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Athanasia Papadimitriou

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.

First Part

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 "Call" of the Priest's Wife

The word "call" as used in this chapter is in quotation marks to distinguish it from the priest's call. The "call" of the priest's wife has no theological basis, yet many priests' wives feel that something inspired them, often from a young age, to serve God. They might feel that they have always had a special relationship with God, and that they are part of God's Divine Plan (Theia Pronoia) to serve Him.

My own experience makes me feel that I had such a "call," and perhaps some priests' wives can recall similar feelings or experiences. As a young girl, I was drawn to the Church. I always feared and loved God deep down in my heart. I responded readily and reverently as my mother, Evangelia, of blessed memory, taught me and my three sisters, Eleftheria, Korina, and Eleni, to pray to God. Every night, she had one of us light the vigil candle (kandilaki), and burn incense (thymiama) on our icon stand (iconostasis).The iconostasis in our house was high on the wall because it was sacred, so we had to use a chair or stool to reach it.

I also loved to go to church. I hardly ever missed a service on Sunday or a feast day. Our house in the small village of Tanagra, Greece (near Thebes) was just a few yards away from the beautiful basilica-style church of St. Antonios the Great, which was probably built in the 1880s. Although the church has recently been renovated, it still retains its original western-influenced icons. I was baptized there on the feast day of St. Athanasios, January 18, and was named after my maternal grandmother, Athanasia, of blessed memory.
On Sundays, we could tell what time it was by the melodic ring of the church bell in the bell tower (kambanario). After the first ringing, I could not go back to sleep because the sound of the bell was so loud that it woke me even from a deep sleep. My three sisters and I were all supposed to wake up and get ready for church. After the second ringing of the bell, we walked to church. After the third ringing of the bell, the doxology started and everybody had to be inside the church.

Going to church meant two things for me. First, of course, I went to pray and participate in the Holy Eucharist. Second, I went to see all my friends. In those days, there were no community or social centers, telephones, or e-mail, so I am sure I went to church to socialize as well as to pray.

Upon my return home, I had to give my father, Anastasios, of blessed memory, a summary of the Gospel reading or the life of the saint who was commemorated that day. I also had to sing the hymn (troparion) of that day. My father was a pious Orthodox Christian and a church chanter (psalti). He had a beautiful voice. He was caring and loving, and, at the same time, austere. I never complained about his expectations, and have only happy childhood memories.

Later, in high school, religious education became part of the curriculum. My parents sent me to a high school in the nearby city of Chalkida; Evia.The "Zoe" movement was active at the time, as it still is. "Zoe" is a lay movement in Greece whose purpose is to help Orthodox Christians awaken their conscience regarding their faith and to educate them in the Orthodox Church. Catechetical schools were mandatory for every child, boy or girl. The teachers were dedicated lay men and women and priests who were committed to the Orthodox Church and its beliefs. I never felt pressured to go, as I recall, and I always went to both church and catechetical school willingly, even with joy. All my good friends were there, too, which made it easier to go. The catechetical school also took us on field trips. Of course, the opportunity to be with friends and go on excursions was an added incentive in our religious education because most of our families could not afford to travel during the post-World War II years of poverty.

I was modest in the way I dressed and acted as a child and then teenager. Toys, especially fancy dolls, were scarce among my sisters and friends, so we had to be creative and imaginative to find ways to amuse ourselves. We played house with homemade dolls that we had made ourselves. We played outdoors a lot because the weather was pleasant and warm much of the year. My hobbies were reading and singing. Books were not abundant, but my father would buy us books, paper, and pencils because he believed in the importance of education. With no public library, we also shared books and passed them around among us. We also sometimes read aloud to our parents and younger siblings around the fireplace.

Others recognized that God had included me in His Divine Plan to serve Him. For example, my paternal grandmother, Eleftheria, of blessed memory, saw something special in me, as I was growing up. I don't know what. Perhaps she saw how I cared for others and would not miss a Sunday liturgy. When I was about 14 years old, she told my mother that I would marry a priest and become a priest's wife, a papadia in colloquial Greek. My mother would laugh her heart out when she heard my grandmother say this. How, she wondered, with humor, would I meet a young man who was going to be a priest since we did not know any families with sons going to a seminary? My mother's world then was small. Little did she know that, a few years later, we would come to America and our lives would change forever. It was in the United States that I would meet my husband, and become Presbytera Athanasia. My mother lived to see this, but not my grandmother.

Reflecting on my personal story, I believe that God included me in His Divine Plan to be a priest's wife so that I could share in my husband's ministry to serve God and His people as a Christian woman. Other priests'wives perhaps have their own stories of how they met their husbands as part of God's Divine Plan.

If a woman does not have such a "call" to serve God as a priest's wife, she might avoid meeting and dating seminarians altogether for fear that she might fall in love with a future priest and be faced with a role for which she did not have the "call." Often, even the parents discourage their daughter from dating a seminarian. In an old Greek saying, a mother tells her daughter who is about to marry a future priest: "My daughter, think well about your choice, because the priest's cassock is heavy not only for the priest, but also for his wife."

Qualities of a Priest's Wife

According to Amilka S. Alivizatos, a twentieth century theologian in Greece, the ancient canons (rules) of the Church require that a woman, who, by the grace of God, will become a priest's wife, must have spiritual virtues and gifts (charisms).The future priest's wife must be a loving, caring, and kind individual with a deep faith and love for God. She must be a woman of good character. She must be willing to share and assist in the priest's ministry. As Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and all Greece says, to be a priest's wife is to accept the following: blessing (eulogia), sacrifice (thysia), service (diakonia), and responsibility (euthyne).

Education of Priests’ Wives

Years ago, education was not an option for a priest's wife or other women. Traditionally in many cultures, marriage and motherhood were considered enough for a woman to find fulfillment. Today, education is more widely available for women. Still today, people in society and the parish expect educated and working priests' wives and other women to live up to the traditional roles and obligations of wives and mothers.

Priests' wives can fulfill their role in their husbands' ministries more effectively if they are better educated. For example, the priests'wives can use their religious education to take a leading role to educate others, especially women, in the beliefs of the Orthodox Church. Priests' wives can stand witness to the Orthodox faith at youth groups, women's gatherings, and college campuses. They can also participate in and contribute to lay ministry as youth directors and lay assistants.

Many women, including the wives of seminarians and priests, attend theological schools because of their own personal interest in learning more about God, and therefore attain theological degrees from Orthodox seminaries and other universities. Some seminarians' wives take theology courses while living on an Orthodox seminary campus, even without enrolling in a degree program. Other priests' wives take courses at near-by colleges or universities.

Even if she does not have the time or finances to enroll in a degree program or take seminary or university theology courses, at a minimum, a priest's wife can sit in on religious education classes to be familiar with the teachings and practices of the Orthodox faith. It will be helpful to her husband's ministry if she knows enough to be able to answer basic questions that parishioners may have. She can refer difficult questions to the priest or another theologian when necessary, especially if the topic is controversial.

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