ORTHODOX PRIESTS, PATRIARCHS AND MONKS

ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN ORGANIZATION


Orthodox priest in Greece

The churches that make up Eastern Orthodoxy are autonomous, or self-governing. The highest church official is the patriarch. Matters relating to faith are decided by ecumenical councils in which all member churches of Eastern Orthodoxy participate. Followers of the church regard the councils' decisions as infallible. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]

The Orthodox church is divided into 15 autocephalous (self-headed) Orthodox churches, such as the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church, each of whom is led by it own Patriarch. The Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul (Constantinople), "the first among equals," presides over the sects.

Each church is independent from the others. They are bound by the same beliefs and same type of worship. Of the 15, five date back to the time of the Byzantine Empire (ones based in Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Cyprus). Six other are in nations that have a majority Orthodox population (Russia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia and Greece). Three others are in countries with a minority Orthodox population (Albania, Poland and the Czech Republic). The Monastery at Sinai has been considered independent since ancient times. There is some dispute as to whether the Orthodox churches of America, Estonia and Macedonia should be regarded as self-headed Orthodox churches.

The Orthodox Christian hierarchy from bottom to top: priests, bishops, and the Patriarch. The bishops have different names such as Patriarch, Catholcos. Metropolitan, Archbishop and Exarch. These name generally reflect seniority, experience and honors. Otherwise they are regarded as equal and their functions are the same.. Bishops in council have authority in doctrine and policy. Synods of bishops elect the patriarch, archbishops or metropolitans.

Each church is divided into diocese governed by a bishop. The diocese are divided into parishes. A priest, or sometimes several priests, assisted by deacons, are in charge of each parish.

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Christian Denominations: Christianity.com christianity.com/church/denominations ; Christianity Comparison Charts religionfacts.com ; Difference between Christian Denominations Quoracom ; Holy See w2.vatican.va ; Catholic Online catholic.org ; Catholic Encyclopedia newadvent.org ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches oikoumene.org ; Wikipedia article on Protestantism Wikipedia ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org ; Nihov's Worldwide Coptic Directory directory.nihov.org

Priests, Bishops and Laymen in the Orthodox Church


Orthodox bishop in the Ukraine

Greek Orthodox priests typically wear black robes and flat-topped hats have beards in accordance the Biblical scripture: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” (Leviticus 19:27). According to the BBC: “Although the Church is a self-governing community the Church recognises the diaconate, the presbyterate or priesthood and the episcopate (bishops). [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

“The Bishops in the Orthodox Church are considered to be the direct successors of the original Apostles and they are very much a unifying focus in the Church. Priests in the Orthodox Church are permitted to be married but may not marry after ordination. Bishops must always be celibate. Orthodox priests normally do not shave their beards, in accordance with the Bible. |::|

Orthodox priests give communion and carry out ceremonial duties, but otherwise they are regarded as equals of lay-people and often work closely with the laity to further church goals. The laity is very active in the Orthodox church. They perform educational, philanthropic and missionary work. Any confirmed person can be a teacher. Many of the best-known Orthodox theologians and missionaries have been laymen. Laymen can take part as selected representatives at church councils on the national, diocesan and parochial level.

The primary duty of a Orthodox Christian bishop is to ordain priests. A bishop is a priest. Bishops are celibate but Orthodox priests don't necessarily have to be. Any man can become a priest provided he not been married twice. Widowers and divorcees can become priests.

Orthodox Christian priests, bishops and Patriarchs generally have long beards and wear elaborate robes, often decorated with sophisticated designs made with gold and silver thread. The degree of elaborateness is often an indication of rank, with Patriarchs wearing the most elaborate robe of all. Priests in the Greek Orthodox Church wear red cloaks embroidered with gold thread. Greek bishops wear heavy golden crowns and gold vestments. Russian Orthodox priests wear long black robes and elaborate headpieces.

The process of ordination in the Orthodox church begins with a nomination by a local congregation and ends with the formal laying of hands by a bishop in the name of the Church Universal. In the ordination ceremony, a candidate is brought before the congregation assembled to authorize the ordination. After formal approval is granted by the laity, the bishop lays his hands on the candidate and invokes divine help. The united prayers of the whole church are necessary to fulfil this sacrament.

Orthodox Christian Patriarchs


US President Obama meeting with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I

The patriarch is the head of an independent Orthodox Church, such as the Russian Orthodox Church. There are 15 Orthodox Patriarchs. The main patriarchs are in Istanbul, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria (all of which have relatively small memberships).

The Patriarchs and the clergy are not regarded as authorities in their own right but rather as people who oversee doctrine recognized as the truth by all the faithful. Unlike the Catholic church which is headed by a single infallible pope, the Orthodox church spreads its authority around. In an important address on authority in 1848 four leading Orthodox Patriarch declared that the guardian of truth in the Church was not a single leader, or the clergy not the entire body of faithful. Orthodox Christians believe that he Holy Spirit is infallible not the Pope and it guides every follower directly.

The Ecumenical Patriarch, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, resides in Istanbul as his predecessors have since the year A.D. 787. The position has been held since 1991 by Patriarch Bartholomew, a Ukrainian. Primates of the 15 churches met in 1995, It was the first time all the patriarchs had met since the Middle Ages.

Patriarch Bartholemew made a name for himself as a peacemaker and a globetrotter. He has visited patriarchs in Alexandria, Antioch, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Greece, Georgia and Bulgaria. He met with Pope John Paul II and the leader of the Anglican Church. In February 1994 he hosted a multi-religious meeting with Christians, Muslims and Jews to discuss the role of spirituality in a world he said had "so many vacuums and so many people in despair."∈

Orthodox Christian Patriarch and Turkey

Istanbul is the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch even though only a few thousand Orthodox Christians remain in Turkey. The Turkish government has a say in the selection of the patriarch and insist that the patriarch and all 12 members of his holy synod be drawn form Turkey’s very small ethnic Greek minority. As of 1997 there were only 19 bishops remaining with Turkish citizenship. Many were in their 70s.

Normally Turkish authorities—who have traditionally held veto power over the Patriarch's selection—have insisted that the Patriarch be a Turkish citizen drawn from the Greek minority living in Istanbul. But the fact that the Turks raised no objections to an outsider (Patriarch Bartholemew ) in 1991 may have something to do with the fact that the Greek community in Istanbul has shrunk from 150,000 a century ago to 5,000 today.∈

A European diplomat once said, "The Turks kind of like having the patriarchate around as an advertisement of their religious tolerance." However Turkish nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists have threw rocks at the patriarchate and desecrated Orthodox tombs in the 1990s in response to attacks by Orthodox Serbians on Muslims in Bosnia.∈

Embalming the Orthodox Patriarch


Patriarch Kyrion II of Georgia

Describing the embalming of the Patriarch, Charles Lewis Meryon wrote from Lebanon in 1815, "What was my surprise...to see the dead patriarch sitting in a chair, with a crosier in his left hand and the New Testament in his right, whilst the incense pan smoked by his side. Prostrate, before and around him, were men and women, some of whom religiously approached the corpse, plucking a hair from the beard, or kissed the hand."

"It is customary for the Greek Catholic Church to embalm its patriarchs: and this is generally done by priests: but...little or no care was used by the priest” so “Ivolunteered my services, which were accepted....The copse was immediately carried into a vault or cellar near the door of the church...I opened the body, I removed each viscus, one by one, observing the external phenomena only...The contents of the abdomen and chest being removed, I rubbed in the powdered ingredients over the interior surface of the cavities just as some salt down meat. Then, stuffing the whole with bran, I sewed up the body with the usual stitch...I took out the brains and filled the skull with powdered drugs...The body was afterwards washed as clean as I could do it."

"They now dressed the corpse in a pair of drawers, a kombáz (or gown) of white silk, with gold tinsel running through it; a silk band or cape, in the shape of a horseshoe, which came over the shoulders from behind and reached the ground...The miter was then placed on his head and the body being tied in armchair to keep it erect was carried in the church, which was lighted for the mass of the dead."

Orthodox Theological Institutions

Heybeli Island (a short ferry ride from Istanbul) is the home of the Halki Theological University, one of the most important religious centers in the world. Every ecumenical patriarch and generations of Orthodox clergy were educated for more than a thousand years until 1971, when it was closed by a military government concerned that the patriarch might try to open a Vatican-like Orthodox state in Istanbul.

Chalki embraces a monastery, small chapel and richly-stocked library. It is currently deserted and watched over by a caretakers who polish the marble floors and arrange the latest scholarly journals in the library and clean the dormitories. The failure to reopen the school is regarded as an obstacle to training future patriarchs. Orthodox leaders and U.S. presidents have pleaded that it be reopened. But these pleas have been ignored. Many clerics are now training in the theological department at University of Salonica in Greece.

Monasteries and convents were opened on the island early in the Byzantine era. In the 6th century ousted Byzantine emperors and empresses were exiled here. The Holy Trinity monastery and school was established in the 9th century. The current theological school was built in 1844. The current Patriarch was trained here and makes regular visits.

Orthodox Christian Monks and Nuns


Mount Athos monk from the 1850s

Orthodox Christian church places a heavy emphasis on monasticism. The strict life of a monk or nun is seen as an important expression of faith. Orthodox monks and nuns are individuals who have chosen a life of celibacy, poverty and obedience and have made the decision to dedicate themselves entirely to prayer and the service of the Church. There are no orders of monks in the Orthodox church but rather different communities specialized in different kinds of work.

Most Orthodox monks and nuns are laymen and laywomen. Only a few are ordained priests or deacons. Monasteries and convents also serve as places that any member of the community can go to to retreat from everyday life and/or receive some kind of training or spiritual help. Worship in the Orthodox church has been molded by Orthodox monks, particularly those of Mount Athos. The Matins or Vespers that are chanted today are not that different than those chanted by monks centuries ago.

Orthodox monks are often tall, stern and imposing-looking men with long beards and long hair. They dress in black robes with heavy silver crosses that hang from chains that reach their stomach. Orthodox church nuns resemble veiled Islamic women more than they do Catholic nuns.

According to the BBC: “Monasticism is a central part of the Orthodox faith. Mount Athos in north-eastern Greece is described as the centre of Orthodox monasticism. It is the only place in Greece completely dedicated to prayer and worship of God. For this reason, it is called the Holy Mountain. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

“Most monasteries are coenobitic: living a communal life. The peninsula is divided into twenty self-governed territories. Each territory consists of a major monastery and some other monastic establishments that surround it (cloisters, cells, cottages, seats, hermitages). For monk and nun alike, their spiritual life should follow the same way of living that all Christians try to achieve by following God's commandants. While not being against marriage, it is generally accepted that celibacy in the Church allows for a closer understanding of the Christian life away from worldly things. |::|

Orthodox Christian Monastery Life

Most Greek Orthodox monasteries follow the Byzantine system of time that begins the day at sunset. The day starts with four hours of solitary prayer which is followed by four hours of communal prayer. The monks then have a meal which usually consists of tea and bread after which they sleep for a while. Even when the monks are performing their daytime tasks they are usually chanting prayers of repentance. The strictest monasteries allow monks no personal property or free time.

Most Orthodox Christian monasteries don't allow women to set foor ub them. Some Greek Orthodox monks opt to live in caves and spartan huts instead of monasteries. It is not unusual for monks to live 50 years without seeing anyone.

Greek Orthodox monastery worship is highly ritualized. Monks bow, prostrate themselves and go to different places in the church to kiss icons in a prescribed order. They out and snuff out candles, swing smoking censers and read and sing pages from the bible in a call and response fashion, sometimes moaning their sacred prayers.

The Greek Orthodox monks are sometimes called the Marines of the Christianity. One slip up and they let you know it. Orthodox ceremonies are long and every action carefully prescribed. Kiss the icons in the wrong order. "Hhhisssssss." Shift you position and clasp your hands the wrong way. Another correcting hiss from a carefully monitoring monk.

Mount Athos


Mount Athos monastery

Mount Athos (100 miles southeast of Thessaloniki, Greece) is considered the spiritual center of the eastern Orthodox religion. Described as "the only Byzantine monument in the world," it is a 223-square-mile semi-autonomous state encompassing a sprawling complex of 20 sovereign Orthodox monasteries, smaller dependencies called sketes with hundred of smaller houses and a few dozen hermit caves reached by dizzying pathways and chain ladders pegged into cliff faces. [Source: Nicholas Basbanes, Smithsonian magazine]

Named after a mythological giant, who threw a massive stone of Poseidon, Mount Athos is located on Holy Mountain (Agion Oros), which in turn lies at the easternmost of three promontories at end of the Chaulkidiki Peninsula. A series of rugged peaks that jut out 35 miles into the Aegean Sea, Holy Mountain beings at the port city of Ourananoupolis (City of Heaven) and comprises many peaks, valleys and ravines before climaxing at Mount Athos itself, a limestone and marble mountain that drops dramatically from its summit into the sea.

The most spectacularly placed monetary is Simonopetra which towers 800 feet above the sea. The oldest buildings are fortress-like structures with arsenals and defensive towers. They were built to fend off attacks by pirates, Crusaders, Saracens, and Ottoman Turks. The largest monastery is Great Lavra. Vatoped once housed 800 monks but now only has around 80 men living there.

Other important monasteries include Iviron, Docheiariou, Xenophontos and Saint Panteleimon, each with imposing bastions built near the shore. The only Russian Orthodox monastery at Mount Athos, Panteleiom once housed 1,000 monks. In the 1990s there were only 30 fulltime monks. Bulgarians have their own monastery: Zographou. The Serbs have their own as well: Chelandari.

Mount Athos Treasures


icon from Iveron monastery

The monasteries at Mount Athos are home to the richest concentration of Byzantine material in the world and some of the rarest and most valuable Christian artworks and relics. Frescoes cover 300,000 square feet of wall space and mosaics cover altars and interior walls. [Source: Nicholas Basbanes, Smithsonian magazine]

The monasteries are a living museum of Byzantine culture. In the library, which is used everyday, are 15,000 manuscripts, many of which predate the middle ages. On the walls of rooms used everyday are 12th century frescoes and mosaics.

Many of the objects were brought to Mount Athos by monks fleeing Byzantine enclaves conquered by Muslims and Europeans. Relics include fragments of what are believed to be the True Cross, parts of Christ's crown of thorns and a cloth dropped by the Virgin Mary at Cavalry.

Other treasures include 20,000 icons (many with gold backgrounds), scrolls, wood carvings, holy medallions, jewel-encrusted reliquaries, intricately-carved pendants, candlesticks, psalters, jeweled votives, silver chalices, crosses, embroideries, gold vestments. Many of the items are uncataloged and have never been seen by anyone but the monks at Mount Athos.

In 1997, treasures from Mount Athos, including ordinary objects like a travelers trunk full of medicine, inkstands, and an oak barrel capable of holing more than 11 gallons of wine, were displayed at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Salonika. More than a half million people went the exhibit, which was so popular it was extended.

Monks at Mount Athos

Mount Athos is the only existing monastic state in Europe. It is an all-male theocracy ruled by an assembly of monks who work with a civil governor who answers to the Greek foreign ministry. Two flags fly at Mount Athos: the Greek flag and a yellow banner imprinted with the two-headed Byzantine eagle. [Source: Nicholas Basbanes, Smithsonian magazine]

About 2000 or so monks live on Mount Athos more or less the same way their brethren did 1,000 years ago when the first monasteries were founded. There are fewer monks than there once was. At its peak, Mount Athos was home to 40,000 monks and through much of the 19th century 20,000 monks lived there. By 1903, 7,322 monks lived there. By 1970, the number had dropped to 1,145, many of them old men. In the 1980s and 90s there was renewed interest and many new monks were recruited, many from eastern Europe.


Athos monks

Mount Athos is viewed as a "heaven on earth" that is not part of the ordinary world. Monks are given a new name and discouraged from talking about their past. One monk told Smithsonian magazine, "On Mount Athos, men are not born; here they die. They pray and die, but the preparation for death, like death itself, is full of life."

Monks at Mount Athos still follow the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian one, and their day begins at sunset. The monks spend much of their day in communal prayer and private meditation. Some of them even pray before neatly arranged rows of skulls of their departed brethren.

The monasteries tightly control every aspect of their members lives. The monks, who are part of all-male communities described as cenobotic, usually wake up around 3:00am and chant and pray in front of candles until breakfast, which is before dawn. After breakfast there is more praying and performing duties and chores such as fishing, collecting firewood, tending gardens, cooking, restoring paintings and working at the library. Meals usually consist of braised vegetables, unleavened bread, tomatoes, fruit, feta cheese, black olives, beans, spring water and a few sips of red wine.

Describing the monks in prayer, Nicholas Basbanes wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "Bearded men in black robes moved deliberately about their rituals, chanting hymns from sacred texts, kissing icons, venerating cherished relics, burning incense, crossing themselves repeatedly, all while praying for the salvation of humanity and the safe deliverance of their souls."

The rules and lifestyle are less strict than they once were. Monks are allowed to keep personal possessions and use modern tools like chainsaws. The monasteries have electricity, running water and personal computers. Land Rovers and Mercedes SUV are used instead of mules to haul materials. To pay for all this the monks sell lumber companies the right to cut timber on Mount Athos land. Laborers from Albania and Eastern Europe have been hired to help in the fields.

Mount Athos, Women and Visitors

No women are allowed on Mount Athos. Cruise boats with women can't even pass within 500 meters of the cliffs where the monasteries stand. Even female animals are forbidden (although exceptions have been for cats because they control the snake and rodent population). There have been no women on Mt. Athos since 1045 when they were barred by Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachus IX , who banned any "woman, child, eunuch or smooth face" from the Mount Athos headland. and decreed that only woman allowed on Mount Athos was the Virgin Mary. [Source: Nicholas Basbanes, Smithsonian magazine]


The Virgin Mary purportedly landed at the site of the Iviron Monastery when she was on her way to visit Lazarus on Cyprus and her boat was blown off course. Monks are concerned that by accepting E.U. funds to restore their monastery they may be opening themselves up to gender laws that might require them to open up to women.

Mount Athos is a self governing republic and admission is tightly controlled. The monks are busy and generally they are not fond of showing tourists and journalists around. Pilgrims however are welcome and about 35,000 of people under that title enter every year. Those wishing to enter the monasteries must apply for one the 110 "resident permits," which are issued each day. The permit entitles the pilgrim to a welcoming offering of cold water, a cube of sweet confection and a sip of an ouzo-like drink as well as two meals a day and a bed with clean sheets.

To get a permit you need to procure a letter of recommendation from the embassy of your country in Athens or a consulate in Thessaloniki then get a permit from Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Directorate of Churches, Academias 3, Athens; or the Ministry of Northern Greece, Platia Diikitirou, Thessalononiki. You'll need to take care of this way in advance because only a limited number of people are allowed into the monetary each day.

Mount Athos is connected to the Greek mainland by a narrow isthmus. But no roads traverse the isthmus and the only way to get the monasteries is by boat and by foot. Tour boats operate out of Ouranoupoli. To reach the monasteries themselves you have to travel by boat from Ouranoupoli for 1½ hours to the port of Daphni where you catch a bus to Kayes, the capital of the republic.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated September 2018

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