Today, December 20, is the feast day of St. John of Kronstadt, a modern (early 20th century) Russian priest who is admired by many priests in the Church today. His own asceticism (fasting, etc.) was well beyond what is normally seen in parish priests. He had numerous gifts of the Spirit: prophesying, healing, etc. There were even some unusual liturgical practices associated with his ministry (for that time), such as doing group confessions. These were especially needed because of the huge number of people who came to him for help.
I think to a large degree his popularity among Orthodox priests today is the same as the popularity (if one can use such a word when speaking of the saints) of any saint. They are popular because they inspire by their example and because their prayers are found to be particularly effective. He inspires and, I know, prays mightily for parish priests.
Of my own life I need say nothing. God is good. But I know of many priests who work amazingly long hours and give of themselves emotionally, spiritually and in every possible way in their love for the gospel and the souls of those entrusted to them. This ministry in the Church is itself a “sacrament” or “mystery,” making present a measure of grace that would otherwise not be available to us. The most peculiar part of this mystery is that the priest is a sacrament of Christ. He speaks in His name (in fear and trembling), pronounces the forgiveness of sins (again in fear in trembling), seeks to guide souls, and most especially to intercede and pray for the flock entrusted to him.
The vestments he wears point to this sacramental “Christlike” character of his ministry. Vesting on the morning of a liturgy, the priest becomes aware that the vesting is not about himself, but about “putting on Christ.” The hour or so involved in the service of the Proskomedie, the preparation of the bread and wine for the Liturgy, is rarely witnessed by the faithful. But it is a time of great intimacy, of prayer, of stepping ever deeper into the life of Christ.
St. John of Kronstadt lived at a time when priests in Russia were frequently derided as little more than civil servants. Many were poorly trained. The middle classes were drinking deeply from the wells of modern ideas and assuming that priests were part of all that was passing away. St. John appeared suddenly and contradictorily to the modern world. He was everything the Church had always said priests should be – and he was undeniably real.
Today, when you remember to pray, remember to pray for your priest and give thanks to God that He calls men to live in a manner that is not for themselves, but for others. May St. John pray for parish priests and ease their burdens – but especially to strengthen them for the coming days. For the coming days are always difficult. Such are the times in which we live.