I would like to share a conversation on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship mailing list (which I am a part of) regarding the physical attributes of Priests. I will omit the names of the two persons conversing. (a layperson and a Priest) This conversation does not represent the official position of the Orthodox Church on the Priesthood and disability, in terms of the canons involved and their interpretation in the Orthodox Church in the early 21st century. But it is valuable and instructive as a conversation.
i was just talking with a romanian friend who’s son is hoping to enter the local high school for those wishing to join the priesthood (or become iconographers or choir directors) i was asking her what the entrance test is like for this high school and she said one component is a physical exam. partly to check for physical disease or ailments that might pose problems with ascetic practices, but also to check for any physical deformites. she said it was based on an OT law about the priest not being marred in any physical way. I immediately asked her if my son (who was born with an undeveloped ear) would then not be eligible to be a priest, and she said only if he had an operation to repair the ear. she didnt have very much theology to justify this, but she said even people of short stature or obesity or who had been in an accident would not pass the physical.
i was wondering if this is the case in other countries and if so, what is the reasoning behind such discriminating laws. as a mother of a bright, energtic,faith-filled son, it is incomprehensible for me to think he would be denied following the vocation of priesthood because of a physical anomaly.
The canons do prohibit anyone with a physical defect of abnormality from being ordained to the priesthood. That would be true in Orthodoxy
everywhere. I cannot say to what extent the canon is enforced. Also
I’m not sure totally what “defects” would exclude a person from being ordained, the canons may in fact specifically list them. I’m guessing that because of the actions of a priest in the liturgy, he would be expected to have 2 healthy legs and 2 healthy arms and hands, could not be blind, or mute, probably not deaf.
I think it is based as you stated in the Old Testament ideas of the priesthood. Just like the goat, bull or sheep to be offered had to be without defect, so too the offerer was to be without blemish. In Christianity I think it has to do with the way in which the priest is somehow to be an image of Christ himself. A person with a physical defect would have been seen as either representing Christ imperfectly or representing a defective Christ.
I am not defending the thinking to you, but am postulating that this idea about the priest evolved over time. Today we have a different set of values regarding handicaps/disabilities and also different ideas about what the priest images or what he represents. So yes, some of our values would be in conflict with some of the values of the ancients. We do emphasize things they would not, and vice versa.
It all has to do with an idea of what the priest is “imaging” or represents. If he is being thought of as somehow standing for God or Christ, it was thought he must be without visible defect. This was there idealism about what the clergy represent.
And again, I have no idea whether or not bishops enforce this or whether today this would be another canon that might be overlooked. It would I think depend on the nature of the “anomaly.” We tend to be more functionary than symbolically minded, so we might not have a negative reaction to a priest with an anomaly if it doesn’t really impede his function in the liturgies.
As an aside – when we built our new church facility, we had a raised altar area, with two steps leading up to it. The local building inspector did not want to approve it because it did not meet handicapped accessible codes (there being no ramp or elevator for such a person to get into the altar). One of the parishioners told the inspector that in our tradition a handicapped person would not normally be serving at the altar, and so there was no need for handicapped accessibility. The inspector dropped the issue because of our being a church. But I think many Orthodox churches would have altar areas that are not handicapped accessible.
Follow-up Question (layperson):
thank you so much, Father [X], i was hoping to hear from one of the priests on the list. Your answer does shed some light, but also leaves me with many other questions. What if a priest wears glasses, does he then not represent a perfect, unblemished Christ? What if after being ordained, a priest loses a limb, or is confined to a wheelchair later in life, is he then prohibited from serving as a priest? I know i am showing my very western, rational roots with all this questioning. Most of my experience of orthodoxy has been in Romania, where physical anomalies are viewed very differently than in the west, so i am trying to discern what is cultural and what is orthodox.
in regards to the steps to the altar, in our church here in Romania, the Eucharist is offered on a raised altar area. We have many old people with canes, walkers, etc that come up (with support from others) the one step to receive the eucharist, but in our church in the states, the priest stands on the floor level, below the step and there offers the Eucharist. i remember being at a church in another part of our town here, where a woman, with the help of others, carried her child who was confined to wheelchair, up the steps of the church (probably 10-15 steps) and to the altar to receive the holy mysteries. almost as difficult as lowering someone through the roof!
thank you again for your patience with my ignorance and my persistent questions.
Follow-up Answer (Priest):
Many priests wear glasses these days, so obviously it is not considered an impediment to ordination. I don’t know what the canons specify or what the ancients would have thought about that. But at least in theory it does represent an imperfection, but not one that would stop a priest from functioning.
As for a priest who loses a limb or becomes confined to a wheel chair – I don’t think the canons remove him from the priesthood, but he would not be able to serve at the altar. We have a retired priest in our area who is confined to a wheelchair and comes to church from time to time and does not serve at the altar, though we do give him communion at the same time as the rest of the clergy – we take it to him where he sits in the nave. He is still considered to be a priest, but would not physically be able to do the liturgy.
I’m sure there are priests who became temporarily disabled – broken leg or arm for example – and I don’t know what happens in their parishes while they recover from their injuries. I would think the main concern of the priest would be dropping the chalice due to the injury, and so some might not want to serve. But in places where priests are too few, I’m sure some exceptions are made to allow a disabled priest to serve. Modern people are often more practical than idealistic.