Priestly Formation

Gregory Nazianzen, the only one outside the apostolic band to be called, like St John, the theologian, was forcibly ordained. This was not uncommon in the early Church. It happened to St Basil. Gregory ran away in panic to Pontus where he could hide and think about what had happened to him. After meditating on Job’s refusal to preach to the people of Nineveh, he returned to Nazianzus to explain why he ran away. He wrote In Defence of his Flight to Pontus, a practical treatise on the pastoral office that formed the basis of two later treatises, Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood and Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule. Gregory explained that he was unprepared for ordination and ashamed of the life and character of the mass of the clergy. He felt unworthy to rule the flock of Christ and govern the minds of men. He discusses the duties and difficulties of the true pastor that is still relevant for the priest today. It can be summarized under four heads.

Doctor in Pastoral Care

The word pastor means shepherd, and to be conscious of priesthood is to be conscious of Christ, the Shepherd to shepherds and guide to guides. The pastor as the doctor who heals accomplishes this when he leads his flock back to God. This ministry is an art that is to lead to ‘deification’. For that potential exists in man created in God’s image, so that healing means deification for the priestly, as opposed to the medical art and ‘consists in preserving the image of God in man, if it exists; in strengthening it, if it is in danger; in restoring it if it has been lost.’ This art of healing requires that the priest recognize and heal his own passions and sicknesses. He must not only be free from evil but also be eminent in good and should know no limits in goodness or spiritual progress.

Maturity and Propriety

The priest needs a sense of maturity and propriety, in terms of ‘place, time, age and season’ so that he may be able know how much medicine the flock can sustain and when not to give the flock what it wants or desires if it interferes with the art of healing. This priestly consciousness is necessary if the priest is to know when and how to apply this spiritual medicine to the wrong and evil ‘habits, passions, lives, wills and whatever else is within us’. Age and experience are part of this requirement and as Gregory says ‘… white hairs combined with prudence are better than inexperienced youth.’ Priestly identity is an interior formation and pain is one of the elements that shapes this formation and is the only way to grow, not intellectually but precisely in terms of consciousness. Pain is the suffering that will accept the Cross and avoid the temptations to do things in our own way rather than God’s. As the priest confronts the interior warfare within he meets the pain that comes from dealing with the ‘passions’ and the ‘purifying of the mind’. This is an imperative for ‘one entrusted with the rule of souls’.

Teacher of Doctrine

For a preacher of the Word and a teacher of doctrine such maturity and propriety are essential because it requires great ‘spiritual power’ to ‘give in due season,’ and to ‘regulate with judgement the truth of our opinions.’ He must teach properly because it can be confusing, attempting to correct false doctrine, and the responsibility of the pastor is not to mix sound doctrine with what is ‘cheap, debased, stale and tasteless’. There is always the temptation to accommodate one’s self, to play to the gallery to acquire favour and serve merely the pleasures of the flock.

Training and Experience

A teacher needs proper training. Therefore it is foolish if we are not aware of our own ignorance and rash if in spite of this knowledge we ‘practice ourselves in piety at the expense others’ souls’. Until one is properly trained it is better to go to those who ‘are more skilful’, to those who know the doctrine and are experienced and let them be our ‘advisers’ and ‘teachers.’ We can learn from them those ‘canons of speech and action which we did not know, rather than undertake to teach them in our ignorance’. This pastoral art is not a mere knowing in a cognitive way what are the doctrines, or the ‘virtues and vices’ because treatment requires the actual experience and practice of the pastor. Theory and practice are fundamental if a true priestly consciousness is to grow in the life of the priest.

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon in the Diocese of Durham and lecturer at St Chad’s College.

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