THE PURPOSE OF THE ORTHODOX PARISH
by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
(My spiritual father, Hieromonk Ambrose [Father Aleksey Young] knew Father Michael. Until he died he was the last living pre-Revolutionary graduate of a Russian seminary, and so therefore a real "link" with Old World Orthodoxy. His recollection is that Father Michael was either 99 or 100 when he died. - FrG+)
What is the purpose of the Church, and of the parish within her? The answer is given in the word of God. The Apostle Paul writes: And He gave some, apostles, and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13).
Here, then, is its purpose: the perfecting of the saints, the work of ministry, the building up of the Body of Christ - a triple task of the whole Church and, consequently, the task also of every parish.
Internal parish tasks. The first point, the perfecting of the saints, is the moral perfecting of the members of the Church. The salvation of souls in Christ is first and foremost; it must not be relegated to second place. They are wrong who consider the fundamental purpose of the Church to lie in its social task i.e., the transformation, through the Church, of social relationships and through this the Christian elevation of the individual. Salvation in Christ is attained through prayer, through Divine services, the regulations of the Church, deeds of love and beneficence, spiritual struggle. A pastor's main concern is the salvation of those souls entrusted to him. It is likewise the personal concern of each member of the Church. It is accomplished within the common body of the Church - not in isolation, not individually, but by way of mutual spiritual support, and thereby overcomes the self-loving thought for one's self alone. A personal, worthy life in Christ is the responsibility of each member before the Church as a whole.
The second task is the work of ministry - to God and to men. It opens up before each member of the Church and of the parish a broad held of church social activity. Ministry to God: participation in the services - in church reading and singing, in constructing churches, in caring for the beauty and cleanliness of the church - these are some examples of works, as they say, "for God." Ministry to men includes all manner of charitable activity for the needy, help for the sick, disinterested efforts on behalf of others (as have recently been expressed in the sending of spiritual books, foodstuffs, clothing and medicines to Russia). In some parishes, this duty of ministering to one's neighbor has brought to life auxiliary parish organizations. A special, and very important task is the religious upbringing of children and youth. This cannot be underestimated, for we are in danger of seeing the younger generations fall away from the Church. /.../ The responsibility of the parish leadership on the one hand is to influence families in this regard, that they not neglect their duty towards their children, and, on the other hand, to form youth groups, Saturday and Sunday schools, children's choirs, and to undertake other measures for keeping the younger generation attached to the Church and to ensure that they remain under her influence.
We cannot complain that our parishes are inert in this regard. Given our meager resources, they have displayed appropriate work, diligence and sacrifice. But here precisely is that point over which the interests of the pastorate frequently clash with social interests. The difficulty of the priest's position lies in not snuffing out spontaneous social activity in the parish and initiative that not infrequently comes from the laity. A priest cannot do everything himself, by himself, for everyone, he needs cooperation. But here the cooperation of individuals with the pastor often turns into an urge to lead, to criticize, to create opposition, etc. A priest can calmly make use of the broad cooperation of the members of the parish when he has confidence in the preservation of church policy. Then there is no fear that the rights of the pastor will be usurped, there is no fear that the work will turn aside from the Church and even do her harm. Then, too, every kind of assistance rendered to the priest - in case of his weakness, ignorance, inability, etc. - can be of real benefit without undermining the proper relationships in the parish.
The Common Church Task. The third task, the building up of the body of Christ is ministry for the Church as a whole, a task that expresses to the greatest extent the unity of the part with the whole, of the parish with the Church. In our church consciousness, we should never lose sight of the image of the whole Orthodox Church; we must love her, be zealous for her - particularly and above all for the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad to which we belong. And so, in fulfilling this third task, we are hardly equal to it.
In practical terms, ministry to the Church as a whole means caring for church centers. It requires, first of all, an awareness of the many ways we at the local level are indebted to these church centers. The Church administration makes sure that the services are conducted properly; it oversees the printing of service books and takes care that these are supplied to parishes; it safeguards the succession of episcopal and priestly ordination; it looks after the training and preparation of clergy, and provides pastors for church communities. It guards the Church against arbitrariness and against those people who introduce scandal into the Church. It safeguards the external dignity of Orthodoxy as well. It cuts off overt moral temptations, wards off attacks on the faith and the Church, wherever they may come from. It is responsible for both the ideological defense of the Church and for her juridical defense, when this is called for.
The fullness of church life and the many-sided, productive activity of ecclesial, episcopal centers is direct evidence of the well-being of life within the numerous individual Orthodox parishes. Conversely, an episcopal center laboring under difficulties and having a limited range of activity invariably speaks of difficulties occurring on the parish level.
Nor can one be silent concerning the need to support the center financially. Let us be blunt: in no other Christian confession do we find such negligence regarding the material base of the central church institutions as we have. We give little thought to where funds will come from for theological schools; for the publishing of books; for the Church's missionary work; for regular church philanthropy - in particular, for the support of the monasteries in the Holy Land, on Mount Athos, and for our communities in Russia; for expenses related to the convocation of hierarchal councils, pastoral conferences and youth conventions. We have a right and we ought to speak about the material side of the life of the Church. Let us recall the widow's mite, set forth by the Lord as an example to us all.
The task of building up the body of Christ's Church is great and many-sided. On the parish level it means that the parish community not shut itself up in its own narrow sphere, but that it be a beneficial and necessary, conscious part of the whole church body.
- Based on an article by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky in Pravoslavnaya Rus, No. 11, 1955; translated from Blagovestnik, a parish bulletin of the Holy Virgin Cathedral, San Francisco, CA, November 1991. Source: Orthodox America