradition. And so when they see that their agenda is collapsing, and that there can be no "Utopia", then they create a new agenda and the result is more intrusion into peoples lives in order to create a "new society", a new man, a new woman, a "New world order", what Frank Schaffer calls "a new multicultural, gender-neutral utopia" in which everything will be tolerated except politically incorrect, old-fashioned, regressive religious ideas." (Dancing Alone, Holy Cross Press). A book I recommend to everyone interested in this subject.

So a very serious question must be asked concerning the role of the priest and work of the parish. Does participation in the church really make a difference? And if not, why bother with it?

What are the responses that seem to be made to this collapse of organic Orthodoxy and the secularism of our society:

One response is to identify with the American Secular Way. In America, the Orthodox Church is seen by some finally to be freed from the limitations of the "old world". The priest here is expected by his parishioners to do something big -to really make a difference. He's expected by his parishioners to do a wide array of things: to play golf, supervise a full schedule of social activities, relate to the young, run a good summer camp, and know how to conduct himself in meetings where so they say-- "democratic procedure and the rule of the majority" are followed. He is to be a man of boundless good cheer. He is to produce measurable results: membership and financial growth, expansion of the physical plant, good will, tranquillity and happiness among his parishioners. In the process, he is to perform the appropriate liturgical, canonical, and what is called spiritual "gymnastics" to enable his parishioners to remain in "good standing" with an ancient institution in a modern secular society, so that, as someone once said: "they may have an otherwise absent God (secularism is the practice of the absence of God in every day affairs) present at important moments in their lives: birth, marriage, times of crises, suffering and death. The result of this is what in modern English is termed "burnout" by the priest who tries to fulfill such expectations and demands. Usually, as the priest gives himself over to the production of more and more tangible results: something bigger, something new, something built, something paved, something purchased, something sold, something that can be put on a list to say "Look what we did this year" -- he sees within himself and the flock less and less on that interior level - of what St. Paul calls the inner man and inner nature (Ephesians and II Cor.) where results involve self-denial and taking up the cross. But we must remember that only these results count for eternal life. When he points his flock towards this vital area, the priest may soon have the sensation that he is a "voice crying in the wilderness". Falling into the secular trap, the priest himself can begin to question whether or not anything they do really can make a difference. The secular principles, which we all despise, may appear as the only means of self-preservation. The struggle for power involves then clergy and parish members and ultimately in this vicious circle everyone loses, as Christian Spirituality, Mission, Evangelism and Christian Witness are ignored.

Another response is to avoid, deny, or stay apart from the contemporary American secular scene. This tendency is to escape into a distinct separate sectarian-like conclave. It sees nothing in contemporary secular life with which to identify. The role of the priest in this setting is simpler. He is the strict observer - the traditional man who teaches traditional Orthodoxy. But, it should be said, this also conforms well with the American Pluralistic & Secular scene. As a matter of fact, this is how the Orthodox Church is commonly viewed by many in American society. Once again, I'm afraid, this approach too can leave untouched the inner man and inner nature necessary for eternal life.

Neither of these extremes, in my opinion provide an adequate responses to the real role of the priest and the work of the parishes today. Regardless of how things got to be the way they are, how the role of the priest in the parish began to be inaccurately perceived, the primary concern - his real role must be nurturing this inner man and inner nature-- what we commonly call the building of the "living Church". Neither of the above mentioned responses is adequate, and we have ample proof that it is so.

Finally, I conclude with that which is most comforting in all that has been said thus far. The fact remains that secularism will and must fail. Already many admit that there is a great crisis within it. Modern man is confused. The secular world view does not describe reality as it is. It therefore cannot succeed, for as the Psalmist cries: "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain." (Psalm 127:1). Therefore, we, the Church, and especially we, the bishops and priests, must be ready for that failure and rise out of these secular ashes. In my humble opinion, there can be no more important role of the priest in the parish than this one. 

Feast of St. Peter of Korish 
June 5/18, 1997 
Alhambra, California
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