Skip to Navigation

Who Cares? The Relationship Of Clergy And Laity

Word Magazine  June
1998  Page 8-9









By Father Joseph Allen



one is priest or parishioner in the “symphony” of the Orthodox Christian
parish, the question which strikes at the fundamental nature of our life together
is, “Who cares?” If we are serious about our parish life being a reflection
of the perfect Community, the Trinitarian Community of Father, Son and Holy
Spirit, then this question becomes that much more critical to the Church.


When the
Prophet Micah asked that same question, “Who cares?” he quickly answered it
by telling us how to care with this formula:


what does the Lord require of thee? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk
humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).


Such are
the components of what St. Basil the Great called an “atmosphere” in which a
true caring community grows: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with
your God. And when God became human in the flesh of Jesus Christ, “when he
pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14), this atmosphere of care received its
ultimate affirmation: it is God who cares first (1 John 4:19). And so
today we speak not only of a community, but a veritable Christian community.


But does
all this mean that the atmosphere can exist today without our own efforts? Can
the proper symphony of clergy and laity function so that this atmosphere prevails,
without our own work? Of course, we already know the answer.


on our individual experiences, however, each person will probably be able to
note when he or she saw that Christian atmosphere break down. In turn, this
breakdown in atmosphere can occur between clergy and laity or simply among the
laity. And when it does occur, the question will again be raised: “Who
cares?” The atmosphere rapidly degenerates.


Allow me
two examples, one which is contemporary and specific, and a second, ancient and


The first
example is specific to the clergy-laity breakdown, one in which the atmosphere
was not Christian but pharisaic: The young priest was sent to his first assignment
as pastor of a long-established community. He knew “what the Lord required: to
do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.”  His intention was to create just such an atmosphere where the
Holy Spirit could take root.  But
the parish council in that community told the Bishop that they would “put him
to the test.” The Bishop knew the young man and had every confidence that he
could stand any test put to him. After Liturgy during his first month there, the
parish picnic was scheduled, and they all went out to the local lake as was
their custom. They normally would all gather on the boat with all their supplies
and cross over to the island. And so they did. However, this time as they were
halfway over, a member of the parish council suddenly said, “Oh no, we forgot
the hot dogs!” Someone would have to swim ashore to get them.


The new
pastor realized that this was one of those tests, and recalled that the Bishop
did warn him that they would indeed test him. Finally, he closed his eyes like
St. Peter, when at the raging of the sea he asked Our Lord to “call him.”
That young pastor then opened his eyes, got out of the boat and walked on the
water to the shore, where he retrieved the hot dogs. The parishioners were
stunned, forgetting Our Lord’s words:


things will you do, and greater things will you do!” They stood amazed and in
silence, until, that is, the leader of the pharisees among them, still seeking
to find some fault, said, “See, I told you the Bishop would send us
someone who could not swim!”


atmosphere needed in our parish is one in which each of us will see the good
intent of the person who, when asked “Who cares?” will respond “I care!”
We simply will need “eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart to perceive”
(Isaiah 6:10, Mark 8:18), rather than a cynical pre-judgment which is the
hallmark of the pharisee’s attitude.


second example is an ancient one which has a universal meaning, that is, for all
of us, clergy and laity alike. It is a story which we have all heard, but which
I should like now to frame in our present context regarding that atmosphere
which answers the question “Who cares?” It is found in the Gospel of St.
Luke, Chapter Ten, and the scriptural scholars claim that in their encounter we
probably get the clearest example of the interactions in which Our Lord


certain lawyer came to Jesus and asked, ‘What do I have to do to inherit
eternal life?’ “ The scholars say this is the trickiest question in the
Mosaic law. But Our Lord, being a good Middle Eastern man, answers the question with
a question: “Well, you know the law: what does it say?”


lawyer: “The law says, you shall love the Lord your God with all that you are:
your mind, heart, soul, etc., and your neighbor as yourself.”


says: “Fine.” That’s all he says: “Fine! You’ve got it right.”


But this
is a shrewd lawyer, and he is trying to “justify himself,” trying to
“entrap” Jesus: “But who is my neighbor?”


And we
all know what Our Lord does in response: He tells the story of the Good
Samaritan. The Levite passes by. The Priest passes by. The Samaritan crosses
over. And Jesus ends the story with another question: “Now, who proved to be
the neighbor?” “The one who showed mercy.” “Good, go and do likewise!”


It is the
Samaritan, the least likely one, who answers “Who cares?” with “I care.”
He is the one who shows the lawyer — and all of us — what the atmosphere
must be like in our parishes. At each point in the story, there is a movement
from the abstract to the concrete, and this is critical because our faith is no
longer Christian Faith until it becomes concretized.


When this
lawyer asks “Who is my neighbor?” he would love to get Jesus up in that
beautiful web of the mind. “Well, let’s see: my neighbor is the one who is
within shouting distance, or that I can reach within sixty steps, or who comes
to the same synagogue.” Those kind of “law” questions, those kind of
“mind” questions. But he can’t get away with that: Jesus will not stay up
there in the ice of the mind. He tells the story of the Good Samaritan, what is
called perhaps the most concrete of stories in the entire New Testament.


Pay close
attention: with each step of the story into the concrete, we are taken ourselves
into the concrete: the Samaritan picks up the man, rubs oil on his wounds, puts
him on the donkey, takes him to the inn, pays — pays again for that day, pays
for the next day — and will pay for whatever that room and board will
cost when he returns. All very concrete factors. And slowly the lawyer is forced
out of the abstract ice of the mind into the concrete reality of living —
there, where he cannot “play with it” like philosophy. And we learn,
do we not, the real message of ministry, whether of clergy or laity: ministry is
as time-consuming, as expensive, and as “messy” as this process is! That is
the message which is pushed into the lawyer’s mind and into our minds.


And so,
both examples, the contemporary one of the young pastor and the ancient one from
Luke’s Gospel, are reminders that if the clergy-laity symphony is to work at
all in our parishes, then we will have to do what the Lord requires of us: “to
do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”


In this
way we create that atmosphere in which the question “Who cares?” can be
properly answered, “I care!”




Joseph, Director of Theological and Pastoral Education in our
Archdiocese, is North American Chaplain of The Order of St. Ignatius and Pastor
of St. Anthony’s of Bergenfield, NJ.