The Maronite Archbishop of Antelias, Msgr Youssef Bechara, delivered an address on the “Maronite Understanding of Ministry and Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ” during this past July. I learned a good deal from it and think that you might find his words on the priest’s vocation to be rather interesting – perhaps even provocative to a Western or Latin perspective. Msgr Bechara quotes a Jesuit writing to Rome from the East in 1845, “Here, according to the general rule, the lay is not elevated to the order of priest unless the people present him to the bishop. This rule does not accept any exception with respect to the priests who undertake the mission of serving souls.” (P. Louis-Xavier Abougit, letter à Mgr. Mislin, Camérier de S.S. Pie IX, in : Recueil de lettres intitulées Mission de Syrie, B.N. Paris. 1854).
Here are some excerpts from the Archbishop’s address:
In the traditional practice of the Church, vocation to the service of priesthood, which is different than a monastic vocation, required that parishioners meet whenever a new spiritual need arose in order to choose an appropriate person from among them to perform the needed priestly service. This person should have the necessary qualifications and characteristics acknowledged by everyone, whether he was married or single. Finally, they would present him to the bishop.
According to the Book of Al-Hoda, choosing candidates for the priesthood was usually done on the basis of the “trust of priests and the elderly, as well as on the trust and consent of the parishioners and after receiving their signatures. This method was adopted so as to avoid any schism within the community that might affect the church.”
Patriarch Doueihy confirms this procedure by saying that the “community of believers wants the ordination to be done on the hand of the parishioners so that they may examine the ordained and call for him.”
In the rite of ordination, the archdeacon or the sponsoring priest presents the elected individual to the bishop in the name of the community of believers who have chosen him and who bears the responsibility of presenting him.
In pastoral practice, the established general rule is for the people to choose the one who is fit to serve their ecclesiastic needs according to the required conditions.
Regarding the qualifications and the required characteristics, the choice of the people was subject to measures and conditions set by the canons. The most important among these are:
· human, intellectual and spiritual growth: This means that the chosen one should be in his thirties, should follow in the footsteps of the Savior who revealed himself to the world at the age of thirty and began to educate people. The chosen one should be at least “twenty-five years of age so that churches will not be offended with the lack of priests.” He “should be learned, and experienced in ministering service,” “he should be well-versed in rhetoric and science; he should be pious and should seek God’s help to remain celibate and abstinent.”
· good reputation and character among relatives and strangers: “He should perform good deeds and steer away from evil. He should be humble and modest, not violent and inclined to loose his temper. He should not be an alcoholic and a seeker of petty gains. He should be content, calm, polite, hospitable, etc. Close acquaintances and people from outside the church should attest to his conduct.”
All of the above conditions are established “according to the requirements of the priesthood and each the need of the community of believers and the administration of holy sacraments.”
The bishop confirmed this choice after a thorough examination and would send the chosen person, who perhaps had never thought of priesthood before, to a good priest or to a monastery or to a seminary to receive the proper spiritual, theological and intellectual education.
Then he convoked him in the name of Divine Grace and ordained him a priest through the laying on of hands—on the altar of the parish that chose him. Through this process an “engagement” bond is established between the bishop and the priest. Finally, the bishop presents the priest to the parishioners present so that they too may receive him and begin the journey of engagement, whereby they should shoulder the responsibility of providing for him and he should bear the responsibility of serving them in the service of education, sanctification and ministering.
This is a tradition that dates back to the Apostles and the first Church and is based on constant theological principles.
The need of the Church is the first constitutional element of the vocation for priestly service or diaconal service. The Church cannot set up a new service unless there is a need for it. Thus, the ‘need’ is what determines the new service that should be filled. This comes before determining the required qualifications and before calling the proper servant. Thus, first the need is set, then qualifications are established, and then the Christian community is asked to choose the appropriate person.
The role of the people or the Christian community is very important in choosing the proper person for the required service. The community knows the person who possesses the required qualifications that are acknowledged by everyone; it chooses him according to the personal status appropriate for it, single or married. It bears his responsibility, presents him to the bishop, accompanies him after his ordination, supports him in his ministry and provides him with a decent living.
After the community of believers chooses the appropriate person, he is asked to remain in his civil status since he was chosen based on his qualifications and based on the fact that his present status agrees with the need of the community of believers. If he is single, he should stay as such and should consecrate himself to God in the service of churches and the people of God; if he is married, he should preserve his married life and live it by fearing God and respecting His commandments. This was recommended in the Book of Al-Hoda and confirmed by the Lebanese Synod.
In pastoral practice, it was customary for the people along with bishops to choose married men to serve the parishes. The reason for that was that the married man had presented evidence of human and Christian maturity in caring for his family and had given a guarantee of stability in his town and parish.
The bishop, the successor of the Apostles, makes the decision to accept the person chosen by the people; and is the one who sends him to receive proper education. Then, he calls him in the name of Divine Grace during the ordination, which takes place in the Eucharist to express to him the calling of God, which is taking place “today” and “now,” and bestows upon him the priesthood by the laying on of hands, all the while invoking the “Holy Spirit to descend upon him,” making him apt for the service being granted him.
The bishop transfers to the ordained the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Sacrament of Priesthood. Even though the Christian community joined in the Eucharist participates in the calling of the Holy Spirit, the bishop remains the main servant of the Sacrament of Priesthood and ordination. He is the head of the local church and her reference since he is the successor of the Apostles and the representative of Christ.