What does it mean to have a wonderful title, and no real job
description? The position of the wife of a priest is exactly this.
The various languages or every Orthodox country have titles of honor for
the priest's wife. Some might literally be translated as `priestess',
while some mean `wife of the priest', and in at least one language
Russian the priest's wife is `mother' or `little mother'.
So it's clear that our Orthodox cultures have always seen the
position of priest's wife as something special. Yet there really is no "job
description" for what she should do or be. This might be seen as a
reason for confusion and frustration, but I think it's more true to
the nature of Orthodoxy to see it as the Church's loving freedom, given to
her children. It leaves a woman free to regard her position as a
ministry which can be carried out in whatever way is most suitable
and comfortable for her own character and personality. If there is no
job description, there is no blueprint, either, to which any woman
should feel obliged to conform.
The late Jacqueline Onassis was asked early in her husband John F.
Kennedy's presidency what she though her most important role would
be as First Lady. She answered that it would be to take care of the
President so that he could do his job effectively. And despite the
differences in "style" of various priest's wives, they, too, have
this as their first task. Like any wife, the priest's wife must help her
husband carry out the demanding tasks that are his, not by taking
part directly in those tasks, but by seeing to his physical, spiritual,
and emotional well-being. If the family includes children, there are
other things to be seen to. The priest's family needs to be a healthy unit
whose members' needs are attended to. The members must also be
allowed to grow through their mistakes and experimental "trying on" of
various aspects of life. Most of all, there should be continual spiritual
effort in the family, involving all its members.
We can say more about each of these points. First, seeing to a
husband's well-being: For a priest's wife, this includes what it
does for most wives overseeing the diet, activities, and living
conditions of her family. But it can also mean helping her husband feel
confident in his ministry, encouraging him during rough times, and discerning
what to tell him about the things she herself observes in the
parish. Because so often there is little monetary or status-related reward
for the priest's work as there is more likely to be in other
professions her support is particularly important.
The second point, the need for the priest's family to be a place in
which members' needs are attended to, applies especially to the
children. The demands of the priestly ministry can be or can be
allowed to become so overwhelming that there is little time left
for a busy priest to see to the needs of his own offspring. His wife is
often the one who makes sure he carves out time to attend a son's
concert or a daughter's game, and who encourages family conversation
at the dinner table, as well as private talk between father and child
at other times. There are many clergy wives who, while themselves
holding down full-time jobs to meet material family needs, manage also to
satisfy the family's emotional needs in this way. Their heroic
efforts will surely find a great reward in heaven!
The third point, that a priest's family should be a unit whose
members can make mistakes and experimentally "try on" aspects of life
applies to children as well as to their parents. Green hair on the priest's
son or a little gold ring in his daughter's naval, for example, should
not scandalize the parish any more that they would if they appeared on
other parish teens' bodies. Priest's wives need to work with their
husbands to protect their children's right to try things out, and
not to let those outside the family put the children into a box of
expected, impeccable, exemplary behavior different from what is
expected of any young, growing Christian. A clergy wife must also
resist the temptation to impose a certain standard of behavior on
her children for no other reason than "not to embarrass the family."
Good behavior should be encouraged because it will help the child have a
satisfying and God-pleasing life, not because he or she is a PK
(`priest's kid'), and therefore has a special responsibility to make
the family look good. If the priest's wife can calmly accept her and
other children's quirks and mistakes, she will by example help other
parents to have the same flexibility and calmness. In fact, this
will help them to be more accepting of people in general a healthy
trait for Christians to develop.
Finally, the fourth point: The clergy family must be a place in
which there is constant spiritual effort. A clergy wife with small
children knows the struggle of getting little ones dressed and ready for
Liturgy on a wintry Sunday morning with no help from the husband, who left
for the church some time ago to begin the preparation in the altar. She
knows, too, that he won't be standing with her during the services
to hold a tired toddler or gently quite a baby's outburst during the
sermon because he'll be busy giving it!
Perhaps this is the place where the priest's wife has the most
important aspect of her ministry. If she can make the effort not
always successfully to get to the services even under difficult
circumstances, and if she can show that she wants to be there, she
will do a great deal for the people around her. We can be tempted to see
worship as a beautiful but inessential adjunct to the "real" parts
of our lives: work, home, school. But the priest's wife, a layperson
like the others in the parish, has the same responsibilities and
temptations that they do. When she makes the Church and its worship central to
her life, other may see that they also can do so. They may even decide
that they should do so!
If the priest's wife can encourage even one person in this way, she
will have done the work of the Lord and will truly be the partner to
her husband that her Orthodox title of honor calls her to be.
Lots of Titles for the Priest's Wife
Every "traditionally Orthodox" country has a special title in its
language for the priest's wife. In America, we tend to bring these
terms into our parishes based on the ethnic background of the
majority of the parishioners, as our own English language really has no
"comfortable" equivalent. Here are a few:
Presbytera (pres vee TEAR a) Greek, for `priestess'
Papadiya or Popadia (PO pa DEE ya) Serbian/Balkan
Matushka (MA toosh ka) Russian, for `mother'
Panimatushka (PA nyee MA toosh ka) or Panimatka Ukrainian, for
Pani (PA nyee) a shortened form, common in the Carpatho-Russian
Khouria (ho REE ya) Syrian
Beth'Kyomo/Beth'Kyama - Syriac, for `daughter of the covenant'
(Beskyama Malayalam this is an adulterated form of the Syriac
The wife of a deacon has a title, too! In Greek, it's Diakonissa
(for `deaconess'). In the Slavic tradition, it's the same as the title
used for the priest's wife!
Compiled by Tenny Thomas
The Orthodox Family Life (Valerie G. Zahirsky)