|Lent Encyclical - February 7, 2009|
The Sacrament of Priesthood
The Apostle Paul wrote: “One does not take this honor upon himself; but he is called by God, just as Aaron was.” (Hebrews 5:4)
We extend our apostolic benediction and greetings to our brethren, His Beatitude Mor Baselius Thomas I, Catholicos of India, and their Eminences the Metropolitans; our spiritual children reverend priests, monks, nuns, deacons, and our blessed Syriac Orthodox people all over the world. May the divine providence embrace them through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and St. Peter, the chief of the apostles, and the rest of the martyrs and saints. Amen.
Our beloved, we inquire about your wellbeing and offer our humble prayers as we say:
The sacred sacrament of Priesthood is a divine providence that God bestows upon some people He chooses from amongst the faithful. He calls them whereas they agree to the call and consecrate their lives for His service. They receive the legal and canonical ordination through the exertion of the Holy Spirit and His strength. As a result, they obtain authority that distinguishes them in terms of service of the church, its governing (Matthew 10:1-15 and Luke 10:1-12) in line with the power of the rank they accept. They also deliver regularly the holy sacraments to those who deserve them, i.e., baptism, confirmation, forgiving the sins of repenters, isolating the unconventional offenders, criminals and non-repenting heretics, directing the faithful, praying for them and taking care of them (John 20:21-23, Acts 20, and 1 Peter 5).
When the Lord Jesus was carrying out his godly economy, he chose twelve apostles and seventy disciples entrusting them His sacraments (1 Corinthians 4:1). He appointed them to perform spiritual services and celebrate the ecclesiastic sacraments (Luke 6:13). We read thus in the Holy Gospel: “When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them who he also designated apostles” (Luke 6:13). “Then Jesus came to them and said: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.” (Matthew 28:18-19). “Again Jesus said: Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you’and with that he breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:21-23). According to the teachings of our Fathers, the Lord had ordained his apostles as bishops “when he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted his hands and blessed them, while he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). As said in the order of consecration, the bishop receives authority of: teaching, forgiving, sanctifying, governing and legislating. The Lord has instituted the sacrament of Priesthood straight away after proclaiming the establishment of the church subsequent to the confession of the apostle Peter that He is the son of the living God. Thus he said to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosened in heaven” (Matthew 16:17-19). Moreover, the apostles pointed to this sacrament while ordaining priests in every city or town (Acts 13:2-3). It is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles that “while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said: ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’so after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3). In their election as priests for carrying out the service in the churches, we read as well the author of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles writing about Paul and Barnabas: “they preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples, then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith and saying that: ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God'. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust” (Acts 14:21-23). The apostle Paul encourages his disciple Timothy on the priestly ordination stating: “do not neglect your gift, which was given to you through a prophetic message when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14). Furthermore, he reminds his disciple Titus the requisites to be met in a priest saying: “you must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine, teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance” (Titus 2:1-2). And in his letter to the Hebrews, he announces the following about the gift of priesthood: “One does not take this honor upon himself; but he is called by God, just as Aaron was.” (Hebrews 5:4). He adds elsewhere: “and in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:28). Nowadays, the bishops are the legatees of the apostles: they became so by the laying of hands of their predecessors (Acts 14:13). Above and beyond, they selected priests for every church. This uninterrupted line continues till this present day.
In this respect, the apostle Paul writes: “and the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2).
In our church, there exist three levels of priesthood, clearly found in the Holy Gospel:
The servant of the sacrament of priesthood is the bishop himself for only he has the right of laying hands on the head of the ordainee (Acts 6:6 and 13:2-3). The perceived part of the sacrament of priesthood is the laying of hands of the bishop on the head of the ordainee together with the special prayer, whereby the bishop implores the divine grace to dwell upon the ordainee through the power of the Holy Spirit. As for the non-apparent part, it is the divine grace that the ordained priest accepts from God along with the authority to loose and bind sins, teach, discipline, consecrate and sanctify.
The fruits and products of the sacrament of priesthood are: preserving of the ranks of priesthood in the church, committing to order, working according to the duties and the privileges of the shepherds and the flock, and distributing of God's graces and blessings to the believers. In addition, priesthood ensures performing the sacraments of the church in keeping with the regulations of the levels and the clerical ranks, along with teaching the truth of the noble Christian faith and doctrines to the believers. Also, priesthood sets apart special men having the blissful virtues to be a fine model for the faithful in preaching the Holy Gospel, saying or doing what aims at the praise of the name of the Heavenly Father, respecting the priestly ranks and seeking the salvation of the souls of the faithful, “Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 5:1-3). Therefore, priests and bishops are answerable about the salvation of the believers’souls, “keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherds the church of God which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Thus, committed Christians have to honor their priests and their shepherds for they are the servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1). Hence, the apostle Paul writes: “we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who were over you in the Lord and who admonish you” (1 Thessalonians 5:12 and Hebrews 13:7). The Lord Jesus has also said: “He who receives you receives me” (Matthew 10:40), and “he who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16). Therefore, in honor the Lord Jesus we honor his servants.
On the occasion of the Holy Lent, we ask the Lord to accept your fasting, your prayers and your charity. May He make you worthy to celebrate the glory of the ressurection, in joy, happiness and good health through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, St. Peter, the chief of the apostles, and the rest of the Martyrs and Saints. May God bless you.
Our Father Who art in heaven...
Issued at our Patriarchate in Damascus, Syria
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