Priest and Parish

Archpriest George Benigsen

(From his farewell speech)

Contemporary life constantly tempts us to look upon Church and parish as upon a kind of ordinary human organization. We have consequently individuals and even whole parishes who, much as they strive to, cannot find the correct definition of a priest's position in the parish. Who is he? Administrator, manager, boss or just an employee hired to minister to the spiritual needs of the parishioners? It often happens that a priest succeeds in taking one or several of these positions thanks only to his personal qualities and energy, not as a consequence of the place he occupies in the structure of Church hierarchy.

The priest's position in the parish is always clear for those who have a clear idea of the parish itself in the Orthodox sense of the word. As the Church in its whole, the parish is first of all Christ's Body. The fundamental purpose of the parish is bringing people united in it into the Kingdom of Heaven. In this sense, the parish is a beginning of that Kingdom on this earth, a school preparing man to the Kingdom, a temporal laboratory where people learn love, forgiveness, mysteries of eternal life. All human and social activities in parish life are justified only when they give ground for this study, not when they hinder it. The center of parish life is not at the general parish meetings, nor at the meetings of church committees. It does not even lie in the charitable or educational activities of the priest or the laymen. It is the Holy Altar, where at every liturgy the priest and the whole parish celebrate the great and sacred supper of Eternity, the divine and holy Eucharist. A parish really lives only around the altar. Those who keep away from that center of parish life leave the parish. If the altar is deserted, parish life is dead, regardless of any well attended meetings or successful fund drives. If the parish is truly attracted to spiritual life, to its church, to the Eucharist, to prayer and to Christian virtues of love and charity, all parish activities will flourish.

The bond between priest and parish, between the flock and the pastor, is determined by the level of spiritual life in the parish. The priest is first of all an officiant performing the services and sacraments of the Church, the spiritual guide of the flock, which is entrusted to him by God. Therefore, the position of a priest, rector of a parish and pastor of souls, is different from the position of a president, manager, administrator or boss. It is different because a priest's duties are of a different kind. The priest must keep in touch with all aspects of parish life: charity, social work and even finances. His goal is not to gain power, but to keep a spiritual control over the worth of all these expressions of parish life and to constantly inspire his parishioners to spiritualize all these manifestations.

Every member of the parish shares with the priest his responsibility for the spiritual future of the parish and of the whole Church. The priest's responsibility is greater and heavier, because he stands closer to the heart of Church life, the holy altar. The priest is responsible for his parish to the Bishop. He is even more responsible to God for the souls entrusted to his care. The parish cares for the pastor's welfare; the pastor responds by taking prayerful care of the parishioners' spiritual life. The parish looks after the decoration and the good repair of the church; the pastor strives to fill the church with people aspiring to salvation. A full church is the first proof of success of pastoral work, it is the joy of any priest's heart. His deepest sorrow is an empty church. The priest has a part in all aspects of parish life, but his true place is at the altar. Here is his strength, the source of his inspiration, the center and essence of his office. He awaits for his spiritual children, his flock, to join him there, to lead them to the evergreen pastures of the Kingdom of Heaven.

A priest does not tire of church work. He does tire if his work lacks results. A priest is not afraid of being disturbed; the greatest disturbance for him is not to be disturbed. Hardly any profession is as serious as a priest's calling. A priest must always live and work in earnest. Except in rare moments of rest, he must always stand face with God or man. His standing before God is always tied up to a deep feeling of unworthiness and imperfection, to the most deep and sacred moments and hours of his pastoral life. His standing before God's people, before his flock, is no less serious and is full of responsibilities. The priest preaches to the flock "words of eternal life"; through holy baptism he introduces babies to the salutary church life, he helps people to shed the heavy burden of sins in the sacrament of confession, unites men and women into new families through the sacrament of marriage and prays for those who depart into everlasting life.

By all this the priest creates the parish. He calls people to the church services, teaches Divine law to children and adults, sanctifies the homes of his parishioners through prayer and blessing, calls each to active work for God and the Church... But the parish also makes the priest. Common growth for God and His Church, sense of a combined responsibility for the Church, common service to the Kingdom of God in this world -- this is where the mysterious bond between pastor and flock really lies. The parish makes the priest through prayer with and for him, through compliance to his appeals, through caring for his needs, through conscious participation in church life and by constantly sharing the pastor's service before God's altar.




My dear friends! Speaking for the last time to the many people whose spiritual leader he was, Fr. George Benigsen did not let his thoughts dwell on the past. Idealizing recollections is pleasant, but not creative, whereas our future should always be worthy of our Christian name. Fr. George has painted us a picture of a simple, sincere, affectionate and self-denying relationship between a pastor and his flock. We must strive for it, relying on God's help. Christian Church has known a time when those things did exist and were typical.

Everything Fr. George said shouldn't be new and unusual for the members of his parish. It should also be an earnest lesson for the new generation, which is gradually joining our parish. Young Christian families should take it with utmost seriousness. They should consider parish business their own. I speak here of the parish as of the Body of Christ, as the Church calls it, as a brotherhood of people "binding themselves with a bond of love", as it is said in a prayer. In the sacrament of baptism and in the rite of churching a child becomes a member of the Church, in the sense of a mystical spiritual reality. Yet, when coming of age, this should be confirmed with an act of voluntary sacrifice and comprehension, through joining the parish actively. It does not necessarily mean taking part in parish leadership. There is no need of any change; the worldly matters pertaining to our parish are in the hands of experienced and hard-working men. Entering a Christian community is first of all renouncing the lack of faith in God's help, overcoming the lack of confidence in one's brethren of slightly different spirit and feelings, overcoming also self-consciousness in admitting being an active member of the Church. This is the spiritual upheaval Fr. George's farewell speech is calling for.

Rev. A. Pavlovich

[Holy Trinity Cathedral] Church Life Bulletin, San Francisco, February 1960.

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Modified 5/14/99-