Well, to my surprise, here’s a topic I could find nothing on—priests and their relationships with their fathers.
My own husband’s father is far away and elderly now, and my husband calls him up every week or two just to chat. They’ve always had a good relationship, and I know my husband is the man he is today in large part due to the early parental training in values. Their interests and talents could hardly be more different, but my husband grew up admiring the same things his dad admired—honesty, hard work, respect for others, a careful disregard for petty rules in favor of compassion and common sense
Good fathering is rarer and rarer in our world. I don’t have the statistics at my fingertips, but I think about half of all marriages break up these days. Many people don’t even wait to get married before they have kids. Fathers are often absent, kids confused by such father-figures as they do have in their lives.
But in the Orthodox church, the priest is in part a father to an entire community. How many priests are now coming to this part of their role insufficiently equipped for the job by the modeling of solid Christian fatherhood in their own lives?
In traditional Orthodox countries in the old days, priesthood was often almost like a dynasty—the priest’s son would take over the little village parish when he died. Those young men learned both priesthood and fatherhood together as they lived it while growing up in a clerical family. There is still some of this today, but even clerical families are not immune to divorce and various other troubles. Today, as abuse of clergy by parishioners and hierarchs sometimes breaks the serving priest and his family, some sons of priests leave the Church entirely, much less do they want to follow in their father’s footsteps.
What are the pitfalls and weak spots for new clergy taking on the role of father to a parish when they themselves have not grown up with good father-son relationships? I have to guess from some of the scenarios I have observed or heard of that among other things, a man without a good sense of real fatherhood will have to sail by dead reckoning in fatherly behaviors. He may lack confidence, and then overcompensate, trying to insist on the authority due to his title as priest instead of patiently earning the respect and trust of parishioners. Or he may take the opposite approach, fearing conflict and trying to please everyone. He may play favorites among parishioners, as a parent may have played favorites in a dysfunctional family he grew up in himself.
What can be done about this? Current priests may do what they can to help model Christian fatherhood—humble but confident, kind but firm, not afraid of the tantrums of children or parishoners who cannot have what they want—to young prospective candidates. Seminary instructors surely have a similar role to play during the relatively short time the students are with them.
I will admit to some doubt about the pre-ordination process. The seminaries may include some mentoring, some psychological testing etc. (not to mention criminal record checks, even!), but the final choice to ordain is that of any given bishop, some of whom may not know the candidates personally.
We need to acknowledge that for a couple of generations already been living in a world that does not support the intact family, and that the pool from which to draw today’s and tomorrow’s priests includes relatively few whose understanding of fatherhood is bred in the bone in an intact family. We need to be proactive on this topic. The fact that my search for articles about priests and their fathers turned up nothing should give us pause. If you know about any research that’s been done on this, please let me know.
Meanwhile, no doubt you wonder when I am going to get to the part for clergy wives. That will have to wait for another post, but I’ll get there as soon as I can.