The Role of the Priest in the Parish in Secular Society
by Fr. Nicholas Ceko
Considering 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.
Peter 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
who fled their homes after the catastrophe of what befell the
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
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
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
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
individual rightand 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
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