How to Become a Priest

Levan Sutidze

After the violent actions of the religious servants of the Georgian Orthodox Church on 17 May, when they led a several-thousand-strong frenzied mob to attack participants in a peaceful rally against homophobia, questions as to whom the most respected institution in the country awards Holy Orders to, and according to what procedure, have been raised with increased intensity.

he number and the influence of the clergy in Georgia have significantly increased over the past decade. The clergy has become an inseparable part of our personal and public space. Moreover, the Church has become one of the most influential actors in politics. The clergy strongly influenced the outcome of the most recent elections in Georgia, during which they openly expressed their sympathies towards this or that political force. One-fifth of the country's population is actively engaged in practicing religion and, given the strength of the practice of visiting spiritual fathers for confession, has regular contact with religious servants several times a week. In a situation where the visibility of the Church has grown significantly and its voice is heard increasingly distinctly, a large segment of the population is basically unaware of the path that prospective priests must undertake in order for the most respected institution to deem them prepared for being entrusted with the souls of the people.

John Chrysostom: “The all-devouring flame of envy encompasses them [priests]…. And as the tyrant fears his bodyguards, so also does the priest dread most of all his neighbors and fellow-ministers. For no others covet his dignity so much, or know his affa
The process of forming a priest is not only important for those who seek spiritual nourishment from the clergy. As a rule, donning priestly vestments automatically means that any words uttered by that person on virtually any subject, including social and political issues, will be highly respected by a large segment of the population.

The Georgian Patriarchate does not keep statistics on its religious servants. However, according to the Secretary of the Patriarchate Mikael Botkoveli, the Church includes between 2,000 and 3,000 religious servants. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, i.e. during the years of gaining independence, Georgia counted only some 40 clergy in total, whilst today the number of bishops alone exceeds 40. Over a period of 25 years, the clergy has increased by about 60 times. In some churches nowadays more than 10 priests conduct religious services, whereas just two decades ago, bishops had to perform services across the various churches of Tbilisi because of a shortage of priests. The Church hierarchy is proud of those numbers, evaluating such an increase in priests as a positive development. However, this increase shows that the Church did not set any special barriers to obtaining a priesthood, which, consequently, also affected the level of the training of priests.

When granting the rank of priest, for years the Church was focused on numbers, not on quality. The same holds true for the Soviet period and the time of the restoration of autocephaly. It is well known that in 1917, when the Georgian Church regained its autocephaly, compulsory academic training was not established as a requirement for religious servants. The reason named back then was also a shortage of personnel. Almost two centuries before that, however, on 13 November 1749, the Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia Anton I introduced, with the support of the church council, religious education as an obligatory requirement for ordination into the priesthood.

During the Soviet period, a candidate for priesthood could easily obtain that religious rank without any academic background, providing that the Soviet state deemed such a person acceptable. Often it was the most unsuccessful and ignorant people that became priests, something that was actively supported by the government.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, during the years of extreme poverty and a broken state system, the Georgian Orthodox Church became inundated with congregations. Even though the institution did not enjoy a high degree of respect in the initial years of the country's independence, the Church came to face the need for increasing the number of its religious servants. A simplified rule of ordination granted Holy Orders to many people who lacked not only a minimal academic education but also the minimal skills necessary for conducting religious services. As priests are almost always greater in number than bishops it is, therefore, the priests who directly deal with the congregations, whilst the bishops are busy running internal clerical affairs.

Let me recall that there are three orders of clergy: the lowest rank is a deaconship, then comes priesthood and the highest is the order of bishop. It is believed that when ordained, deacons receive the blessing to serve and assist the Church. A person ordained as priest has the right to perform six out of the seven sacraments (excluding holy orders) though only does so on behalf of a bishop. A person consecrated as a bishop receives blessing to perform all seven sacraments. At least two or three bishops are required to consecrate a religious servant into a bishop, whilst a person can be ordained as a deacon or a priest by just one bishop. The orders of the clergy are further categorized by merit and administrative function. For example, archbishops, metropolitans and the patriarch belong to the order of bishop. The Catholicos-Patriarch is the highest hierarch of the Church and therefore the bishops have to agree with him about any priesthood ordination, even outside the Mtskheta-Tbilisi eparchy which the Catholicos-Patriarch runs directly. This tradition, as a formality, also exists in the Catholic Church, where the consent of the pontiff, the Pope of Rome, is required on the ordination of any religious servant.

In the Orthodox Church, deacons and priests are divided into two groups – those who are married and those who are monks. According to the clerical tradition, only monks can become bishops. Celibacy, that is being unmarried and abstaining from sexual intercourse, is not practiced in Georgia. Therefore, those who want to become priests pursue a top objective – to get married.

Given that graduates of the theological seminary basically have no other option to earn a living than by being ordained, they try to get married as soon as possible. As a result, the families of newly ordained priests tend to be unstable and divorce among priests is not a rare occurrence. Marriage is then followed by other steps.

Formally, to be ordained as priest, one needs to graduate from the theological academy-seminary. If a person wants to become a priest, he sends a letter to an incumbent bishop, enclosed with recommendations from his spiritual father and the management of the seminary. After that, this person has to appear before a special commission which, according to the Patriarchate's press center, has existed in the Mtskheta-Mtianeti eparchy since 2002. The commission is chaired by Father Theodore Chuadze. Nevertheless, as some religious servants have told Tabula, the commission is mainly inoperative. Local bishops still succeed, upon making their personal recommendations to the Patriarch, in bypassing the commission and ordaining desired persons as priests, no matter whether they are graduates of the theological seminary or not. In reality, the commission does not follow any strictly established criteria, but rather adheres to the principle of loyalty and a minimum level of training of such persons. Talking to Tabula, a number of students from the theological seminary said that the commission is a sort of tool for avoiding undesirable people – the clergy often sends those people to the commission whom they do not want to be ordained. In such cases, the commission provides their opinion that the person, for certain intangible reasons, is not suitable for becoming a religious servant. However, the decisive factor here is the desire of the bishop and not the readiness of the candidate.

St Jerome of Stridonium: “Not all bishops are bishops indeed. You consider Peter; mark Judas as well…. For it is not ecclesiastical rank that makes a man a Christian.”
A former priest of the Georgian Church who voluntarily left the order in protest, Basil Kobakhidze, told Tabula: "In 1995, I achieved a suspension of ordainments and consecrations across Georgia; in other words, upon my request, the Patriarch caused the Synod to adopt a decision on the necessity for each and every candidate to be examined by the commission. Father Iob was the head of the commission back then, whilst I was the secretary. I did not give any of the candidates a recommendation to be ordained. The bishops were unhappy about my decisions. They revolted and went to the Patriarch and made him abolish this commission." It is worth nothing that Basil Kobakhidze is the author of the regulations for the management of the Church, which is an administrative law for the Church at the level of a constitution.

The commission was restored in 2002 after one particular incident. As a representative of the Georgian patriarchate told Tabula on the condition of anonymity, the Catholicos-Patriarch found a deacon at the altar who did not know how to serve. After that, it was decided to reinstate the commission. However, anyone who has acquaintances among the clerical hierarchy can easily bypass the commission. Moreover, bishops are themselves interested in ordaining people loyal to them, regardless of anything else.

The only objective of those persons ordained as deacons is priesthood in the future. Their income is small because they cannot perform sacred rites – neither christenings, funerals nor the blessing of houses or cars. Therefore, any open minded deacon has no other option but to ignore his own views and demonstrate his loyalty to a bishop, otherwise he will never become a priest. Already ordained priests, on the other hand, shun clerical punishment.

The practice of our Church, since it left the world ecumenical council in 1997, is isolationist. Ultra-nationalistic sentiments dominate the church, which are manifested in aggressive attitudes towards anything strange. Almost every priest is under this clerical influence. Those who are not either cannot speak out about that openly or speak only in very general terms by invoking Christian truths. A priest who, for instance, does not condone the events of 17 May and is against violence, is able to denounce the violence but cannot demand the punishment of the offending religious servants. Nor can they criticize the church hierarchy. This is the most that an "open-minded" priest is able to do. However, even such priests can become victims of the violent clerical ideological apparatus. Over the years, the church has developed multiple methods of avoiding such persons and banning them from priesthood. No candidate can become a priest and be promoted up the clerical ladder if he displays even a minimal level of liberal reasoning.

Any progressive and modern reasoning amongst priests is mainly manifested in their imposing fewer rules and restrictions on their congregations, in contrast to the increasingly isolationist groups of the clergy who call upon their congregations to adhere to such rules and restrictions in their civil lives as those that are required from monks living in monasteries.

The preaching of obedience is cultivated in the Church and any complaint, even if based on the laws of the church, is viewed as treachery. Any such disobedience is met with corresponding consequences.

The result of this is a process of ordaining ideologically obedient and uneducated people as priests. Historically, such a process proved ruinous for Western churches.

The election of a candidate to be a bishop clearly depends on the decision of a Synod's council, however, informally, the Patriarch has the final say. The level of education of bishops does not exceed that of priests, on average. For example, a segment of the Orthodox Christian congregation was shocked to see a newly consecrated bishop, Iakob Iakobashvili, (now a chorbishop), failing to correctly make the sign of the cross when he was introduced to the congregation by the Patriarch. Bishop Iakob was moving his newly granted bishop's scepter back and forth in a confused manner, trying to make the sign of the cross with clumsy movements. To the question as to how such a person, who thereafter continued to perform religious services with great difficulties, became a bishop, there exists no answer.

For example, to be ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church, one needs at least six years of service at a lower rank and compulsory academic training. The requirements for bishops are far stricter. Some religious orders, for instance, the Society of Jesus, even set a 20-year requirement. The Catholic Church was forced to erect such barriers due to historic circumstances. In the period of the Reformation, it became clear that untrained and uneducated catholic priests could retain their congregations in churches with the help of the Caesar alone. After losing this privilege, Protestants managed to easily destroy them. The Council of Trent, which laid the ground for the counterreformation, established the compulsory requirement of academic training for ordination into the priesthood. This requirement was later eased in various geographic areas of the Catholic Church.

In the second half of the 20th century, during the so-called sexual revolution, congregations started leaving cathedrals. The priests followed them. A serious shortage of personnel emerged in the Catholic Church, prompting it to simplify the process of priesthood ordination and the requirements for the issuance of diplomas at theological seminaries. As a result, after 30 years, the Vatican became embroiled in a pedophile scandal which almost destroyed the esteem of the Church. Simplifying the rules of ordination makes it easier for people to join the ranks of the priesthood and thus increases the risk of them bringing the dirtiest litter of civil life into the church. Today, the Catholic Church is mulling over toughening the rules of ordination once again as it has been proved that simplifying the rules to supply more priests for larger congregations in reality just creates problems for the Church.

The degree of amorphousness in the practice of ordination and non-institutionalism burst forth once again on 17 May, however, such a trend has not yet reached its peak. Georgian religious servants, successors of a clerical hierarchy raised in the conditions of the Soviet Union, have proved that those who consecrated them were motivated by nothing more than increasing the numbers of the clergy. It would be almost impossible today to implement any personnel reform that would have an immediate effect because Georgia, a country with a population from between three to four million, already counts thousands of absolutely ignorant priests among its number.



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