Post 170 of 445

(This article was previously published in five years ago,
and is now published with some revisions- Editor)
-Kuriakos Tharakan Thottupuram, Ph.D., D.D.

America is a free country, and a capitalistic nation. Freedom is the basic ingredient that provides the necessary incentive to promote happiness for citizens of a nation. Capitalism is an economic principle that highlights the importance of increasing wealth, which is believed to be the ultimate determiner of pleasure or happiness according to materialistic perspectives.

The philosophical base of American capitalism is British utilitarianism, proposed by radical social reformer and anti-establishment thinker Jeremy Bentham, and later perfected by John Stuart Mill. According to Bentham, the propriety of all actions is measured by their tendency to produce pleasure or pain, and the utilitarian ideal is to increase pleasure and reduce pain. Pleasure is good and pain or suffering is evil. Capitalism, as an economic system, developed on these premises. That’s why, when you drive, your car radio pokes your eardrums with the Wrigley’s Spearmint gum advertisement: Double your pleasure, double your pleasure, double your pleasure! That’s why, you have hundred varieties of hamburgers and French fries and ice creams in this country. That’s why Philadelphia developed its own most covetable Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich, for which all the visitors in that city set apart a day.

What does capitalism have to do with priests?

Almost all the Orthodox priests, who came to America for higher education, had the desire to return to their countries of origin in order to be efficient workers in the vineyard of Christ. But most of them took immigrant visas and continued to live in America. It was the economic opportunities of this country that detained them here. They could make more money, collect more comforts, and make life more pleasurable. Although, as priests, they were all called to lead a simple life, American capitalism lured them away from their priestly simplicity.

The Orthodox Christians, who had immigrated to this country, also needed spiritual fathers. And therefore, these priests eventually formed congregations not only to take care of the spiritual needs of the faithful, but also to wipe out the guilt they had of not returning to the countries where they were supposed to serve their God and Church after their studies. Of course, we understand that some of our priests could not go back to their countries due to persecutions and unwelcome conditions. Our priests had two reasons why they had to stay in America and do secular jobs.

First, our people had not had a habit of supporting their priests, because most of the orthodox congregations were not economically adequate to support their priests without heavily taxing their congregants; and these immigrants had not developed a habit of reasonable church giving. For the faithful, when they put a dollar in the offertory basket of the Church, they maintained a habit of multiplying it by 30 or 40, which, of course, was a huge amount in the Church treasury in the countries of their origin. Unfortunately, with the small portion coming from this offertory basket as his stipend, an Orthodox priest of the newly formed congregation could not even pay his telephone bill! This situation generally forced the orthodox priests to do secular jobs that have nothing to do with their priestly vocation.

Many priests of all jurisdictions, probably with the exception of those of the Greek Archdiocese, will have to seek extra-canonical positions to support themselves and their families. In the past, along with their priestly vocations, our priests were engaged in teaching, counseling, social work and the like, which are generally considered extensions of the priestly ministry. But it would be difficult to stamp sacerdotal character on a priest’s vocation in a plastic factory, or an electrical company, or an ice factory, or a manufacturing company, or in a secular office as a bill collector. However, this is also biblically justified when a priest does not get adequate financial support from his congregants, because we know that St. Paul supported himself by tent making. Even if a bishop has to do this if his flock does not take care of him adequately, it is biblically justifiable.

The second reason for priests to get into the secular job market was just utilitarian and capitalistic. They also wanted to increase wealth and set up an environment of pleasure. America offered opportunity for them to work, not one job, not two jobs, but two-and-one-half jobs. If you are healthy why not work twenty-four hours a day and keep a fat bank account, as an orderly, or a technician, or a respiratory therapist or a factory worker, outside your priesthood! Some such priests, who had not had even a college education, became occupants of million-dollar homes, which a college professor with a doctorate cannot even dream of either in India or in America, if he keeps only his normal work load. However, these priests of the “new wealth” take pride in their mansions and Mercedes Benzes. This is the mesmerism created by utilitarian capitalism. Is America an ideal place for priestly simplicity? The truth is that our priestly metal is tested here. If you are a priest, you have choices in America.

More recently, some twenty years ago, this writer visited India, a developing country, where priests are said to be in poor conditions, as the real preachers of the true Gospel of Christ, not only in appearance, but also in their economic substance. A majority of them were really struggling even to support their families. A Roman Catholic priest told me that he had difficulties even to meet his medical bills; his mass stipend could buy him barely his food (of course his free rectory was a luxury). He used to get some “dollar masses” (mass intentions sent from America to mission countries to help the poor priests), with which he could stretch his rupees a little more. He says this practice does not exist anymore. He had to fire his cook, not being able to afford the luxury of having his food cooked by his own cook; he is now getting his food provided by a convent-run girls’ hostel, for which he pays a monthly amount, which he says is cheaper and affordable. His counterpart, the orthodox priest never received any “dollar masses”, but was doing better than a Roman Catholic priest as his congregants belonged to “parishes” rather than “missions”, meaning, they were better off to support their priests. However, the orthodox priests all basically were simple priests with moderate facilities and means. They also took pride in being simple, and it was the mark of orthodox priesthood.

In contrast, my most recent visit of India did not impress me at all!

The country as a whole is thirsty after pomp and luxuries with the resurgence of a fast evolving middle class. Everyone is vying with each other to erect the most luxurious house and to possess the latest model luxury cars, looking like a competition course. To my surprise, even priests were seen caught up in this hedonistic course. I am not saying a home phone is a luxury, or a mobile phone is unnecessary for some professionals. However, the glamour of newly acquired wealth even penetrated into the mind of religious men. When the Church did not provide these pleasures, the relatives of priests were getting extremely generous to make their brothers or nephews look more aristocratic or upper middle class with their newly earned wealth. Some of the simple Roman Catholic priests, whom this writer had seen twenty years ago, do now possess their own automobiles- in a country where gas runs 6-7 dollars per gallon. What about the Orthodox priest? I found him more attached to wealth than priests and ministers of other churches! When this writer became a priest in 1970, a pedaling two-wheeler was a luxury, which he could not afford to buy without sacrificing some of his basic needs. His recent visit testified that the orthodox priest was found in competition with others, even with laypersons, in erecting shining mansions with marble columns and polished granite floors that even excel the quality of Italian marbles! An Orthodox priest in India made sure a latest model car was also parked on his car porch (which he seldom used, except to show off his pomp)! This is the trend this writer observes among our clergy in India.

So why should I pick on our priesthood in America!?

Or why should I pick on any priest at all when our hierarchs are guiltier of the same breach when they visit the most affluent country on earth!? They face a greater temptation to shake off their vow of poverty and simplicity than priests in America. An orthodox hierarch possesses a decorated appearance in almost all sacramental and ceremonial functions because of their attractive monastic schema and episcopal insignia, which a Roman or Protestant bishop does have the privilege to wear. These eastern episcopal paraphernalia become decorations in any event, just like ornamented elephants on festal occasions in eastern countries like India, Thailand and the like! The people love these ornamented “elephantine” exhibitions, and it is an occasion for many orthodox prelates to cash in on their unique appearances.

It is said that orthodox bishops who visit America get their booking for an entire season for conducting marriages and baptisms, often overlooking the prerogatives of local parish priests. Some bishops keep regular email contacts with the young people in America and offer them their availability as ministers of their marriages and the baptisms of their newly-born infants. These young people are enthused and elated by these episcopal email contacts and are eager to invite these bishops for their marriages and for the baptisms of their new baby! To impress the crowd, it is reported that some of these hierarchs have become “performers” during the crowning ceremony of weddings by singing the crowning hymns in six different languages to show off their skills in many languages and music! Sad! Is it true? But this truly occurred in America, desecrating the mystery of matrimony.

Once a prelate gets a visitor’s visa in the United States of America, it is usually for ten years; and he can visit America any number of times within these ten years. The only stipulation is that he should leave the country within six months. One can imagine how many churches this prelate may visit in six months. It is reported that at a given time 75 % Indian bishops visit America from April to November every year, making their “pastoral visits”, when three bishops of the same church have taken their permanent residency in America to shepherd their people! Similarly, Middle Eastern, East European and Greek bishops also tap the American affluence. One wonders how long this affluent America can feed the utilitarian craving of our hierarchs!

Are we suggesting that a bishop cannot visit the American shores for the support of his missions? No. But this is not what we have observed during the past thirty-five years. It has been sheer greed or avarice, which is the motivation behind these visits. These bishops deposit the monies collected in their individual bank accounts, not in the accounts of their dioceses. A few years ago this writer visited India, and saw a brand new German Mercedes Benz on the monastery courtyard of a bishop, who regularly visit America (it was reported that he had another Benz at his diocesan headquarters). He asked him point blank if a monk could have such luxuries. The answer was: It was a gift from Gulf (meaning Kuwait or neighboring area), and his superior permitted him to have it. But where did the money he received from America go? And where are his monastic vows?

To our surprise we have also observed many great hierarchs who visited America and received funds for legitimate causes; but they seldom come back to milk their people again exploiting their ten-year visas.

But we point our finger to those who have a hedonistic vulture’s eye on America. This is not the Christianity we orthodox preach.

You can become a simple priest of Christ with the least attachment to wealth and pleasures or a pompous priest who indulges in all the pleasures and takes pride in your huge mansions and luxurious cars. Surprisingly, there are some Orthodox priests, who take their priestly commitment seriously and lead a simple life as tent makers, and this is a great solace. If my reader is a priest, let me remind you: The Lord, you followed when you decided to respond to His call by becoming a priest, never had a bank account or a home of His own. He was born in a manger, which was not owned by His parents, He rode on a donkey, owned by another person, and He died on a cross, which the Roman Government kept for criminals to die on, and He was buried in a tomb, owned by another person. If you are a married priest, you are not required to be a total pauper. Aristotle says: Virtus stat in medio (Virtue stays in the middle). Choose a middle path. A priest requires a simple means of economic stability, a simple home and a simple means of transportation. When hedonism rules over you, the priest in you is strangled to death; and when that happens, your priestly vestments are flags of sheer hypocrisy. If you are a monk, your habit is a vestige of blasphemy.

There is another group of clergy, who are businessmen. They boast that that they do not work for anyone and are exceptionally blessed by God. They boast that they make money, enough to support many projects initiated by their favorite prelates. Some of them even managed to purchase positions of influence because of their generous giving.

A few years ago one of our priests reportedly owned blocks and blocks of a city, and he was a great influence peddler within the Church. He was worthy of mention as a real estate businessman. Some of his business properties were named after his wife (who is no more with him) and his mother (?). All bishops flocked around him in his mansion (which had all the sophistication of a Hollywood star’s palace with electronic watchman-system) admiring him and his money, despite his canonical scandal. He pretended to be the administrator of the Church here and in India, because he juggled with dazzling $100 bills and bank notes, which were later reported to be borrowed money. Parenthetically, much of it was reportedly never paid back to the lenders. No one knows which dungeon he is in now spending his time! Is this the story of an Orthodox priest? Yes, we may have several stories like this.

Another priest is also a real estate businessman, a borrower of immense amount of money (according to reports which this writer did not verify), but not being responsible about it. He also pretends to be a kingmaker in the affairs of the Church. It is reported that a Syrian priest is the owner-operator of a large trucking fleet. He goes to Church on Sundays and celebrates Liturgy and earns a substantial stipend for his service as an assistant priest at a Syrian Church. Another priest owns a restaurant and holds a high-sounding governmental position. There are many such cases right in front of our eyes in America. Would the canons approve such enterprises? No. Then why do they do this? There is no one to ask about this. No bishops can take any actions against them, because they are beneficiaries of these businesses. I know a clergyman, who signs his checks and gives to bishops with blanks where the amount should be entered. The bishops will enter the amount and cash the check later. Whatever such business-priests do, whether canonical or uncanonical, should be definitely acceptable regardless of its propriety or impropriety. I used to believe that priestly service and money, God and Mammon, do not blend. But now I know that they easily blend!

Christ clearly said that they do not blend. Canons are univocally articulate about anathematizing priests who are engaged in businesses. Let us run our eyes through the pages of the book of canons:

We have said that a bishop, or a presbyter, must not descend himself into public offices, but must attend to ecclesiastical needs. Either let him be persuaded, therefore, not to do so, or let him be deposed. For no one can serve two masters, according to the Lord’s injunction (Apostolic Canon 81)

Now let us listen to the interpretation of the Pedalion:

“This Canon too… prescribes that those in holy orders must not meddle in worldly affairs, since it says: We have said that a bishop or presbyter must not lower himself into political and secular affairs and business (emphasis mine), but must confine his activities to sedulously looking after the service and wants of the Church. So either let him be persuaded not to do anything of the kind henceforth, or if he cannot be persuaded, let him be deposed. For no one can serve two masters and please both of them, as the Lord says [Matt. 6:24; Lk 16:3] (Rudder, The Orthodox Christian Education Society, Chicago, 1957; p 141).

Now let us listen to a canon from a Regional Holy Council conducted by the undivided Orthodox Church in Carthage in the year 418 AD:

It has pleased the Council to decree that Bishops, and Presbyters, and Deacons shall not become farmers or procurators, nor derive any profit from anything that is shameful and dishonorable. For they ought to take into consideration that which is written, “No one campaigning for God will entangle himself in worldly affairs” [II Tim. 2:4] (canon 18).

The following interpretation of the Pedalion is very insightful:

“Those in holy orders ought not to farms, i.e., rent real estate belonging to others, or become procurators, that is to say, more plainly speaking, caretakers and mangers of worldly matters and mundane businesses of any kind {emphasis added by this writer} (for the word cura is a Latin word signifying care and governing), as the present Canon decrees, not ought they to take proceeds from any undertaking that is shameful and dishonorable. A shameful occupation, for example, is that of a whoremaster; a dishonorable occupation, on the other hand, is that of owning or keeping a tavern, or a perfume shop…For if according to St. Paul no soldier (in the army)meddles in other matters, in order to please his earthly king, how much more is it not true that no soldiers of God in holy orders ought to involve themselves in worldly cares, in order to please their heavenly King” (Rudder, op. cit. p. 615).

The Council of Laodicea, held in 364 (there are different opinions on the year this council was held, such as 348, 357, or 365) clearly decrees that

“… those who are in priestly orders must not lend money and take interest and the so-called “half-of-the-whole” (canon 4).

In other words, priests cannot run a bank.

The Hudaya Canons of the Syrian Church also reiterates the same spirit of the above mentioned canons. Now I take my readers to the warning given by a Western Father, who spent the major portion of his lifetime living in the east, and is a Father of the undivided Church. When talking about good and bad rulers of the flock of Christ he says:

The cleric, who is in service of the Church of Christ should first of all grasp the full meaning of his title. Then when he has defined his name, he should try to live up to it. For if kleros in Greek is the same as sors in Latin, these individuals are called clerics either because the Lord is their lot or portion, or because they belong to the lot of the Lord.

But whoever is either the lot of the Lord or has the Lord for his portion ought to live in such a way that he may possess the Lord, and be in turn possessed by the Lord… For my part, so long as I am in the service of the altar I live on what is offered at the altar. So long as I have food and clothing, with these I am satisfied, and thus naked will I follow the naked cross.

I beseech you, then, not to be searching for worldly gain in the army of Christ; do not begin to be richer than in the beginning of your clerical life. Let the poor and traveler be frequent guests at your frugal table, and may Christ be in their midst as a fellow-guest. Should you come in contact with the trafficking cleric, or with one who has risen from poverty to riches, or to a high station from obscurity, avoid him as you would flee from the plague (Letter 52:5)

This writer has never seen such strong injunctions from the writings of any other Fathers in the history of the Church against clerical materialism and entrepreneurship. Our brothers in the priesthood, who are running businesses, should be ashamed of themselves for what they are doing. Recently this writer has been reported that it is not just priests, who are entrepreneurs; there are also chorbishops and bishops, who are engaged in businesses. What a shame if it is verified and established! (This writer has not investigated about it; however, if it is a fact, I believe our priests and bishops have definitely deviated from their spiritual call.) St. Jerome exhorts you to run away from such clerics as you would flee from plagues.

As I conclude this discourse, let me quote from the Gospel according to St. Mark, Chapter 11: 15-17:

Then Jesus went to the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. Then He taught saying to them: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of thieves’”

Yes, our Church, which is the house of prayer, the temple where the Holy Spirit dwells, is made a den of thieves! The high priests at the temple of Jerusalem did not say a word to stop it, because they were also beneficiaries of those commercial enterprises within the temple premises. The high priests were also tacit collaborators with those businessmen who desecrated the holy place of God. But they needed only thirty-five years more to see the defilement and destruction of that great temple of God during the siege of Jerusalem by the Roman Army under Valerian. Watch, the leadership of our Church, you will see this destruction of our Church, and your flock scattered and wandering like those Jews, if you continue to collaborate with these mercenary priests, and if you do not discipline these priests and bishops.

Lord, have mercy on your Church!