In the last century, Bishop Nikolai of blessed memory surmised:
The centuries have shown two kinds of shepherds: those guided by their own passions, and those guided by fear of God, zeal, and service. The Church has suffered from the first, but has not been destroyed, while they have been. From the second, the Church has grown and advanced and shone forth in the world.
The shepherds of whom he speaks are first and foremost those who share the title of bishop in the Church. To some degree, though, clergy in the local parish share in this shepherding of the flock, which is why Father Paisios of blessed memory taught that:
A priest must lead the way, and the faithful will follow. In a flock, the ram will always lead the way and the sheep will follow. When its horns are turned right, the entire flock goes in that direction. Sheep follow the ram, their leader. You will not see them apart, but always one following closely behind the other. The ram gives the direction and they follow.
In more specific terms, the late Bishop Augoustinos preached:
The presbyters and deacons are servants of the people in their religious needs. They prepare the table on which the heavenly food – the most holy Body and precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ – is served, and they invite all Christians to partake of it. They serve the people not only in this sacrament of the Divine Eucharist, but also in all the other mysteries. And their service extends beyond the spiritual to the material, for they help to satisfy their people’s material needs when such needs occur.
For this reason Bishop Nikolai concluded that “A priest is a vessel of the ineffable, fearsome and all sufficing power of grace. Blessed is the priest who understands how priceless is the treasury that he has become. Blessed is he if the fear of God is with him day and night until his last breath.”
When is the fear of God implanted in the man who serves Christ and His Church as a cleric? St. Tikon of Zadonsk suggests:
When you are called, consider whether you are able to take up such a burden; and if you cannot bear it, do not approach it lest it weigh you down and plunge you into the abyss. He who would correct others must correct himself, he who would teach others must first teach himself. He who would shepherd and save others must watch over himself. He who would keep watch over and guard others must be good himself. He who would be a leader and show the way to others and lead them to the heavenly home must go on before himself. He by whom all should be enlightened must be a light to the world, the salt of the earth, and so on. He who would be an intercessor for others to God must first be pure and blameless himself. His own conscience must not reproach him who would reprove others for sin, lest he hear, Physician, heal thyself (Luke 4:23) Consider these things, beloved, and do not approach burdens greater than your strength.
His teaching is reminiscent of Saint Gregory Nazianzus:
A man must himself be cleansed before cleaning others; himself become wise, that he may make others wise; become light, before he can give light; draw near to God before he can bring others near; be hallowed, before he can hollow them; be possessed of hands before leading others by the hand, and of wisdom before he can speak wisely.
Thankfully, as too many of us fall short in our purity, our wisdom, our light, our proximity to God, our holiness, our speech and so on, we can find comfort in the words of Blessed Augustine of Hippo:
Grace always belongs to God, and the Sacrament belongs to God, while to man (the performer of the Sacrament) belongs the ministry alone. If he is good, then he is in accord with God and acts with God; if he is bad, then through him God performs the visible form of the Sacrament, while He Himself grants the invisible grace. Think not that the Divine Sacraments depend on the morals of men and their actions: they are holy because of Him to Whom they belong.
This teaching though, is not an excuse for our carelessness in maintaining our priestly dignity. Clergy must continually heed the examples and the admonitions of those before us, like St. Tikhon. I share a few of his thoughts for those who serve as clergy:
The place of teaching is the holy church; however, the pastor can and must impart his teaching in every place, wherever there may be a gathering, whenever occasion permits. In this we have as an example to all pastors Christ the Savior of the world, Who taught not only in the temple of Solomon, but also in homes, and in the desert, and in other places. Occasion will give the diligent and clever pastor a time and place to speak, as we see even in the Gospel. While sitting at table, he might speak of the table of the Kingdom of Heaven, and so on.
Avoid speaking the word of God for the sake of praise and human glory, lest you sin before God, appropriating to yourself that which is not yours. The word of God is given for the sake of men’s salvation and for the glorification of God’s name. One must preach it for this end. When you fittingly discharge your pastoral duty, then you will have praise though you may not wish it, however not from all. Those that are good and zealous for their salvation will love and praise you, but those that wicked and neglectful of their salvation will hate you and revile you. You will not, then, please everyone.
And, in another place he explains: “Without the help of God, the efforts of the pastor himself as well as those of the people will not be discharged or meet with success. For this reason the pastor has an obligation to pray diligently to God for himself and for the people, that He help both himself and all the people.”
Realizing the great burden and honor of serving both God and His people, clergy must establish themselves in prayer, read the Scriptures, reflect upon the lives of Saints, fast, give alms, repent, and truly rely on God Who is the Help and the Support. As clergy work out their salvation and attempt to serve Christ with degrees of dignity and aptness to His glory, the faithful are also called upon by St. Paul to offer their prayers. In his Epistle to the Hebrews that is read on the Feast of Sainted Bishops of the Church, we read, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable to you. Pray for us…”
I therefore close with a portion of the Commemoration of the Living prayer that is specific to clergy, a prayer that I hope you will include in your daily devotions:
Save, O Lord, and have mercy on Orthodox Patriarchs, Metropolitans, Archbishops and Bishops, the Priests and Deacons, and all who serve in the Church, and whom Thou hast ordained to feed Thy spiritual flock; and by their prayers, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Save, O Lord, and have mercy on our fathers (parish clergy names) and by their prayers have mercy on me, wretch that I am.
Save, O Lord, and have mercy on my Spiritual Father (name) and by his prayers forgive me my sins…
O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, for the sake of the prayers of Thy most pure Mother, our holy and God-bearing fathers and all the saints, have mercy on us. Amen.