Your Beatitude Metropolitan Herman, Your Grace Bishop Tikhon, Very Reverend Father Michael Dahulich, Dean of St. Tikhon’s Seminary, Members of the Faculty and Beloved Seminarians, I am honored indeed to be standing on the same ground which was hallowed by the presence of one of the great Orthodox confessors of the twentieth century, St. Tikhon, later Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. It is very interesting to note that St. Tikhon was a contemporary of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, who was canonized a few years ago by the Church at this very same Monastery. Throughout the years, St. Tikhon’s Monastery has played a tremendous role in Orthodox theological education in North America, which culminated in the establishment of St. Tikhon’s Pastoral School in South Canaan in 1938. We are indebted to you for the education of our Antiochian seminarians and all seminarians, especially with emphasis on pastoral theology.
I was humbled to be asked to deliver the commencement address today. The commencement day usually belongs to graduates. My remarks today, however, are directed to all seminarians. Commencement day is an occasion of great joy and great expectation. Joy, because after years of theological study and spiritual preparation, you have realized your academic goal. And expectation, because sooner or later, you will be ordained to shepherd the flock of Jesus Christ in our broken world. In his first letter, St. Peter said: “Attend the flock of God, that is your charge, not by constraint, but willingly, not for shameful gain, but eagerly, not as domineering of those in your charge, but being an example to the flock” (I Peter 5:2-3).
I would like to remind you, my dear graduates in particular, and all seminarians in general, that the communities which you will be serving in the future are not St. Tikhon’s Seminary. This holy place where you are receiving your theological and spiritual formation is a spiritual oasis, not a pagan ocean. However, in your future communities, you will encounter the believer and the unbeliever, the sacred and the profane, the literate and the illiterate, the sick and the healthy, the rich and the poor, the good sheep and the black sheep — you must minister to all of them and love them.
I am sure that during the beautiful years which you have spent in this holy place, you have listened to wonderful theological lectures and read many great theological books, but there are other books which you have not yet read and have not yet seen. These books are the faces of people in the communities which you will serve. If you are able to read these faces, understand them and minister to them, after the manner of the Good Shepherd, and if, after ten years in your parish, your parishioners will write to your bishop and say: “Saidna, Vladika, Thank you very much for sending us this wonderful priest,” this, and this only, will be your real graduation.
I would like to remind you, my dear seminarians, that on the day of your ordination to the Holy Priesthood, when you are kneeling before the altar, the bishop places his omophorion on your head and utters the following words:
“O God, great in might and inscrutable in wisdom … Do thou, the same Lord, fill with the gift of thy Holy Spirit this man whom it has pleased you to advance to the degree of priest; that he may be worthy to stand in innocence before Thine altar; to proclaim the gospel of Thy kingdom; to minister the word of Thy truth; to offer unto You spiritual gifts and sacrifices; to renew Thy people through the laver of regeneration. That when we shall go out to meet Thee at the second coming of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, Thine only-begotten Son, he may receive the reward of a good steward.”
Every time I read these words at the ordination of a priest, I tremble and my eyes well with tears. I want to point out to you, lest you forget, another emotional and moving experience which takes place during your ordination to the Holy Priesthood. After the consecration of the Host, the bishop places the host on a tray and gives it to the newly-ordained priest with the admonition:
“Take this gift and preserve it, pure and undefiled, until the second coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, because He is going to ask you to give an account of it.” If these words do not penetrate our souls, then we should seriously question our commitment to this holy vocation.
My dear seminarians, sooner or later, you will be assigned to serve communities as pastors or assistant pastors and you must communicate the Good News which you learned at this sacred institution to your parishioners. One of the most important ingredients for a successful ministry is communication. In order to communicate your theology to your future flock, you must take into consideration three factors:
(a) Where you are preaching
(b) When you are preaching
(c) To whom you are preaching
When you preach to your future flock, remember that you are not lecturing to the senior class at St. Tikhon’s Seminary. Allow me to share with you the benefit of my personal experience. Two months after my ordination to the Holy Priesthood, in the early sixties, I embarked on a series of sermons, entitled: “Christ and Wealth.” After my third sermon, I heard murmuring in the parish that “This new priest is a communist.” Remember, the early sixties were the height of the Cold War. Thus, on the following Sunday, I decided to do something else. Instead of a sermon, I made announcements, i.e. Monday evening, the teens will meet; Tuesday evening, the Fellowship of St. John the Divine will meet; Wednesday evening, the Ladies Society will meet; Thursday evening, the Parish Council will meet; Friday evening, the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of St. George will meet; Saturday evening, Vespers at 6:00 PM. After Church many people came to me and said, “Father Philip, today you delivered a great sermon.”
I am not asking you to water down your message and sacrifice your idealism and theological principles. God forbid! I am asking you to discern your situation and understand your flock. In other words, you will not be preaching to theologians and seminarians, but to average people. Try your best to avoid abstract theology, because we are not living in a theoretical world, but in a broken and sick world which is crying for healing. Therefore, in order to reach most of the people, use simple and sincere words and, above all, get to know your flock. Reach down to them in order to uplift them. Do not preach from your ivory towers. You must relate your theology to their concrete problems. People are more than theories and concepts; thus, any theology which does not touch people in their life and death, in their illness and health, in their poverty and wealth, in their joy and sorrow and in their hope and despair, is an abstract and meaningless theology. Consequently, if you cannot communicate the theology which you have learned in this place, to a future flock, the years which you have spent in this fine institution will have been in vain.
I want you, also, never to forget that people will be calling you “Father.” “Father” is a very serious word. Remember always that those who are calling you “Father” are your children and they need your attention and patience. Do not be impatient and short-tempered with them. Otherwise, you will lose their confidence and love and they will write to your bishop, asking to have you transferred. Some priests fall into this trap; thus, they keep moving from one parish to another. My predecessor of Thrice-Blessed Memory, Metropolitan ANTONY, told me the following story:
A restless and impatient priest came to him one day and said: “Your Eminence, Why don’t you assign me to a peaceful parish?” The bishop said to him: “Son, I have assigned you to so many parishes, but it seems that you cannot last in any parish. I am going to give you a new parish. Take this address, go to Third Avenue, grab a cab and give the driver this address; he will take you to a wonderful and peaceful parish.” The priest did exactly that, but the cab driver drove him to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The priest was shocked. He returned to the bishop and said, “Vladika, you sent me to the cemetery.” The bishop said: “Yes, you wanted a peaceful parish; only dead people are peaceful, so that is the kind of parish you need.”
My dear seminarians, as you are about to leave this peaceful Orthodox environment, for different towns and cities in North America, I would be remiss if I do not share with you my cherished dream about the future of our Orthodox Church on this continent. For the past forty-one years of my episcopacy, I have been preaching Orthodox unity in this land. Those who share my vision are many priests and lay people, and some Orthodox hierarchs. I am sorry to tell you that many of our Orthodox spiritual leaders in this country and abroad do not care about this unity at all. Last year, in October, a meeting of all Orthodox bishops was held in Chicago, Illinois. I want you to know that not one word was uttered about Orthodox unity. I am convinced that serious attempts are being made by some hierarchs to sweep the whole quest of Orthodox unity under the rug.
Again in November, 2006, a meeting of inter-Orthodox priests was held in Brookline, Massachusetts, and again, not one word was mentioned about Orthodox unity in North America. When I questioned one of my Antiochian priests about this serious omission, he said, “It was the environment, Your Eminence.” I am convinced, beyond doubt, that unless we Orthodox put our own house in order, we will not be able to have an effective mission in America. Without Orthodox unity, our spiritual and moral witness in this society will always be marginalized. I am also convinced, after forty one years of struggle, that Orthodox unity must start with you, with the priests on the grass roots level. My generation is slowly and surely fading away; it is up to you to carry the torch and keep it burning for future Orthodox generations.
Beloved seminarians, From the depth of my heart, I would like to congratulate you on your graduation. In addition to the degree which you receive from this institution, you could have other degrees from other institutions and renowned universities, you could become scholars, famous lecturers, eloquent preachers and famous authors, but if you do not give your future flock the “living bread and living water,” and if you do not love your flock, you will be nothing.
In conclusion, I would like to share with you this famous encounter between Christ and Peter as recorded in the Gospel of St. John (21:15-18). “At that time, Jesus revealed himself to the disciples after he was raised from the dead and said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time Jesus said to Peter, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ Jesus said to Peter the third time, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because Jesus said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And Peter said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
His sheep are hungry; go and feed them.
The text of this speech was originally published in the October 2007 issue of The Word. The full issue is available online .