Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Pastoral Care of the Orthodox Church

This essay will introduce the Patristic foundations of the Orthodox Church’s Pastoral Care; how 
the practical element of this ministry is very much based on the sacramental, salvific, prayerful work of Christ’s body, and is for this reason a ministry primarily led by the clergy. 

Throughout early Christian history, the Church, according to Gerkin, placed importance on the care and protection of Tradition by which Christians were identified, as well as on anticipation of Christ’s second coming. Thus, Pastoral Care consisted of a concern for the purity of the congregation, encouraging the faithful to remain strong in their beliefs and Christian way of life; at both communal and individual levels. While it is indeed the case that the Early Fathers of the Church emphasised Orthodox doctrine (often in a harsh manner) and the importance of ecclesiastical unity, they simultaneously promoted and preserved Christ’s practical commandment of Pastoral Care. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John, offers the following advice to his fellow Hierarch, Polykarp of Smyrna:

"Let not widows be neglected..bear all men.. suffer all men in love..Toil together one with another, struggle together, run together, suffer together... rise up together as God's stewards and assessors and ministers.”

St Irenaeus, by metaphorically speaking of the Church as our Mother who nourishes the faithful with the “milk of God,” not only describes the Body of Christ as the source of Orthodox doctrine and Apostolic faith, but simultaneously of healing and offering; a ministry we are called to participate in, both clergy and laity. This offering is one of love, as ‘within the Church, friendship, service and glory are joined together.’ Alongside, or rather flowing from, the Sacramental life of the Church, Christ’s Bishops, Presbyters, Deacons and laity ‘go forth in peace’  having celebrated and partaken in the eternal Eucharist, sharing ‘the true Light’ with the suffering world. We witness this fundamental link between the faithful’s Eucharistic synaxis (or the ‘feast of love’ as it was known) and the Church’ ministry of care and offering within St Luke the Evangelist’s ‘Acts of the Apostles:’

 ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread…and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need’ with ‘generous hearts praising God and having favour with all the people.’  (Acts 2:42-47)

The Scriptures note that the ministry of pastoral care is the responsibility of the Church; as our ‘Good Shephard’ (Jn 10:11) Christ, gives those of us who are ‘temperate, respectable, hospitable, gentle, peaceable..’ (1 Tim 3:1-3) the grace and gift to carry out this ministry, ‘to comfort those who are in any affliction’ (2 Cor 1:14) to ‘feed His sheep’ (Jn 21:17) as members of His body. (Rom 12:4-21) It is the role of ‘the elders of the Church’  to ‘pray over.. save the one who is sick.. anointing him with oil.. and the Lord will raise him up.’  (James 5:14-19)

As the Orthodox priest prays for the cease of wars, for peace of the entire world, the end of disorders and for health, within the Liturgy, he then goes out to the hospitals and prisons to act out Christ’s ministry in this broken world; a fundamental characteristic of St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great’s teachings. St John would assist and visit widows, orphans, and nursing centres on a daily basis, while Basil led and organised philanthropic institutions, orphanages, hospitals, and schools for the education of girls in poor areas. Paul Evdokimov (former professor of St Sergius’ Institute in Paris) notes that the Church’s (or rather Christ’s) primary work is our restoration to health; a full harmony between soul and body. As opposed to secular ideas of health and well-being, Orthodox Theology underlines the importance of spiritual healing ( taking place with our free participation in, and acceptance of, Christ’s loving salvation) leading to psychosomatic harmony and well-being. St Maximus the Confessor refers to this holy state as ‘τὀ εὗ εἷναι.’ 

Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, in his book titled ‘Orthodox Psychotherapy,’ signifies the fact Orthodox Christianity is, unlike philosophies and theories, a revelation of God to man. The Orthodox Church, according to His Eminence, offers Theocentric therapy, treatment and care for man, essentially through God’s divine grace and our divine-human synergy. This process of ‘psychotherapy’ which the Church offers man, aims to achieve communion and union with God, and is provided primarily by the Holy Sacraments, and our supplementary active, prayerful, pastoral care. For this reason Saint Gregory Palamas describes the priesthood as a science of healing of souls, bringing Christ into the hearts of believers, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The sinner is in a state of ill-health, as we are reminded by our Lord in the Gospel according to John: ‘“See, you are well! Sin no more..’ (Jn 5:14) 

Thus the pastoral work of the Church must reiterate the importance of repentance, the mystery of Confession, and the reassurance of Christ’s Salvation and eternal life. Saint Paul tells us we should ‘mourn with those who mourn’ (Rom 12:15) and therefore personally approach the sick, the suffering, the imprisoned and the homeless, offering and sharing the hope of Resurrection, of Salvation, and fundamentally impart and transmit the Church’ eternal joy to the person in crisis. Essentially this radiates the Church’ beautiful message that every human person ‘is a creature of God, His creation’ as He ‘loves you and the whole heaven watches over you, takes care of you and gives you importance.. you have value and personality.. there is a tremendous power inside you,’ as Fr Andreas Konanos summarises. Metropolitan Anthony similarly highlights each individual’s human dignity and worth (being the foundation of the Orthodox Church’ pastoral work) by advising those called to this pastoral ministry to treat the suffering person as if ‘no one else in the world is more important,’  for our Creator forms and knows each of us (Ps 139:13-16) both ‘rich and poor.’ (Prov 22:2) 

The Orthodox Church, following the Early Patristic approach, places utmost importance on the preservation of Apostolic Faith and tradition, and primarily the sanctification and salvation of man; however the Church’ Pastoral Care is incorporated into Her salvific work and ministry. It is in fact for this reason that Pastoral Care is the Church’ responsibility; for the human being, as a ‘temple of the Holy Spirit,’  ( 1 Cor 16:19-20) who desires wholeness and health, needs both spiritual and material nourishment. 

For St John Chrysostom, a pastor has the role of sharing in Christ’s own love for His people, and for this reason is an office of the highest importance. Chrysostom interestingly distinguishes pastors from lay people - not necessarily meaning lay people cannot partake in the Church’ pastoral care, yet suggesting it is led primarily by the priesthood. By using the analogy of a shepherd, Chrysostom emphasises the pastor’s responsibility of exercising considerate care over each person, mirroring Christ’s care for His Church. Although, for St John, physical existence is not evil, it assumes positive value when raised to a spiritual state by the soul; thus highlighting the spiritual, prayerful, sacramental nature and importance of the Church’ Pastoral Care, with the clergyman raising the layperson. As is the case within the Orthodox Church today, Pastoral ministry is, according to Chrysostom, ‘controlled by the Eucharist, which is the place where heaven and earth meet in order to take the human up to God.’

The Eucharist is the divine act in which the cosmos is defined, and the role of the priest is fulfilled, for ‘he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.’ (John 6:54) For this reason, within the Orthodox Church, a pastoral visit often corresponds to the clergyman offering the sick patient, prisoner, or anyone in his care, the Eucharist, Holy Unction, or another relevant sacrament. This  role is one of spiritual therapy, with salvation and restoration to health as the Church’ objective, and both emotional and psychological support being an important part of this process.

Saint Gregory the Great notes that those leading the Orthodox Church’ ministry of Pastoral care, as models of the Lord’s example, should live by a balanced life of upholding a prayerful relationship with God, and practical ministry. While Gregory the Great tells us that those carrying out the Pastoral work of the Church are called to descend to the level of their flock with compassion and understanding, outwardly bearing the burdens of men, they should also, according to Gregory of Nazianzus, simultaneously aspire to contemplate inwardly on God’s heavenly eternal gifts, and the ‘New Jerusalem.’ (Rev 21)  As the Orthodox Christian’s end is deification, Gregory Nazianzus underlines the fact the Church’ pastors must have salvation at the centre of their ministry. Fr Georgios Metallinos highlights that at the beginning of history, God called man to paradise, and eternal communion with Him; while at the end of history man will either decide to accept this calling, or the state of hell. The Orthodox Church, Metallinos notes, as a spiritual hospital, provides the therapy of the heart, leading to its illumination by the Holy Spirit, finally, reaching theosis. This is where the difference lies between Orthodox Christianity and religions according to fr Georgios; rather than promising eternal bliss, or sending individuals into an eternal place depending on an ethical code, the Church prepares, heals and nourishes each person, for an eternal relationship with our Saviour Christ.

To conclude, this piece has introduced the patristic foundations of the Orthodox Church’ ministry of pastoral care; a ministry fulfilled through the Sacraments, with the focus being our restoration to psychosomatic health and essentially eternal salvation and deification. The essay also discusses why pastoral care is primarily led by the clergy, as through the Eucharist ‘God communicates himself to us’ and with one another; out into the hospitals, prisons, and places where individuals need the joyful, compassionate, salvific presence of the Risen Christ in times of pastoral need.


Purves A (2001) Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition, PPC, Ebook, 44-45.

‘Aspects of the Orthodox pastoral care’  Accessed from:

Gerkin C (1997) An Introduction to Pastoral Care, Nashville: Abingdon Press

Konanos, Andreas 2013, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, Akakia: London.

Osborn E (2001) Irenaeus of Lyons, Cambridge: CUP.

Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to Polycarp (accessed from

Π. Γεώργιος  Μεταλληνός, Το έργο του Κλήρου είναι θεραπευτικό (accessed from translated by Alexis Florides.

St Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule (Liber regulae pastoralis) II.6.

Zizioulas J, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church (Accessed from  

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