The "call" of the priest’s wife to share her husband's ministry
From A.:Papademetriou's "Presbytera" The Life, Mission, and Service of the Priest's Wife.
Ed. Somerset Hall Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2004.
Overview of the Chapter
This chapter describes the priest's wife's feeling that she was always part of God's Divine Plan to serve Him, which is part of her "call" to share her husband's ministry. It also discusses the sacramental bond between the priest and his wife, her consent to and participation in his ordination, her level of commitment to share his ministry, and titles for priests' wives.
The Sacrament Bonds between the Priest and His Wife
Two events in the life of a priest's wife stand out: her wedding day and the day of her husband's ordination. These two events in the Church form the sacramental bonds between the priest and his wife.
First, with the Sacrament of Marriage, the couple makes a commitment to each other for life. One fulfills the other: "Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman" (1 Cor 11:11). They also make an unconditional commitment to serve God for life. This commitment forms a triangle:
Second, with the Sacrament of Ordination, the priest is ready to serve God. The priest's wife is present to share his ministry after his ordination.
These sacramental bonds can help clergy couples live through difficult times. But sometimes, priests' wives forget that they are married to priests. Or they forget that they made a commitment, first to God and second to their husbands, to share in their husband's ministry. When things become difficult, some priests' wives feel that it is impossible to continue in their marriage or share their husband's ministry. Difficult days are like a rough sea, but the stormy waters will eventually calm down. Because God is part of the sacramental bonds holding the priest and his wife together, God will send the Holy Spirit to give them wisdom and strength to overcome the difficulties. They must be patient and keep looking up to God to ask for His help: "The Lord said, If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, 'Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you'" (Lk 17:6). God allows things to happen in our lives for reasons known only to Him. All we need to do is to pray and to say, "Let Thy will be done."
The Priest's Wife's Consent to and Participation in the Priest's Ordination
The priest's wife plays an important role in her husband’s ordination. First of all, she must consent in writing that she is willing for her husband to be ordained. As "one flesh" with her husband through the Sacrament of Marriage, she participates in spirit in his ordination.
Personally, I vividly recall my husband's ordination. On that special day, my husband's dream was to come true. I remember vividly the church full of people. Our parents, brothers, sisters, and friends were all there. I remember how tears were running from my eyes as I watched my husband go into the altar. As I heard the sacramental prayers of ordination, I felt that I was up there in spirit. All the faithful and our families were praying with tears in their eyes for my husband to be worthy of God’ s Grace. Then and there, I realized that I was in it, too. When Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America laid his hands on my husband, the Holy Spirit poured His Grace to cover him. I felt that a sparkle or glimpse of the Holy Spirit touched me as well.
In a moment, the church was filled with the shout, Axios! Axios! Axios! (worthy). My cry of Axios was there too, showing my approval and commitment to God and to my husband: I was there to be part of his ministry. In his new gold vestments, my husband looked like an angel. I will never forget that moment, and will treasure it until the last day of my life.
After his ordination, the priest can offer the Divine Liturgy. I remember the joy and blessing I felt to receive Holy Communion from my husband's hands when he offered his first Divine Liturgy. God honored me with his invitation to be a priest's wife. What a blessing! Only women who go through this experience can understand the special feeling and fulfillment.
As described above, the priest and his wife are doubly blessed by the two Sacraments of Marriage and Ordination. From then on, they are bound together. It is really true that the priest's wife is "part of the priest's cassock (raso)" to paraphrase the Greek saying. From then on, the difficult spiritual journey begins. The priest and his wife have to be prepared to support each other and walk hand in hand down the narrow road, having the Holy Spirit as their guide.
St. Cyril, a second century saint, depicted the Eucharistic table in an icon. A man's hand reaches for the bread, and a woman is standing and praying. They represent Christ and the Church. This icon can symbolize a married priest and his wife after his ordination. With deep love for God and each other, the two share the important responsibility of serving God and His people.
Late Call Priests and Converts
Certain women face special challenges in deciding to share their husbands' ministry. In some cases, their husbands may have chosen to follow the call to the priesthood later in life. Such women face major emotional changes in their established married and family lives. Changes in their careers will affect them financially. In other cases, women who have converted to the Orthodox faith may be particularly anxious about becoming priests' wives because they do not know what to expect in a parish. Some women fear that they will be faced with language challenges in bilingual parishes.
In facing these special challenges, a spiritual father can guide them and help them understand God's will. The couple needs to pray together to make the correct decision regarding the husband's ordination to the priesthood. After making their decision, they need to pray to God to give them strength to carry out this ministry effectively. The ministry is not a job that can be changed. Once a man is ordained, he is always a priest.
The Priest's Wife's Level of Commitment to Her Husband's Ministry
Today's priest's wife has many options with respect to how much time and energy to commit to her husband's ministry. She can be a full-time mother or homemaker. She can work full-time or part-time outside the home. She can be a volunteer member of various church committees and projects. If she is qualified, she can become professionally involved in the parish ministry. Or she can combine any of the above.
Her first priority is to her husband and children. Many mothers desire to stay home with young children, if the family can afford it financially. They give their children a sense of security. They have more time to spend with their children, teach them, answer their questions, and most importantly pray with them.
Holding a full-time position outside the home can be rewarding. Besides bringing extra income, it can be a place for a priest's wife to do something that she enjoys. When she works outside the home, there is obviously less time for her family and the parish family. It also affects her husband's schedule and the amount of time he can spend in the parish because he must budget his time to share more family responsibilities. If people know that the priest's wife works outside the home, they may have fewer expectations about her level of commitment to parish ministry. It is preferable, however, to keep a balance, support her husband, and keep her presence within the parish.
The priest's wife can evaluate her own talents, skills, and interests, and proceed accordingly. She can do what makes her happy and what works best for both her and her husband. No matter how she chooses to share her husband's ministry, however, it is important that she be happy with her decision and live with it.
Titles for Priests' Wives
Priests' wives are known by different titles in various Orthodox traditions and jurisdictions. Although the titles are different, they all acknowledge the special place of the priest's wife in the parish.
In the Greek Orthodox Church, the title of the priest's wife is presbytera (also spelled as presvytera in modern transliteration). According to His All
Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, "in our ecclesiastical tradition, [the priest's wife] is addressed as presbytera, the other half of the presbyteros (priest)."
The title of presbytera is found among ancient Christian writings, and had several different usages. One usage applied to a deaconess who assisted a priest in different tasks. In the early Church, a deaconess was an older Christian woman, usually widowed, who offered her service or diakonia (hence the more common title, "deaconess") to the Church. Her limited duties included keeping order in the church and helping adult women dress after emerging from the water during the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. She also visited sick women, as well as Christian women who were household members of pagan homes.
Nevertheless, the most common usage of this title was for the wife of the priest. In the Greek Orthodox Church, this is the current usage of the title of presbytera. In colloquial Greek, however, the priest's wife is referred to as papadia, which comes from papas, another word for priest.
In the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the priest's wife is called khouria. In the Albanian Orthodox Church, she is called priftereshia. In the Romanian Orthodox Church, she is called preoteasa.
In the Russian Orthodox Church, the priest's wife is called matushka, which means "little mother." How touching and appropriate this title is for the priest's wife who loves and cares for all of the people in her husband's parish!
Some priests' wives do not wish to be called by their title. They insist on being called by their given baptismal name. Perhaps they wish to be treated like any other woman in the parish. Her wishes ought to be respected, but many people ignore them. No matter how hard the priest's wife might try to tell people to call her by her first name; she is still the wife of the priest in their eyes.
For a newly ordained priest's wife, taking on her new title is symbolic of taking on her new life. From then on, few will call her by her baptismal name. It is funny to be in a gathering of priests' wives when someone calls out the title of the priest's wife, such as presbytera in Greek. All of the priests'wives will turn around, thinking the person is addressing her. This is how deeply this title is carved in the heart of every priest's wife.