Remembering Father Alexander Schmemann: Ministry and Vocation

Father Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) was a world-renowned priest, professor, seminary dean, theologian, speaker, and author. His life was devoted to the liturgical renewal and revival within the Eastern Orthodox Church, especially the Orthodox Church in America. The following excerpts on priestly ministry are taken from a new book by Father William Mills (SVOTS ‘97) entitled Church, World, and Kingdom: The Eucharistic Foundation of Alexander Schmemann’s Pastoral Theology (Chicago, IL: Hillenbrand Books, 2012).

Fr. Alexander with Met. Kallistos Ware and Prof. David Drillock

Fr. Alexander with Met. Kallistos Ware and Prof. David Drillock

Father Schmemann strongly argues that there is no special or unique vocation of the priesthood other than to reveal to others the common vocation of the entire people of God: to always offer thanksgiving to God. He was adamant that any theological or doctrinal separation between the vocations of the clergy and the laity is a false one, which reduces the priesthood to a separate caste of people, much like the Levites in the Old Testament, and thereby encourages clericalism. According to Schmemann, “If there are priests in the Church, if there is the priestly vocation in it, it is precisely in order to make the whole life of all the liturgy of the Kingdom, to reveal the Church as the royal priesthood of the redeemed world.” Thus the priest fulfills the calling of everyone who is a member of the royal priesthood, to offer prayer and praise to God and become fully a priest over creation, always giving thanks for everything.

Schmemann begins his discussion on the ordained priesthood by speaking about what is asked of all Christians as stated by Jesus, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Likewise he regards the spiritual life as not something separate from daily existence, but something that organically flows from within, “In short, spiritual preparation of future priests consists in deepening by all possible means the Christian faith and life, in making religion not something added to life—as it is understood in our nominally Christian societies—but as life itself.”

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

When speaking about spiritual preparation for the priesthood, Schmemann also emphasizes the need for intellectual training and preparation as well. The candidate should read and pray the Scriptures, regularly attend worship, and practice the basic tenants of the Gospel: love, mercy, peace, forgiveness, humility, and generosity. He also emphasized that the priest must have a well-rounded theological education. He often fought against minimalism in the Church, especially in theological training. Since the priest is the main liturgical celebrant, as well as the primary teacher and preacher, he needs to be well versed in the doctrines of the faith, and needs to know intimately the Christian faith and teachings.

He also contends that since we work out our salvation in a specific culture and society, the priestly candidate should be well versed in contemporary ethical, moral, and political struggles and temptations, so that he can adequately address these issues and concerns in his sermons and teachings. He points out that in the age of the ecumenical councils, even the great theologians such as Basil the Great and John Chrysostom were aware of the culture and society around them. The priest is called to engage the world in which he lives. In his journals, Schmemann frequently reflected on the current events of the day, always rooting them within the larger framework of the Gospel and salvation. At one point in his personal notes on pastoral theology, he says:

“All the great Fathers of the Church were well instructed in the “culture” of their time and it is evident that the proper understanding of Orthodox theology is simply impossible without good philosophical, historical, and literary preparation. One can memorize the catechism and decisions of the Ecumenical Councils but unless one’s mind is trained to understand them, this knowledge will remain dead and fruitless…”

Furthermore, Father Alexander identifies the need for practical preparation of the priestly candidate. Practical preparation includes knowledge of the outline of forms and services, the customs and traditions, practice and conduct of the local Church administration—which includes keeping parish records, and maintaining correspondence with bishops and other priests—as well as the ability to perform marriages, funerals, and memorial services. This liturgical element is especially important, as the congregation will themselves feel the tension and anxiety of a priest who does not feel comfortable at the altar. This also extends to delivering homilies. If a priest is not well prepared, the congregation will certainly know. This does not mean that the priest has to be the perfect liturgical celebrant, but he really ought to have enough understanding of the rites and rituals to perform the liturgy in a way that is prayerful and smooth, and can be understood by his parishioners.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Ultimately, priestly service is a ministry of love, founded on Love itself, Jesus Christ, who was sent into this world in order to show us how to love (emphasis added). A priest cannot be a priest apart from love. His only example is Christ himself, who repeatedly demonstrates his long-suffering love through his acceptance of the stranger and outsider, through his miracles, through acts of kindness such as the washing of the feet of his disciples, and ultimately through his own sacrifice on the cross. At Golgotha we see the greatest gift of love, the giving of oneself for the neighbor, a theme that comes up throughout the Scriptures. Golgotha is where Christ affirmed his role as the High Priest for us, where the unblemished Lamb was slain. Christ became the high priest so that we could continue his priestly ministry from generation to generation, as expressed in the Eucharistic offering. It is here in the Eucharist that the entire Church, clergy and laity, is seen side by side, fulfilling their priestly roles in different ways. The same Eucharist provides a lens through which we can re-envision pastoral care for the contemporary Church.

Fr. William C. Mills (SVOTS ‘97) is the rector of Nativity of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC and is also the author of A 30 Day Retreat: A Personal Guide to Spiritual Renewal (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2010). 

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