A couple of months ago, I was in London to deliver a lecture, after which two friends and I headed across the road for food and drink. Having spoken to the audience dressed as an Eastern priest should, in pidryasnik, riassa, and skoufia (for Latin readers: closer-fitting ‘inner’ cassock, flowing ‘outer’ cassock, and soft-sided pill-box hat), I was still in cassock and skoufia when we walked through the lanes of Knightsbridge looking for somewhere to eat. Arriving at a heaving pub, we squeezed through the crowd until we found a table and ordered our fare. Immediately after the food arrived, I got up to ask the waiter for some additional napkins. ‘Of course,’ he said in halting English, bending down to retrieve them, ‘tell me, though: are you a priest?’ ‘Yes I am,’ I replied, knowing that my garb, while obviously marking me out, looked different to what most people – even churched people – expected to see. ‘What sort of priest?’ he continued. ‘Greek Catholic,’ I said. ‘Like Orthodox, but in communion with the pope.’ His eyes got wide. ‘Oh good. You believe in the pope, then?’ ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I am in communion with him.’ ‘Okay…’ he looked around, then back at me, ‘can you hear my confession?’
At that moment, it struck me for the first time since ordination just how privileged I was to be a priest. Until I was presented with the opportunity to administer the sacrament of penance in the middle of a crowded pub, just how therapeutic and graceful the power of the Church was had never fully hit home. Celebrating the Divine Liturgy had always been a source of great joy to me, but there was something about my experience in the pub that hearkened back to the stories of Christ in the Gospels being pressed upon by the crowds from every side; of the Fathers of the Church speaking of the Kingdom of God in the public square.
Pope Francis has called upon priests to ‘take on something of the smell of the sheep’, a reminder which I can appreciate very much. It is the vocation of the Church to manifest something simultaneously divine and mundane, and it can be tempting at times to avoid the latter in favour of the former. I would argue, in fact, that whenever a priest becomes too interested in his vestments, or in sipping sherry, or in debating rubrics, to the neglect of changing his own light bulbs, mowing his own lawn, or washing the dishes at a parish function, he is distorting the Incarnation by overemphasising the redditus and forgetting – sometimes entirely – the exitus. But – and it is a big ‘but’ – that is not to say that the vestments, rubrics, and even the sherry, are not important. The perfect balance, of course, would be for a priest to celebrate a sublime Liturgy, replete with chant and incense, in accordance with tradition and worthy of the Heavenly Court, after which he might remove his vestments to reveal a well-worn cassock, in preparation for working among the people of God while listening to Springsteen.
I mention this because it seems to me that it is precisely what we have been witnessing in Ukraine the last number of months, on a dramatic scale. From the moment that Yanukovych publically chose to turn his back on the mandate given him by the people, and those same people began to occupy the centre of Kyiv in protest, it was clear that they were doing so with the support of the Church. I do not mean by this that the Church was acting in a partisan manner; I mean, rather, that where the people were, there was the Church: with Liturgy tents, and confessional tents, in cassocks and epitrachelia (stoles), helping tend to the wounded, offering the prescribed prayers for the dead and dying, and even, when events became increasingly dangerous, standing in the middle of the conflict with icons, crosses, and Gospel books, manifesting on the one hand the Church’s divine purpose, and on the other, a willingness to risk everything with the people. What quickly became known as Euromaidan was a genuinely religious event.
For those of us living in comfortable, Western settings, where demands on our ministry do not tend to include standing in the way of projectiles and breathing the smoke of burning tyres, there is much to be learned from the Ukrainian situation. First of all, we might consider the way in which Ukrainian society functions. There is genuine separation between Church and State, yet the people – due both to history and a shared piety – are quite happy to acknowledge the Church in their midst. Indeed, I cannot count the number of blessings I gave to people on the streets of Lviv the last time I visited. But there is a much deeper way in which the people display their religiosity, which could be seen in the incredible virtue manifest on the streets of Kyiv during Euromaidan, as well as in the actions of so many in Crimea so far. Bravery; restraint; mutual regard; tenacity; a burning desire for true justice: these things manifestly impelled, and continue to impel, the hearts and minds of Ukrainians. Finally, though, there is the model for priests as exemplified by so many of our brothers there: priests in gas masks; priests among the rubble; priests hearing confessions in tents and on streets; priests blessing all who ask; priests praying over the wounded and dead; priests prophetically speaking out for God’s truth in the midst of grave injustice and violence; all priests showing forth the liturgy of the redditus in symbol – by means of their dress – and exitus by way of example.
It is the Church’s calling to speak of divine things among the earthy, human, and often dirty, and it seems to me that the best way of doing this is not by coyly hiding our treasure, but by boldly going out in the vestments of our office and doing what needs to be done. There may have been times and places where this would have been tantamount to acting as the Pharisees, attention-seeking and vainglorious, but that time is not now. In fact, it is hard to face a post-Christian public dressed in a cassock; it is hard to wield the Gospel in a way that sets us apart from the secular order. That, however, is what example after example suggests we must do. The people of God cannot be afraid of their faith; priests of the Church have no business shying away from their responsibility to act as walking representatives of Christ. Too often now, we confuse ‘taking on the smell of the sheep’ with becoming social workers, or, conversely, living a faithful, traditional liturgical life as being an end in itself, devoid of social implications. The cassocks and epitrachelia of Euromaidan, together with the moral example of the people, show us that such a dichotomy need not exist. Surely, then, we must take up our vocation with confidence and bear on our persons the symbols of faith given us to bear.
Photos from various sources in honour of the priests of Euromaidan:
NOTE: If any of these photos belong to you, and you do not wish them to be used, please contact me and I shall remove them immediately. No breach of copyright intended.