I am the Church.
This sentence may seem presumptuous for many, and I completely agree with them. Who would dare to say that he or she is the Church? Who has the authority to claim to represent the whole body of Christ? No one! However, I am not talking about the Church’s authority, but rather the Church’s opportunity to be present in one’s life.
I would like to reflect here on the priesthood and the life of the Church after the powerful lesson I received while visiting George (his name has been changed) at the hospital. He is dead now—may his memory be eternal—but I have kept in mind a private thought I had after one of my visits: “I am the Church.”
Let’s go back to the beginning. A couple of months ago, the church office received a call from the nearby hospital. A 40-year old Greek Orthodox man, George, was very sick and about to start chemotherapy and 24/7 dialysis. He had married less than a year earlier, no kids. He was often sleepy when I came to visit him, due to the painkillers he was prescribed and the fatigue of the treatment.
When you are a priest, you often pop up in people’s lives at a very crucial time, especially in time of sickness. I talked with George, prayed with him and for him. I brought him Holy Communion and Holy Unction. I talked with the family, got to know them, and saw the dynamic between the family members. I witnessed the love they all shared for George, and their anxiety. I saw their hopes and their despair. This is part of the mission of being a priest, no more, no less. It is all about caring, and especially showing up.
One day, between treatments, George was awake even though he was tired. At one point during our conversation, he asked his wife to come over to his bed, where I was already. He took her hand—he already had mine in his other hand—and said—I don’t remember his exact words, but here is their meaning: “What is most important in my life is Family and Church.” And at this exact moment, for George, while he was speaking these words from his hospital bed, I understood that in his mind I was the Church.
This was a powerful revelation that I have often reflected on since then.
When being a priest becomes a natural part of your identity, you do not fully realize how people see you, or what you represent for them. Understanding this humbles, rather than bringing vanity. I am well aware of the dangers of the possible abuses of this idea, of spiritual illusion and the temptations of authoritarianism and infallibility. These issues should be addressed.
My takeaway from this day is the clear realization of a priest’s mission, which is simply and crucially connected to one of the charisms of the Church by being the Church, not as an institution, but as an event, as a theophany in the etymological sense of the word: the manifestation of God in someone’s life that brings comfort and joy. The grace is already there, in our participation in Christ’s suffering. It needs to be unfolded, discovered, and even revealed. Our participation in the life of the Church helps us to discover the potential of God’s grace in our work, in our effort to be God’s co-workers! As St. Paul wrote: “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building” (1 Cor 3:9).
Beyond the priesthood, when Christian love and care unfold in the midst of tragedy, being the Church is to fulfil the duty of the “royal priesthood” (1 Pt 2:9), shared by all baptized people, and to inhabit the words of the Gospel. St. Matthew’s famous quote echoes this certainty: “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in: I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me” (Mt 25:34-36).
Then we ask ourselves: “When did that happen?” But we know the answer: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Mt 25:40).
What is interesting here is that Christ is present at both extremities of the spectrum: Christ is in the sick person for the visitor, and He can be the visitor for the one who is visited. The bond of love that in the moment of their meeting becomes identical to the communion that makes us the Church, the body of Christ in which the holy encounter between mankind and the divine continues the work of grace in today’s world. The encounter becomes a taste of the Kingdom. The encounter becomes a sacrament in itself, a prayer in which Christ’s presence makes us become the Church and glorify the Holy Trinity.
Surely George did not realize what was hidden behind this very ordinary conversation.
I felt I had to share this experience, not because I am/was the Church, but because we are the Church and we give her density, reality, and substance by embodying the divine commandment of Christ: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).
Protopresbyter Nicolas Kazarian holds a PhD from the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne with a dissertation entitled Cyprus, Geopolitics, and Minorities. He is a research associate at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris, where he heads up the Observatory on Geopolitics and Religions, and a visiting fellow at the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University. He serves as the parish priest at St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church in New York City. He and his wife Presbytera Lianna have two small children, a son and a daughter.