From Green Aprons To Black Robes
As the new priestly vestments hung in the sanctuary of Saint Michael’s Orthodox Church the morning light filled the nave casting colors of every hue over the dusted pews that awaited family, friends, and a few regulars from the coffee shop. What seemed like years of anticipation and a seminarian’s dream was now more than a present reality. There was no turning back. With not only a priestly ordination to think about and prepare for, but also Reader, Sub-diaconate, and Diaconate services to help guide as a newly ordained Deacon there was much on my mind and much to pull my thoughts. However, my heart was overjoyed for all that would occur this new day and New Year of our Church calendar (Sept 1st). How does a seminarian graduate approach the altar for ordination? Where does he find the strength? The classrooms in Johnstown? Perhaps, but what I found to be the strongest inspiration towards the priesthood was always the love shown to me by the very priests/professors God ordained in our diocese, Father Duranko specifically. It was not always the words of his memorable sermons but the strong love behind the words, the care behind his singing and his trust in God that had helped create a foundation for my spiritual life which was built upon by others. Through Seminary and time with priests and +Metropolitan Nicholas (of thrice blessed memory) I felt ready to heed “the call” with fear and courage. ?
Time spent at seminary does not prepare one for ordination or even a single day of a priest’s life. Rather it prepares you to lift a cross on this day and never look away from the horizon and the road that lies ahead. I was so amazed to see how many faithful came to worship, pray and support me. Some came from the East Coast, others down the street. The faithful of St. Michael’s had become family to my wife and me over the past year. Her parish, St. Harlalambos Greek Orthodox Church is no more than a few blocks away where Fr. Dean Botsis is great friends with Fr. Sam Sherry as they help each other on Holy Wednesday with Unction. It was here I found father figures in Fr. Sam and Father Dean being so far from my home in Connecticut. These two communities one Greek the other Carpatho-Russian were so accepting and welcoming, joined together to offer prayers under the same dome and cross of St. Michael’s. This was such a joy and helped make the day have another facet of beauty that reflected Christ’s oneness in His Church.
When the day came to celebrate my first Divine Liturgy at my first parish, not to mention the farthest West I could be from home, I did not feel like I was alone. The first words a founding member from the 50’s mentioned as he finished cutting the antidorian while leaving the sanctuary was, “Welcome Home Father” with a handshake and a smile. What else could my soul do but feel the presence of God in a community that patiently waited for a full-time priest and now were so grateful to receive one. While preparing the Prsokomedia I saw Deacon Janke arrive and here I am so humbled, to be a priest of 1 week and youngest of age in the diocese, beside me is the oldest deacon in age and serving the Lord for 52 years. What a support the Lord sent me as here was a protector of prayer and strong guide for the service. We served as if we knew each other for years, there was a cadence and flow to it all being so beautifully lead by the choir of both the parishioners and the angels.
When it came time for the Great Entrance what could my heart do at this moment but rejoice and thank God. A church filled with souls in need of God, an altar server leading with candle and what seemed like a grandfather caring for the holy gifts as I handed them to him we began what I only could ever watch and listen to before being ordained. It was like a dream to finally stand before the Lord’s altar. As an altarboy at the Encounters in Johnstown we heard of the splendor and the beauty of the priesthood, tasted glimpses of it when serving at our home parishes and at times with His Eminence Bishop Nicholas. Seminary too helped show the brightness that the Lord is in this world and the how much life and truth there is when entering the service of the Lord.
Needless to say it is one of the greatest joys I can have as the service reflects the love of God for His people. Everyone on the planet is prayed for and to know God is listening, serving, guiding, and helping is beyond words. There was and is no time for day-dreams as a priest serving. What is needed is a sober heart and mind that is refined on leadership and prayer as everything requires one’s full attention. You can feel you are not there for yourself alone but you are truly the last person to think about when Christ’s flock is there for you to serve and help in everyway the He calls.
Hanging up the green apron for a black robe did not signify an end to serving a drink to thirsty people… in fact the responsibilities increased and the focus and heart would be more than expected but required. These were no longer customers but brothers and sisters and this was no longer a created beverage to be paid for but the uncreated Creator, the High Priest Himself who paid for it with His own blood and body on the cross. It is He Who fills the chalice and offers it to His people.
It was not so much offering the Eucharist that made me feel I was serving and leading a flock. As amazing as the Liturgy is when the Heavens open and you serve with the saints, angels, and the parish together as one, it hit me during Confession. As I listened to the hardships and shortcomings of another something occurred. There grew deep within my heart a new feeling I had never had before. A feeling of anger towards the devil. It was never hard to think of him when hearing his interactions with Christ in the Gospels and the lives of Saints but I would usually wake each day, say prayers and hope to stay the course not giving much attention to his presence as I would really only think of my own soul.
Not having children yet I could only imagine that when one is a parent they think of their child’s safety and care when away at school, a friends house, anywhere away from a mother’s embrace or father’s gaze. Having a wife I began to know of such a care when one’s spouse is away… However during confession, when hearing the things a penitent wishes they had not done and are sorry for a strong distaste for the devil grows in the soul and the heart and a correct anger builds against him. It is to think, someone is messing with my kids” Spiritual kids that is. You think and care for your flock and how when they leave they much go back into a war that never ends. An arena where there is an evil one who wants to mess with your ‘spiritual’ children and all you want to do is help them stay on the good road.
Being a priest is like becoming a father in one day…however instead of finding out you have twins to hold in both of your arms,…. The Lord takes those arms and spreads them out even wider. Then moving them up with His, He makes you into the sign of the cross. He then opens the doors leading out of the church building and pointing to the world He commands you to embrace your new family for you have just been made responsible for everyone who crosses your path. Scary one could say but the best part is Christ never lets go. Amen. Glory to God!
By Fr. Jonathan Bannon