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Guru vs. Cleric

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

In Ethiopia’s ancient Orthodox Church, the traditional way for a young man to prepare to become a priest was to live among a small group of disciples with a wise, holy and experienced priest. The lifestyle for all was poor indeed: living quarters were often tiny, individual wattle and mud huts; classrooms, the shade of large trees.

The disciple – the seminarian – lived no better, if not worse, than his neighbors. Over many years, he learned by heart the words of sacred scripture and the prayers of the liturgy. Finally, when ready, he was ordained and would serve another small village like the one in which he grew up.

Ethiopia’s younger Catholic Church follows Western ways of priestly formation. Candidates for the priesthood live and pray together in the seminary residence of their diocese or religious order. Most attend formal classes at a common philosophy-theology institute for six or seven years after completing their secondary education.

The seminary residences are modest by Western standards, but modern and comfortable by those of rural Ethiopia. A challenge for the newly-ordained Catholic priest is returning to live among the simple people he came from, after becoming used to a more affluent lifestyle during his professional education.

These two different ways of formation with their different emphases could serve as symbols for two different polarities in the life of every priest. There is a dual aspect to priesthood – the priest must be both a man of God and a man of the church.

The very vocation to priesthood has this same dual aspect – the seminarian is called both by God and by the church.

During my college days, I wrestled long and hard with whether God was calling me to be a priest and whether I was good enough for such a job.

Later, in the major seminary, the rector called me to enter the clerical state – the “civil service” of the church – and to orders, culminating in priesthood.

Fidelity to these two calls is a vital tension for the priest. To be a man of God means to be a holy, a “separated” man, not living by or succumbing to worldly values or ways. To be a churchman means to be a public officer of the church with responsibilities of leadership, teaching and administration.

Faithfulness to the demands of the Spirit may strain the priest’s relations with the community he serves or with ecclesiastical authorities. Conversely, the priest’s solidarity with the local Christian community or ecclesiastical authority may conflict with the promptings of the Spirit.

It’s not an “either-or” but a “both-and” situation. God spare us from a priest who serves people and institutions well, but not the Lord! And, a good, holy priest may become a great saint, but he can’t neglect carrying out effectively the responsibilities of public office in the church.

A priest lives with great expectations – the church’s, the people’s and the Lord’s.

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Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA



Tags: Ethiopia Ethiopian Orthodox Church