A PRIEST FOREVER? REFLECTIONS ON A BITTERSWEET ANNIVERSARY by Giacomo Sanfilippo

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Grant, O Lord, that I write from a place of inner peace.

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I learned many years ago that I have no control over what people say and think about me. Like a man standing at the edge of a field consumed by wildfire, I watched in despair and powerlessness to do anything to stop it. The field that was destroyed was my life and reputation.

The inferno sprang up from a highly combustible mixture of lies, half-truths, whispered innuendos, wordless sniffles and raised eyebrows, outright fabrications.

Now, it’s magnified all the more by advances in social media unimaginable a short generation ago.

Then and now, those who conspired to pour the kerosene, light the match, fan the flames, are my own brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Church. Never outside of the Church have I been treated as I am inside the Church. The most peaceful period of my adult life covered the four years recently—from 2008 to 2012—when my faith had collapsed so completely that I called myself an atheist.

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Today is the 30th anniversary of my ordination to the holy priesthood. On May 21, 1988—the Feast of SS. Constantine and Helen—I was almost 33 years old. I set out that morning for the short stroll across St. Vladimir’s Seminary campus from my family’s apartment to the chapel. In the cool morning air my lips whispered of their own accord, “Thirty-three. The age of the crucifixion. I go to be crucified with Christ.” Yet little could I guess the agony that my unworthy share in His priesthood would eventually bring down upon my head. Thirty years later, and sixteen years after my deposal for reasons entirely unclear, it never leaves me.

During a man’s ordination he kneels at the southwest corner of the altar table, his hands crossed on the edge of the holy table and his head bowed. The ordaining hierarch whispers words of encouragement and exhortation for the ordinand’s ears alone. I did not hear a word that Metropolitan Theodosius said because I was sobbing. I continued to sob as His Beatitude laid his hands upon my head and pronounced the mystical words: The grace divine, which always heals what is infirm and completes what is lacking…. I must have looked a wreck, my face streaked with tears, when he helped me to my feet and began vesting me. Axios! Axios! Axios!

Only, I knew that I wasn’t “axios” at all. I stood there a new priest only by the inscrutable will, goodness, and mercy of God.

I later learned that my father, standing in the congregation with my wife, three children, two brothers, and best friend from high school, was sobbing too. I must have been only 6 when I first told him and my mother that God was calling me to be a priest.

Outside the chapel after the Liturgy, a classmate approached me for a blessing. “What are your first thoughts, just minutes into your priesthood?” he asked me cheerily. I replied, “How little I know.”

For the next seven years, my whole body trembled inwardly with dread each time I whispered the prayer, No one who is bound with the desires and pleasures of the flesh is worthy to approach, or draw near, or to serve Thee, O King of glory…. How dare I stand there? How dare I go on?

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May 21 was the Saturday after Ascension that year. On Monday of the Holy Spirit I was scheduled to serve the Divine Liturgy in the seminary chapel as the only priest. I had with me a newly ordained deacon. I asked him if he had any questions, and reassured him that all would go well with God’s help. The priests on the faculty stationed themselves nearby to leap into the altar in case of disaster.

Disaster never came. When all was finished, the final blessing given and the hand cross venerated by the last worshipper, Father John Meyendorff burst through the south deacon’s door as I closed the central Holy Doors. My God! he exclaimed. What just happened? I froze, but then he completed his thought: You serve as if you have always been a priest! 

Father Paul Lazor waited for me in the nave as I unvested. “In most cases,” he stated in his usual calm voice, “ordination makes a man a priest. Yet in some cases it reveals him as the priest that he has always been. Your ordination has not made you a priest, but revealed you as a priest.”

About six years earlier, when I was 26 or 27 and newly married, I attended a talk by Mother Barbara (Johnson) at Our Lady of Kazan Church in San Diego. Before I left I approached her with hands cupped together: “Mother, bless!” She blessed me, I kissed her hand, I raised my head, our eyes met: You must become a priest, she nearly commanded. You have fire in your eyes. 

To this day, random people ask me if I’m a priest. It’s very painful. I don’t know what they “see.” I see only the first among sinners. 

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Two months after my ordination my younger maternal aunt—young enough to be my older sister—phoned from Los Angeles to tell me that Gramma was dying, and that I had better come now if I wanted to see her alive. Later that day I said to a fellow seminarian, a young man from Greece, that I was going to California to prepare my 75-year old grandmother for her death. “What!” he asked indignantly. “If I had the power of the priesthood I would go there and fight for her life!” I was shaken to the core. Father Lazor allowed me to borrow a travel kit to administer both Holy Communion and Holy Anointing. For whatever reasons, my aunt and grandmother had not formed an attachment to any particular parish when they moved from San Diego to Los Angeles.

Irene took me straight from the airport to the hospital. Gramma lay in a coma. I put on my epitrachelion over my cassock and began reading prayers in Slavonic and English. I laid the epitrachelion over her head with trepidation—my own grandmother!—and read the prayer of absolution. I placed the tiniest possible morsel of Holy Communion on her tongue and prayed that she would swallow it. She did. Presviataia Bohoroditse, spasi nas! I said. Most-Holy Theotokos, save us! Before I could continue with “More honourable than the cherubim,” Gramma—without opening her eyes, without regaining consciousness—repeated in a perfectly clear voice, Presviataia Bohoroditse, spasi nas! 

Her condition quickly worsened. I gave her Holy Communion and read prayers over her every day. Two days before I was scheduled to leave, liver failure set in. The doctors gave her mere days to live. On the last day that I saw her, I quietly served the entire Service of Anointing at her bedside, with no omissions, as Irene stood praying opposite me and doctors and nurses came and went. When all was finished, I bent down to kiss Gramma good-bye forever. My body shook, my tears fell on her face. Not for a second had she regained consciousness or acknowledged me in the nine days that I had been there.

The next morning, I flew back to New York to await the inevitable. The day after that, the phone rang. My wife picked it up and her face went white: “It’s Irene.” My hand trembled as I took the phone. Irene’s voice was unexpectedly cheerful: “I have someone here who wants to talk to you.” “Um, okay,” I said. Then “someone” got on the phone: “Peter! It’s Gramma! I feel better than I have in years!” 

She went on to live ten more years.

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As was (and perhaps still is) the practice at St. Vladimir’s, someone is selected for ordination on Commencement Day at the end of his second year, for the specific purpose of being assigned to the Orthodox chapel at the US Military Academy at West Point during the final year of his MDiv. The drive from Crestwood across the Tappan Zee Bridge and up the western side of the Hudson River must surely be one of the most beautiful pieces of God’s whole creation. I loved my tiny congregation of cadets. They seemed to love me in return.

There was also a tiny congregation at Bird Coler Hospital, a kind of residential hospital on Roosevelt Island where people went to spend the rest of their life. A small committee of seminarians organized a monthly Saturday Liturgy there, but finding an available priest was sometimes a challenge for them. They gratefully accepted my offer to go with them every month. Our entire congregation there was severely disabled in one way or another. My two eldest children accompanied us every month, 6 and 7 years of age, one to serve with me in the altar and the other to sing with the seminarians. My kids and I have never forgotten Catherine, our favourite, the most disabled of them all as she listed sideways over the arm of her wheelchair. She died later that year. May her memory be eternal.

My wife worked in accounts for a group of neurosurgeons in White Plains. When she realized that one of their hospital patients had come from Greece for his surgery, she told the wife that she was married to a priest. So I saw him and his wife once a week on the return drive from West Point, along with his Catholic roommate and his wife.

Thus passed the first year of my priesthood as I finished up my theological studies.

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We spent the next six years in places that most of you have never heard of: one year in Assiniboia and Flintoft, Saskatchewan; two years in a circuit of rural churches in Lennard, Shell Valley, and Blue Wing, Manitoba, and MacNutt and Canora, Saskatchewan; and three years in Roblin, Manitoba. I served under the omophorion of Bishop Nathaniel (Popp) for the first three years, and of Bishop Seraphim (Storheim) for the next three years. All but my last parish were close to a hundred years old. My parishioners were the children (in their 80s and 90s), grandchildren (around my parents’ age), great-grandchildren (around my age), and great-great-grandchildren (around my kids’ age) of the original Romanian pioneers and homesteaders in the area.

The Lennard church stands on three acres of land in the middle of absolute nowhere. You will not find Lennard on a map. (You might find Inglis, about four miles south, on a good map.) The driveway is lined with pines that were planted as baby trees in 1935 to honour the visit of Bishop Policarp (Moruşca) from Romania. There is the house in which we lived, the current 1950s church, the 1908 church (now a provincial museum), the cemetery, and a Romanian pioneer house that was moved there from the next quarter-section and renovated as a museum after we left.

I have pondered death and been drawn to cemeteries since my earliest childhood memories. I had never had a cemetery in my own back yard, though. Here is buried Archimandrite Glicherie (Popa), the priest who was there when people my parents’ age were getting married and people my age were getting baptized. He lies in a specially designed grave, apart from the others in a cluster of pines.

In the southeast corner of the cemetery, beneath evergreens whose twisted roots have made the ground rough and uneven, there are ten primitive, handmade and hand-inscribed gravestones leaning this way and that amongst the roots. Between 1910 and 1922, a poor mother lost ten children. Some died the day they were born. Others lived to be two and three, when a mother too acquainted with grief must surely think, “Thanks be to God, this one is going to make it!” I knelt on the ground in my cassock and wept. How does a woman not lose her mind? How can a person endure so much sorrow in one lifetime? By what inner reservoir of strength and faith does one go on living?

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One of the greatest blessings of my life was to exercise a hidden priesthood in that hidden land—far away from culture wars and blogs and counter-blogs and counter-counter-blogs, Facebook groups and counter-groups and counter-counter-groups, tweets and counter-tweets and counter-counter-tweets—where no one ever heard of “liberals” and “conservatives,” “progressives” and “traditionalists,” and no one ever called each other a heretic.

There in the hiddenness of the prairies and woods and gravel roads and nonexistent “towns” (this flagpole marks where the school used to stand, that house used to be the post office, there used to be a family on every quarter-section and you could go outside at nighttime and see lights flickering in every direction), God granted me in my unworthiness to be the pastor of some living saints amongst us sinners—or shall I say, He granted me to be pastored by them—mostly old women, but a couple of old men too, peasant stock who taught me far more in their illiteracy about loving Christ and neighbour, and about repentance, than I ever  hoped to impart to them with all my theological book learning. At the mere mention of the name of Christ their eyes shone with a bottomless light. Even as they kissed my hand I wanted to make a prostration and kiss their feet.

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Simple people whose very lives seem to be carved from the rock of sorrow pour their heart out to the young new priest about things that happened 30, 50, 70 years ago. Tears flow as if these things had occurred only yesterday. The man who backed his tractor over his 2-year old son who had tripped and fallen, crushing his skull. The couple who skipped Liturgy on the Transfiguration to get some farm work done, and God “punished” them (I could not convince them otherwise) by drowning their twin sons in the dugout. The man who set fire to an unused farm structure, not knowing that his son was playing inside. The old woman who, as a young girl, lost control of the pony pulling her cart, and ran over and killed her deaf sister who was looking the other way. The ten children at the kitchen table whose mother put a gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger in front of them. The lonely, alcoholic priest who begged one of the men of the parish to shoot him. The woman who lost her young husband when he was pitching hay, the horse twitched, and he fell off the back of the wagon and struck a rock with his tailbone. The man whose car got bogged down in a blizzard, and when he got out to go for help he tripped and fell in the snow and froze to death. The woman who went 70 years not daring to confess her coat hanger abortion to any priest.

These are times when a priest can offer no more than his tears and his wordless presence.

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There were occasionally other healings due to Holy Communion and Holy Anointing, or even simply Holy Water. The woman in her 60s whose Parkinson’s was not only arrested for a time, but partially reversed, so that she went from doing nothing to doing housework and laundry and using the rider mower. The asthmatic child who stopped needing his inhaler. The unbaptized woman, flat on her back, paralyzed with back pain, who rose up after being anointed with Holy Water, cleaned her house, and went back to work on the hospital’s housekeeping staff.  

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Bunică lay dying in her little house in the woods. (She was everyone’s bunică.) She was close to 100 years old. The house was full to standing room only with several generations of her children, children’s children, children’s children’s children, children’s children’s children’s children, when I arrived. She smiled when I leaned over her bed in the living room to kiss her. The family quieted down for the Prayers at the Departure of the Soul from the Body, but went back to talking when I sat beside Bunică to hold her hand and whisper in her ear from the Psalter.

I did not want her to depart without a clear assurance of the resurrection. As I glanced around the houseful of people who had all, every one of them, left the Orthodox Church when they grew up, or had been raised by those who had left, I asked not very hopefully, “Do any of you remember how to sing Hristos a înviat?” They looked around at each other, muttered, nodded, turned to me: “Yeah, we think we can do it.”

I stood, made the sign of the cross, and started to sing. Instantaneously every voice in the house joined with me at the tops of their lungs in flawless 4-part harmony. The house itself shook. I’m sure all the angels and archangels in heaven were singing with us. Bunică too sang with us, her eyes closed in rapture, her very body appearing to glow a little bit. Every face in the house was awash with tears. 

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After seven and a half years a priest, I began to lose everything. My wife, six months pregnant with our fifth child, asked for a separation. The bishop suspended me over the phone when I called to inform him. My wife divorced me four years later. The bishop arranged to have me deposed by the Holy Synod three years after the divorce.

So I served as a priest only from 1988 to 1995, was suspended from 1995 to 2002, and was deposed in April 2002.

If you ask why these things happened to me, the answer is clear: Because of my sins. 

Yet the bishop who suspended me and had me deposed has begged for my forgiveness. He has stated his wish that my deposal be reversed. Unfortunately he is in no position to make this happen or to advocate formally for it. As recently as 2016, one of the priests who sat on my spiritual court in July 2001 offered to testify to the irregular conduct of the court and to advocate for my reinstatement.

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For three years after my wife separated from me I remained chaste, as I had through my marriage, because I thought we were getting back together: I did not want to have to confess to her that I had strayed during our time apart. Yet when it became obvious that there was no hope of reconciliation, and my suspension from the priesthood continued to drag on interminably, then yes, I began to fall into intermittent episodes of immorality and promiscuity, followed by confession and repentance, followed by another fall, followed again by confession and repentance. This is the pattern of a man in despair who has become completely unmoored from the double anchor of marriage and priesthood, which previously had kept me spiritually, morally, and ascetically grounded.

In June 2002, three years after the divorce and two months after my deposal, I entered into a same-sex relationship. A committed, monogamous same-sex relationship—I learned through experience—provides the same spiritual and moral anchor as opposite-sex marriage.

This relationship ended in May 2005. Again the pattern of promiscuity and repentance, promiscuity and repentance, promiscuity and repentance, until the summer of 2012. Since then I have not been with anyone of any gender.  

I’m an aging, unattractive, overweight, and dreadfully lonely man who wonders every day how to make it from today to tomorrow. Life—even, or especially, life in Christ—has meaning only when it’s shared.

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In the spring of 2013 I appealed to the Holy Synod of the OCA to reinstate me to the priesthood, tonsure me a monk, and allow me to continue in my studies in Toronto. I envisioned a life of scholarship, helping out as assistant priest in some parish, and ministering on the streets to the homeless, the hungry, the LGBTQ kids tossed out by their families like so much trash, the youth sex workers who have no one to care for them—a male Mother Maria of Paris, if you will. The process dragged on with fits and starts for three years. Yet there seemed to be many signs that it was moving in a positive direction.

At the Fall 2016 meeting of the Holy Synod it was decided to reject my appeal.   

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My unsuccessful appeal to be reinstated made me realize one thing: I am still a priest. Just as it takes only a decision and a letter by the Holy Synod to depose a priest, it takes only a decision and a letter to reinstate him. The Orthodox Church may not have an explicit teaching on the “indelible character of the priesthood,” as the Catholic Church has, but the way in which we handle these cases shows that we believe it implicitly.

By the grace of God, I have remained all these years obedient to what I believe is the Holy Synod’s injustice. Three separate lawyers from three separate firms urged me to sue the OCA. I have been invited a dozen times to join this or that church as a priest. A Jesuit friend offered to facilitate my entry as a priest into the Roman Catholic Church. Yet the Gospel allows me to do none of these things. When people wish to keep calling me Father, I gently encourage them to obey the Church in this matter. The only concession that I allow myself is to bless my food as a priest does, but with a barely perceptible movement of the hand so as not to draw attention to myself. 

Like the young monk in the desert who left behind his unfinished omicron to do his abba’s bidding, I have striven to leave behind my unfinished priesthood in the same spirit of detachment—and I largely fail every day.

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Thou art a priest forever….

Since “Conjugal Friendship” appeared on Public Orthodoxy a year ago, followed by the launch of Orthodoxy in Dialogue three months later, over a dozen people have sought me out “by night,” as it were: gay people, transgender people, the parents of gay and transgender people, a monk losing the battle with carnal temptation. They email, or they approach me on Facebook in private messenger. Why do they come to me? If you think that I “promote” promiscuity or immorality, you haven’t paid attention to a word that I have written over the past year.

They come to me because they don’t trust a single priest to welcome them into his heart, to listen to them deeply without rushing to correct and condemn, to accompany them on their path to God. They tell me that somehow, out of the abyss of my own sinfulness and unworthiness, I give them hope where they have found none.

One gay Orthodox man wrote to me: The only way that I survive from day to day is by pretending that God loves me.

By pretending! I wept when I read that.  

It is partly for such as these that I remain in the Orthodox Church, despite the unbearable weight of hatred and scorn that my fathers, brothers, and sisters in Christ heap on me every day. If I leave, who will give them hope? Who will speak for them? Who will place himself in your cross-hairs every day on their behalf? God has laid on my shoulders a kind of priesthood even more hidden than the one in the woods of Manitoba: how dare I say no?

But there is even a more fundamental reason why I don’t leave the Orthodox Church: Where would I go? Where would I find the words of eternal life? Where would I be saved?

You who hate me, you who despise me, you who tell lies about me, you who continue to tear my reputation to shreds far and wide, yours are the typing hands that I should wish to kiss on my deathbed, for you it is who will save me, if anyone can, by grinding me down to nothing.

If any have sinned against me, with God’s help I forgive them all, even seven times seventy times.

If I have sinned against you, I beg for your forgiveness and your prayers.

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