Augustine wept at his ordination.
He had arrived in the ancient seaport of Hippo, in part, to avoid becoming a priest. The Catholic Church in North Africa was at that time a relatively small pond, and Augustine (354–430 AD) was a sizeable fish. Word travelled quickly that Augustine had relinquished a prestigious professorship in the big city of Milan and returned to his hometown of Thagaste, a small farming community 200 miles from the Mediterranean coast. What Augustine desired in retirement was time for study, writing, and enriching conversation, the pursuit of wisdom and holiness in a community of like-minded “Servants of God.” He thus carefully avoided visiting any town with an episcopal vacancy for fear of being enlisted for the role. His purpose for visiting Hippo was simply to gain a new recruit for his nascent community and to scout out a location for their monastery.
The bishop of Hippo had other intentions. While Augustine was attending a service at the basilica, Bishop Valerius preached on the urgent needs of the church in Hippo and exhorted the people to provide a presbyter for their beloved city. The congregation eagerly obeyed, grabbing the unsuspecting Augustine and pushing him down the nave toward the bishop. Bishop Valerius ordained Augustine to the cheers of the congregation and the tears of their newly minted presbyter.
To Augustine’s credit, he remained in Hippo after his ordination to fulfill his priestly responsibilities. Gregory of Nazianzus (329–390 AD) was not so immediately obliging. The son of a wealthy landowner and bishop, Gregory had turned down a professorship in Athens, but was equally reluctant to manage the family estate. His friend Basil invited him to join his monastic community in Caesarea, but Gregory had little interest in digging wells and planting turnips with the other monks. Like Augustine, Gregory envisioned for himself a monasticism devoted primarily to study and contemplation. With no obvious outlet for such sanctified scholarship, Gregory spent three years back on his parent’s estate, weighing his options, living off his family’s resources, and testing his father’s patience.
Eventually, Gregory’s father had had enough. If Gregory was not interested in an Athenian professorship, he should put his expensive education to use closer to home by preaching and overseeing the local Christian community. On Christmas Day 361, unmoved by Gregory’s protestations, the bishop ordained his son in a church which the family had built for the townspeople of Nazianzus. Days later, before even delivering his first sermon, Gregory fled, taking refuge with Basil and his community of turnip-planting monks. He remained there for two months, until Basil’s promptings and family circumstances finally convinced him to return home. Gregory preached his first sermon on Easter day to a justifiably irked congregation.
Like Augustine and Gregory, John Chrysostom (347–407 AD) excelled as a student of rhetoric in his home city of Antioch. And like Augustine and Gregory, he too abandoned “worldly pursuits” for spiritual endeavors. Following the encouragement and example of his closest teenage friend (another Basil), John dedicated himself upon graduation to the monastic ideals. While their peers started careers and took advantage of the many entertainments on offer in Antioch, John and Basil devoted themselves to a life of asceticism, study, and prayer. Their dreams of a monastic future together were soon crushed however, when word reached them of a plan by church authorities to ordain them against their wills. Terrified at the prospect of ecclesial responsibility, the two friends nevertheless vowed to face the music together.
John had no intention of keeping his vow. Convinced he wasn’t fit for the priesthood, he was just as confident that Basil was. So when the day of ordination came, John went into hiding. Basil submitted to his own ordination, assuming John had already held up his end of the bargain. When he eventually learned of his friend’s deceit, he confronted John in a flood of tears. John, proving his pastoral incompetence, burst into laughter, taking his friend by the hands and praising God that his ruse had succeeded.
Augustine, Gregory, and John would of course go on to become three of the most influential and revered theologian-bishops of the early Church. John and Gregory both wrote important treatises on the priesthood, and Augustine’s anti-Donatist writings contain some of the most substantial and systematic reflections on ordained ministry from the patristic era. It is not surprising then that their reluctant beginnings swiftly became the stuff of saintly legend, demonstrations of their humility and therefore their fitness for the office they would one day occupy. But human motivations are rarely as straightforward as the hagiographers would lead us to believe. Gregory himself refers to his desertion as an act of cowardice, and however piously John may persist in defending his actions, it is difficult to paint his deceit in entirely virtuous hues.
There is nevertheless something instructive in their trepidation — a shared clarity with respect to the dangers and difficulties of the office — that ought to evoke a similar caution in anyone considering a call to ordained ministry. All three esteemed and personally feared the moral demands of ministry, the call to communicate Christ, not only in words, but in the shape of one’s life. How could someone dare to preside over the sacrifice of the Eucharist, Gregory asks, without first offering to God the sacrifice of a contrite heart (Second Oration, 95)? As a later Gregory (Pope Gregory the Great) argues in his own eminent treatise on pastoral ministry, “no one does more harm to the Church than he, who having the title or rank of holiness, acts evilly” (Pastoral Rule, I.2). John Chrysostom felt this pressure acutely, thinking himself too envious, short-tempered, and lustful for the office of a priest.
Augustine, Gregory, and John likewise understood just how difficult the practical demands of priestly ministry could be. The physician of the soul, Gregory insists, faces a far more laborious and consequential task than the physician of the body. And whereas most patients willingly submit themselves to the care of a bodily physician, few acknowledge any need or desire for the healing of their souls (Second Oration,16-20). As John notes, a priest requires “wisdom and circumspection” to discern the pastoral needs of his congregation (On the Priesthood, II.4), “diligence, patience, and perseverance” in leading others along the path of discipleship (II.4), and a proficiency in doctrine to “ward off the diseases which attack [the Church], and preserve her in health” (IV.7). Just as importantly, a priest must be capable of handling insults (III.13).
Augustine, Gregory, and John resisted the priesthood, therefore, not out of pride (as their contemporaries suspected), nor even primarily out of humility (as their hagiographers suggest), but out of a profound recognition of what ministry entails. They knew well enough the skills and virtues required for the role. They feared abusing the office and misleading the faithful, conscious that those who teach “will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). They were each aware of the difficulties involved in preaching a good sermon on the Trinity, providing for the needs of widows and orphans, and resisting the coercive charms of the wealthy and powerful. Most importantly, they understood that ministry requires a kind of death — not simply the death of “worldly” ambition (all three had already happily left behind respectable careers in the saeculum), but the death of prioritizing one’s own self-fulfillment. Ministry means nailing one’s aspirations to the cross of Christ in the service of his body, the Church. It was in the shadow of this Golgotha that Augustine wept, Gregory fled, and John deceived poor Basil.
Thankfully, few bishops today are in the business of ordaining people against their wills. The Church has developed robust and prolonged processes of discernment, in part to protect postulants and parishes alike from such hasty ordinations. It is no longer necessary to deceive one’s friends and to go into hiding to avoid becoming a priest; a frank conversation with one’s Director of Ordinands (or equivalent) should do the trick. But whereas previous generations erred in coercing individuals into sacrificing their self-interests for the sake of ministry, the temptation today is to elide such sacrifice altogether. Vocation is now often portrayed as a means of self-fulfillment. To be “called” is to have an abiding sense that my truest self lies on the other side of ordination, that ministry provides the best route for self-expression and self-actualization. In this sense, the call to ministry is not simply a matter of faithfulness to God, but of faithfulness to oneself.
This way of thinking is certainly preferable to the shotgun ordinations of a bygone era. The Church is better served by a priest who delights in her ministry, who finds purpose and satisfaction in her labors, than by a captive miserably serving her sentence. There are moreover good theological reasons for speaking of vocation in terms of self-fulfillment. A vocation (ordained or otherwise) is a divine summons to play a particular role in God’s creative and redemptive purposes, “which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2:10). This way of life is fulfilling in the greatest possible sense, realizing our fullest potentials and satiating the deepest desires of our heart. But it is also costly. It cost the Son of God the agony of the cross. And it likewise requires those who serve in his name to deny themselves, to take up their own crosses, and follow him (Matt. 16:24).
The danger of considering one’s vocation primarily in terms of self-fulfillment and self-actualization is that one comes to resent, or even circumvent, the costliness of ministry. Priestly ministry certainly brings numerus and immeasurable joys: baptizing and blessing, accompanying others through grief and gratitude, words of absolution and love’s assurance filling the space once occupied by guilt and shame. But as Augustine, Gregory, and John surmised, ministry can also be agony: a litany of controversies and complaints, the sense that, despite your best efforts, there are still too many in your care who have “suffered hurt through your neglect,” words of hope and healing drowned out by the chatter of cynicism and self-contempt. There is much about ministry that is not immediately satisfying, and a sense of vocation largely animated by the pursuit of self-fulfillment is all too easily snuffed out.
Even worse, there are some for whom the satisfaction of ministry comes too easily, to whom self-fulfillment comes cheaply and often at the expense of those they serve. As Augustine acknowledges in a letter to Bishop Valerius shortly after his ordination, “there is nothing in this life… more easy and pleasant and acceptable than the office of a bishop or priest or deacon, if its duties are discharged in a mechanical and sycophantic way, but nothing more worthless and deplorable and worthy of chastisement in the sight of God.” It is certainly possible to derive personal benefit from one’s ministry. The priesthood can be an effective means of satisfying one’s ego. This is true, not only for those celebrity pastors that populate our newsfeeds, but for all who prioritize the praise and adoration of their congregations. The priesthood can also be a means of meeting one’s own “spiritual” needs, rather than the needs of those one is called to serve. In either case, the recipients of our ministry become instrumental to our own strivings for personal fulfilment. Faithfulness to God becomes secondary; faithfulness to oneself becomes all-consuming.
Augustine, Gregory, and John may have erred in shirking the priesthood in pursuit of self-fulfillment. As Pope Gregory the Great warns, reflecting on his own reluctance to accept the office of a bishop, those who refuse a ministry to which they are called and equipped “are guilty in proportion to the public service which they were able to afford” (Pastoral Rule, I.5). But we err just as seriously if we pursue the priesthood as a means of self-fulfillment. Ministry is always a sacrifice — the sacrifice of one’s time, talents, and aspirations for the edification of the Church and the salvation of the world. In this sense, ordained ministry is a public sign of the vocation of all disciples, the dying to oneself for the glorification of God in the service of others. But here, in ordination as in baptism, we discover the paradox at the heart of the gospel: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). Those who go into ministry to find themselves will likely lose their way; but those who do so for Christ’s sake will find him, and in finding Christ they will indeed discover their truest selves.
The Rev. Dr. Jordan Hillebert is director of formation and tutor of theology at St. Padarn’s Institute (Cardiff, Wales).