Comments upon Elevation to the Rank of Archpriest, October 2, 2016
The Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
Your Grace, Bishop Thomas, Very Reverend Fathers, Family, Friends, beloved Christians,
When I graduated from St. Tikhon’s Seminary now almost ten years ago, our commencement speaker was Metropolitan Philip, now of blessed memory. Some of you here now were present for that speech. In his address, His Eminence included these remarks:
I am sure that during the beautiful years which you have spent in this holy place, you have listened to wonderful theological lectures and read many great theological books, but there are other books which you have not yet read and have not yet seen. These books are the faces of people in the communities which you will serve. If you are able to read these faces, understand them and minister to them, after the manner of the Good Shepherd, and if, after ten years in your parish, your parishioners will write to your bishop and say: “Saidna, Vladika, Thank you very much for sending us this wonderful priest,” this, and this only, will be your real graduation.
Sayidna Philip was of course referring to the custom in our archdiocese which has now played itself out this weekend in Emmaus, in which a parish writes to the bishop and requests that their pastor be elevated to the rank of archpriest, and he is given a cross to wear as a mark of this honorific rank.
And while I do not think that the letter which made the request on my behalf included the line “Thank you very much for sending us this wonderful priest,” I believe I can nevertheless look on this day as for me what His Eminence called the “real graduation.”
And therefore as a new graduate I am mindful that, although by God’s grace I have now served in the priesthood for ten years, I am still just a beginner. I don’t say that by way of false humility. I am reminded almost every day that there are so many things that I am only just beginning to understand, so many facets of the priesthood in which I am truly a novice, so many ways in which I still need to grow.
One of the things I have noticed about being a priest for the past ten years is that the sins of a priest are placed in front of him very easily. We are all sinners, but being in the “holiness business,” so to speak, brings a man’s sins to his attention in a way that it is hard for me to imagine that anything else does.
Today, I find myself in the midst of family, friends, and others who have been with me at many stages of my life. And there are many among you here—perhaps all of you—who are acquainted with my sins, my wife first among them.
And so even though it is probably not the first thing one thinks of when giving a speech like this, I think I need to ask all of you for forgiveness. This is my best shot—the representation here today is broader than at any other moment in my life! So, please forgive me! And please pray for me.
Today invokes for me a lot of memories. And I cannot help but remember today something I read about an occasion much like this one that happened nearly 114 years ago, on November 9, 1902. On that day, St. Nicholas Church in Brooklyn was being consecrated, and its pastor, Archimandrite Raphael Hawaweeny, was being honored by his own bishop, Tikhon, with the blessing of a pectoral cross given by the flock there in Brooklyn out of love for their pastor. As the one saint placed the cross around the neck of the other saint, this is what St. Raphael had to say in response:
It is true that I worked a lot and endured even more grief in seeing this church realized; but no matter how much I worked and how ever much grief I endured, I consider myself only to have done my duty as a priest and servant of God. Can we servants of God and spiritual pastors expect anything in this life, except labor and grief? Is this not to what we dedicated our life, in order to work without recompense, for the good and salvation of our neighbors? So you also when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”
It is true, as St. Raphael—my hero—said on that day, that pastors cannot expect anything in this life except labor and grief. This is what we have dedicated our lives to, to work without what the world would consider a proper recompense, for the good and salvation of our neighbors. And we are only unworthy servants trying to do our duty.
All that is true. But if I may dare, I would also add to the saint’s words that, even though we dare not expect anything other than that, our gracious and loving Jesus Christ gives to us so much more. Over these past years as a pastor, I have shared your joy and shared your pain. I have baptized your children, joined you in marriage, heard your confessions, prayed for you, given you Holy Communion, and buried your dead. And in the midst of all this, I have come to see you as not only my neighbors but also my friends and indeed my family.
It is the fate of most of our clergy that we do not live near our natural families. I will not pretend that it is not hard. It is hard. But where distance prevented our blood relations from ministering to us, you my fathers and brothers in the priesthood and you of St. Paul’s have become for us fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins.
So while we cannot expect in this life anything but labor and grief, you have become for us our unexpected joy. As a new pastor, I thought that it was my job to bring you something, but quite unexpectedly you brought us something yourselves.
All of that said, as I try to be a good graduate, I cannot help but also recognize the many good men and women whom God has brought into my life along the way. There are several here whom I have called “father,” foremost my own father, who along with my blessed mother taught me Who Jesus Christ is and why He matters more than anything else in this life. But there are other fathers here who have continued for me that teaching, and I thank you.
And there are others here whom I have called “brother” and “sister.” I first learned how to be a brother from my brother and my sister, but that same teaching has been continued by many of you, whom I hold close as my brothers and my sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ.
And many of you call me “father.” I am still learning how to be that. My children are teaching me. And my spiritual children are teaching me. I hope you will be patient with me as I continue to learn.
And there is only one of you who calls me “husband.” And in that, I am still just a beginner.
Another memory that occurs to me today on this day of “graduation” is of something that happened exactly nineteen years ago today. I was digging around recently in old email archives, and I found an email I sent on October 2, 1997. Ironically enough, the email was to a young lady I was interested in at the time who never really gave me the time of day. But I thought that if I sent her meaningful email about important things, she might pay attention to me. She never did. And that was for the best.
But on that day, I was writing to her about this thing that I had discovered called “the Orthodox Church.” As I reread the email recently, I saw about halfway down that in the midst of writing it I actually made the decision to become an Orthodox Christian. I started out the email still just thinking about it all, and by the time I got to the end, I was telling her that I was going to go for it. Two days later, I sent an email to the local Orthodox priest asking him what I had to do to join the Church. I had met him only once!
I remember how much of a revelation this discovery was at the time, so even though I was over-eager to jump into Orthodoxy, I think Fr. Nicholas was understanding that I was serious, even as a foolish young man. I was ready to begin a new life, even though I didn’t really know what that would mean.
If there is one thing that a graduation is above everything else, it is a transition to a new life. I do not know how my own life might change in the immediate future. God willing, for those of you at St. Paul, I will baptize many dozens more of your babies and eventually marry them to their future spouses. And I hope also to baptize and chrismate many of your friends as you bring them to this beautiful faith. I’m not going anywhere. But this moment today is still a transition to something new.
And that is why, in thinking about the image I want to remember for this moment, I chose the icon that is on the souvenir card that you received today. It is the icon of the Annunciation.
In that icon is the Archangel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she will conceive the Son of God, and it is at that moment with her assent that it actually happens. This moment is referred to in Greek as the Evangelismos, the announcing of the good news. This is the moment of the Gospel, its first preaching.
If there is any moment that has defined my life, for a long time imperceptibly but in recent years more self-consciously, it is this one, the moment when God became man at the first preaching of the good news, that set into motion all His life, His death on the Cross, and His resurrection.
As most of you know, I come from a missionary family, an identity that was probably first chosen when my mother dedicated herself to this sense of mission at the age of fourteen. It is an identity that my father came to embrace and that I inherited. And that identity did not change one bit when I embraced the Orthodox Church nineteen years ago. Nor did it change when I was married or when I went to seminary or when we began having children. Indeed, we named our first child Evangelia, a name that means “good news.”
And that identity did not change when I was ordained, nor when I became a pastor, nor today, ten years after my ordination. I have had many graduations in my life, many transitions to a new life. And as a middle child and a Third Culture Kid, I will always be asking questions about my identity. But this missionary identity that is symbolized by the icon of the Annunciation is one that I have always had and will always have. Preaching the good news is who I am and who I will always be.
I have made many mistakes, committed many sins, and I still have much to learn. But that guiding light of the Annunciation—the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news that we can be saved from our sins, that we will rise from the dead, and that death has no more dominion over mankind—that will always shine for me most brightly. It is the light that guides me every time I stand at the altar, every time I preach, every time I write, every time I try to bring Jesus Christ to you, and every time I ask Him to come once again to me.
This good news is who I am. This is what I believe. This is what I will always proclaim.
And so I am grateful to our God for everything. And I am grateful to Him for you. And I am grateful to you for showing Him to me.
Thank you, and glory to God for all things.