The Parish, cell of the Church’s life:
“Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17.11).
1. The Great and Holy Church of Christ, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, from November 27 to December 1, 2000, convened a Clergy-Laity Conference in the Queen of cities, with the topic: “The Parish, cell of the Church’s life: Living reality, contemporary orientations and challenges.” This Conference was organized within the framework of festive events prepared to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ the Savior.
2. During the sessions of the Conference the more than seven hundred participants – Bishops, Presbyters, Monks, Nuns, and Laypersons – representing both the Metropolitanates from throughout the Oikoumene and the Parishes of the Ecumenical Throne – discussed contemporary issues and problems related to the parish extensively.
3. The Conference members realized the growing institutional crisis as well as the subversive destructive influences of secularization on the coherence of the fullness of the flock. For this reason, they paid close attention to the rudimentary framework of this cohesion, the parish. This concern primarily aims at the reexamination of the existing parish practice having as its further goal the improvement and upgrading of the relations among parishioners. Far from any thought of orienting the Conference toward given opinions and systems, the Conference discussed improving ideas and suggestions to strengthen and develop the efficacy of the work of the parish.
4. The Conference speakers, by virtue of their detailed papers, presented the theological basis of the parish, the ideal prototype of which, related to its perfect organization and functioning is expressed by as the Body of Christ. This reference focuses on the eucharistic unity of the one community under the Bishop or the presbyters, who by the Bishops command initiate the faithful into the divine mysteries, “as the type of Christ.” Moreover, the notion of locality serves the sanctifying, pastoral, and administrative diakonia (ministry/service). To this diakonia the experience of the rich work of the parish is offered, along with its alternative applications by the Churches in various places, which strive to support spiritually, assist socially, and primarily sanctify the faithful.
5. This diversity can be used as a purveyor of ideas for the selective application, relative to the particular conditions of the life and functioning of each parish. More specific guidelines to this end were indicated by His All Holiness our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as follows: a) the attraction of the more fervent believers without neglecting those less devoted; b) the avoidance of imitating foreign prototypes and the persistence in the tradition with regard to liturgy and adaptation to the needs with regard to interpersonal relations; c) the care for the Orthodox of foreign backgrounds with an increased attempt to reverse the growing number of mixed marriages; and 4) the special care for the cultivation and strengthening of the spiritual life. The Parish as a worshipping, eucharistic, and eschatological community is not indifferent towards the world or the problems of the present life, but is interested in orienting its members, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, toward the uncreated reality of eternity.
6. Likewise, the elucidation of the meanings of “parish” and “community” was considered to be significant, in light of the particularities mainly of the meaning of “community,” which, in spite of its biblical origin, has acquired caesaropapal connotations in certain contexts. Beyond the exclusion of certain meanings of “community,” within ecclesiological and sociological boundaries, it presupposes the existence of the parish and in the Orthodox tradition is expressed as nearly identical to it. The gathering at Pentecost represents the community that can simultaneously be considered as the first apostolic parish of the newly formed Church. This proximity of meaning today establishes the parish as an institution, which is called to play an ever-increasing role in the contemporary articulation of Orthodoxy. The new social horizons of the modern-day, inhumane cities, even the hitherto virgin countryside, can become humane once again, if the contemporary parish seeks new models of parish life and activity within the current post-industrial and multicultural horizon.
7. Certainly, the spiritual state of contemporary societies does not allow excessive optimism, given the crisis of values and the negative moral devolution of the whole of humanity. The many global problems that are either difficult or impossible to solve as well as grieve and press upon the human person, create fears about the future of societies and test the limits of our emotional endurance and our faith itself. It is precisely here that the parish gains its place as “the Church in a particular locality.” The parish’s Church building becomes the central point of reference, the refuge and the hope of encounter with the shepherd and the brethren. Herein the mystery of divine visitation and simultaneously the communion of persons are initiated. This means that the parish has God as its center and has as its outlook the service and the sanctification of humanity. It serves and sanctifies the human person with baptism, the Divine Eucharist, the sacrament of matrimony, and with all the other sacraments and other rites, and also escorts him in the end at his exit from the present world. The parish does not forget his memory and offers up prayers on his behalf, when the grace of God sanctifies the life, faith and work of the departed person chosen by God and it numbers him among God’s saints.
8. This sacramental existence and eschatological dimension of the parish is immediately connected with the prosopon (person) and the spiritual quality of the priest, who also presides over the assembly, always in the name of the local bishop. The priest is a liturgical servant of Jesus Christ, while the parish is the incarnation of the Church, the basic eucharistic cell without which the Church cannot exist. This relationship contains within it both privilege and responsibilities. The notion of privilege should be sought out in the gift of priesthood, whereas the responsibilities are to be found in the constant care, through diakonia and the sanctification, of his parishioners. On this point, the celebration of the Divine Eucharist and holy services, which give rise to the liturgical and interpersonal communion between the priest and the faithful, have a primary place. These opportunities are used by the priest to teach and for the service of the divine word. In a parallel fashion, he is obligated, as the good shepherd, to be vigilant to the problems of his parishioners, to direct them in the spiritual life, and to care for his entire flock in a spirit of sacrifice and selfless love. The priest is a minister of the activity of divine Grace, and for this reason he cannot be employed as a “hireling.” This clarification is necessary to underscore the multitude of virtues and spiritual particularities that must adorn him. The flock that he shepherds is not authoritatively his. It was entrusted to him by the Lord (cf. John 21:16).
9. In the work of the parish the entire the parish should participate. Laypersons, men and women, although ecclesiologically and pastorally they make up the flock, in the activity of the Church and as members of its living body, they, nonetheless, participate by virtue of their own gifts in the diakonia of the entire body. Particularly the presence of women in the activity of the Church on the parish level is an indubitable fact that can be interpreted according to the presuppositions of Orthodox theology and soteriology. The beginning of our thoughts on this issue is the person of the All-holy Theotokos, through whom the chapter of divine economy was opened and by whom the gap caused by disobedience and the fall was bridged. Within the new reality, woman is becoming a witness to the divinity of Jesus and a preacher of the message of the Resurrection. Ever since then she has served in catechesis, teaching, missionary activity, monasticism, philanthropy, and social work, hymnography and hymnology, iconography and beautification of the church, and as a wife of a priest and nun she cooperates with the priest in the pastoral assistance and even in the spiritual guidance of the faithful. The revival of the ancient office of deaconess, which has of late been expressed as a wish, is able to contribute even more in the furthering of the activity of the parish. On this issue, the Ecumenical Patriarchate convened an inter-Orthodox Conference (Rhodes, 1988) at which the role and the type of this ecclesiastical diakonia was clarified. This request is in no way connected with the novel discussion concerning the “priesthood” of women, as it is postulated by other Christian churches and confessions, concerning which the teaching and position of the Orthodox Church are known.
10. More particular problems that are related to broader lay participation, being different in each geographical territory and ethnic church, are evaluated with particular attention within the limits of the administrative responsibilities of each eparchy. In empirically approaching the relative vastness of opportunities for lay participation, such as, the administrative councils, the finances, the organizations, and philanthropy, has at times placed the institutional character of the councils before the spiritual character, which is placed in a second category. The situations, in which the choice of people was based upon spiritual qualities, ecclesiastical ethos, and mainly the heightened sense of responsibility with regard to the parish are prototypes of tested suggestions; and also hope-bearing compasses of reorientation. The forms of ecclesiastical councils known as “parishes” and “communities” cannot be autonomous and exist severed from one another; since, according to the initial ascertainment, the authentic expression of the parish must coincide with the true communion among the faithful in the Church.
11. In the Dioceses of the Throne throughout the Oikoumene, the witness of Orthodoxy is an extension of the work of the parish, where the homogeneia encounters the countries which receives it. Certainly the varying conditions influence the existence and the life of the parishes, in a different way. In spite of this, the ongoing problems are referred to in the crisis of language, in mixed marriages, in the crisis of the calling to the priesthood, and in the difficulties younger parents have in communicating with the ecclesiastical language. In these circumstances, the local dioceses assume analogous initiatives such as translations of liturgical texts, doubled divine liturgies, or -- for a correct support in cases of mixed marriages -- the suitable preparation of young people. For the remanning of parishes, recently an attempt has been made to strengthen and encourage the priestly vocation in these young people of the second, third and even further generations. The local Archpastors continue to establish theological schools, ecclesiastical seminaries, holy monasteries, and other beneficial foundations and at the same time, through timely educational and festal events, strengthen in diverse ways, the local conscience always in reference to the center of Orthodoxy -- the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
12. In this direction, catechetical work and education have central significance. Primarily, catechesis is a ministry of the Church and its ideal contribution is encompassed within the framework of the parish. Catechesis uses language. The knowledge of the Greek language is a bridge to approach the fruits of the Holy Scriptures and the Greek Orthodox Tradition, essentially in the different expressions of the one Orthodoxy. The great privilege of having the Sacred Texts written in Greek and the treasury of the Patristic Tradition makes this language an instrument of communication by which we, the Orthodox everywhere, irrespective of our mother tongues, race, and place of residence, know the one truth of the faith. At this point, catechesis within the parish is transfigured into a work of interior mission to all the parishioners -- children, young people, adults, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and particularly those found at the periphery of our societal concern. To this end, catechesis seeks to inform and protect the faithful from heresies and anti-Christian ideologies. Concurrently, the parish becomes the center of outward evangelism, when it accepts to transmit the Gospel of salvation to those far off. The parish is the place of Orthodox witness in the dialogue of love, reconciliation, and truth with our heterodox brethren. The catechizer, whether a priest or lay person, man or woman, assumes a central role in the process of evangelism, of Christian discipline and education, the moral formation of character, and principally the approaching of the parishioners to the Lord: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) The work of catechesis, consequently, is a work of responsibility and love; and presupposes faith, patience, diligent contribution, sacramental life, but also knowledge and a multifaceted and multidimensional preparation, since this leads the catechumens to the mystery of God.
13. The parish tries to infuse this mystery into the young people, in other ways, as well. It is an outward movement towards encountering the tomorrow of history, the continuation of the Church, the extension of the Kingdom of God, in the more dynamic hope of our tired world, as in the case of our Orthodox youth. This encounter is also their own demand. Young people today look to the Church with particular trust. They are looking for solutions to the impasses of a mechanized, technical culture. They want to surpass the different tendencies towards dehumanization. Furthermore, they are seeking answers to the arrogance of power and the disdain of various scientific achievements. From out of their existential questionings, they reveal their intense metaphysical sensitivity and show a surprising receptivity towards the Word of God. However, they also formulate their demands. They want, for example, the spiritual leaders of the Church to be without hypocrisy, pure, true prototypes in ethos, conduct, and lifestyle. And, at this point, the movement of their reception by the whole parish must have the criteria of love and respect of their liberty parallel towards the dynamic attempt to correspond to their authentic demands and their youthful, rationalized preferences. The parish centers with libraries, with their technological substructures, with cultural initiatives, with athletic installations, with a spiritual foundation and many other similar things form useful entryways “into the eucharistic encounter and participation in the Eucharistic Table.” Our young people are the future of the Church. For this reason, it must not be seen as an exaggeration that one of the principle areas of activity in the parish is the concern with young people.
14. All these above mentioned thoughts are expressed as observations, orientations, and problematics during the course of the discussions of the Greater Clergy-Laity Conference, which together with other things, gave many valuable opportunities for personal communication between the participants. For this reason, we thank His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Holy and Sacred Synod for convening this Conference and for its successful completion.
15. We glorify God in Holy Trinity for this historic congress and for the decisions, thoughts, discussions, and experiences which it provoked. As each one of us departs to his own country, we guard, as a valuable exhortation, the words of St. Ignatius, the God-bearer, “And therefore you must as a chosen people and a holy nation perform everything in concord in Christ.” (The Letter to the Philadelphians 4, PG 5, 824).