"Pastoring the People of God:" Interview with Fr. Alexander Atty
Fr. Alexander Atty is the Dean and Chief Operating Officer of St. Tikhon's Seminary (Orthodox Church in America). Prior to this assignment, Father served for over 30 years as an Antiochian parish priest, most recently as pastor of the large and thriving Louisville, Kentucky parish, St. Michael Orthodox Church. When the OCA's Holy Synod of Bishops approved Fr. Alexander's appointment as St. Tikhon's Dean in 2010, they also permitted him to remain attached to the Antiochian Archdiocese.
During Lent, Father took a break from his busy travel schedule to answer a few questions for the editors of antiochian.org.
1. Fr. Alexander, these last few years have presented you with daunting health challenges. How are you doing these days?
It depends on who you ask. For my own peace of mind I’ve limited myself to only the opinions of my doctors. My most recent scan indicated remarkable improvement. The doctors were pleased but determined to keep at this thing until they were satisfied that they had this thing beat. I have some of the best doctors in country working on this but that’s only half the job. Many, many people have my situation in mind when they sit down at home to do their prayers or when they are commemorating the names of the sick before the Holy Chalice. I believe that it is because of their prayers and faithfulness that I am showing signs of improvement. I feel my strength returning every day, my mind and heart are focused, and I feel a profound resolve to continue working for the betterment of St. Tikhon’s Seminary as long as I have breath in my body.
2. Could you explain for our Antiochian readers how a priest in our Archdiocese came to serve as the Dean and COO of a seminary for the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)?
I passionately believe in Orthodox unity in America. The Church of God is one. The only time there is ever an obstacle to that unity it’s because man has placed it there. When the Board of Trustees here asked me to consider becoming Dean of the Seminary, any hesitation on my part didn’t come from jurisdictional questions. My only hesitation was having to leave my parish in Louisville. I am closer to some of the people at St. Michael’s than I am to some of my own family members. We built something wonderful there. It took a lot of hard work and it took a lot of time, but when I left there was a healthy vibrant parish filled with faithful who loved God and weren’t afraid of doing the work necessary to get results.
I am proud of my heritage. I was born in the Antiochian Church, ordained, served and brought up my children there, and will eventually be buried there.
3. You do a great deal of speaking--five retreats in March alone! What topics do you focus on in your talks, and what do you learn as you interact with the faithful in parishes throughout the US and Canada?
It is important that the dean of the school visit with the faithful. Many of the faculty members also go to the parishes as does the mission choir. This gives the school a much broader exposure among the faithful. I give talks based on my education and experience, so I speak of parish growth, parish management, and living the faith. I have been asked to hold clergy retreats and speak on what it means to be a good pastor. Being a good pastor to the people of God is the theme that runs through many of my talks.
If you are a good pastor, if you really love and take care of your people, the parish will rise up to meet your effort and you will have a successful parish. This is why St. Tikhon’s has always been particularly significant to me and my family. If you look at its beginning you will notice that it wasn’t created by some formal decree, it happened organically as a result of need; the acknowledgement of that came several years later. The parishes needed pastors, the faithful built a place to educate those pastors, they uniquely situated the seminary at a monastery, they brought in educators and then they sent those men out into parishes to love and protect the people of God.
I am honestly not sure it ever has to be more complicated than that. As I travel I always stop to make mental notes of the different parishes I visit and I am encouraged by what I see. There is a very vibrant atmosphere in the parishes I visit. I see it everywhere I go, but especially in the Antiochian parishes I have been asked to visit. I find it greatly encouraging.
4. What are your primary responsibilities as STOTS Dean and COO, and how important is your staff in the accomplishing of these goals?
The responsibility that I enjoy the most is working with the students. I make every attempt to impart any wisdom I have managed to acquire by the grace of God that might contribute in some way to their formation. Hopefully they can learn from experienced advice and save themselves from any unnecessary strife or difficulty. I stress to them the same things I emphasize in my talks; pastoring the people of God. It is a very serious responsibility. I have many other “hats” that I am required to wear here but they all make me very tired. This is the “hat” that rejuvenates and strengthens me.
The staff at St. Tikhon’s Seminary is very important to me. They have a youthful energy and passion for what is right. Much like the faculty, they want to see this place flourish and be the best it can possibly be. They believe in it so much that, in many ways, they sacrifice their entire lives to ensure it. This is a remarkable type of dedication in this day and age. You cannot simply put an ad in the paper to find that type of dedication. It is this dedication that keeps me motivated. It helps me to wear my less favorite “hats.” It helps me find the strength to be on the road every weekend, to talk to donors, to plan events, to schedule appointments etc.
5. Are there other Antiochians involved with the work being done at St. Tikhon's?
Fr. David Hester and Fr. Anthony Sabbaugh also instruct here. Fr. David Hester teaches courses in Liturgics and occasionally courses in philosophy and church history and Fr. Anthony instructs the Antiochian students in Byzantine Chant.
6. Describe for our readers the greatest challenges facing today's seminarians. How can parishioners support them, as well as their families, throughout their years of study?
The greatest single challenge for Orthodox seminarians today is the same for parish priests; it is balance. Marriage, interior life, studies, speaking engagements, finances… all these things have to be held in tension and all given their proper place. It can be difficult for anyone. The Antiochian Archdiocese has a very good support system in place for paying student tuition, but this doesn’t begin to address the personal expenses. Between the academic and service schedule it is nearly impossible for students to hold even part time employment. Almost always, the seminarian wife is unable to find employment because her attention is required at home with the children. This is why almost every student relies on either their parish community or family and friends to support them in some way financially while they are here.
There are many programs set up but the one that stands out is the “Adopt a Seminarian” program that was started several years ago. The reasonable amount of $7500 a year, or $3250 a semester, will pay for a seminarian education. Many parishes show their support around Christmas time by purchasing gifts for the family. There is a place on St. Tikhon's website to donate; people just need make sure to include the name of the student if the gift is for a particular one.
7. What gives you the greatest hope, as you work with the students at St. Tikhon's?
After being a priest for 36 years, it is the zeal and passion of young people, and also their blind optimism, which give me hope for our future. They inspire me to not get frustrated when the difficulties come. St. Tikhon’s students are very unique and they always have been. They leave their families, jobs, and support systems to come here to our very remote location. The winters are cold, the sun goes away for what seems like months at a time, (though this past winter wasn’t so bad thankfully), but still they come here despite financial difficulties, despite everything-- and they do what hundreds of men and women before them have done; they overcome. This ability to meet and overcome adversity is evident once they move into a parish situation. The monastic presence in our community is by far the single greatest contributor when it comes to that particular aspect of their formation. The significance of being able to witness that life of sacrifice, to see their faithfulness day in and day out, is inspiring to us all. The ability to have a real encounter with this monastic presence in their everyday lives is something unique to the spiritual formation of St. Tikhon’s students.