Yet more about catechumens; and about inquirers to Orthodoxy

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on June 21, 2008 at 5:56 am

This whole catechumen business needs more clarification. Here is some explanation:

When the Church was incarnated on the fulfillment of the great feast of Pentecost (Shavuot: 50 days after Pascha), the catechumenate of the first Jewish believers (they were ALL Jews then) had lasted many centuries. You can read about this in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2. You see, the first believers had been catechized by the Law of God and their deep knowledge of Sacred Scripture. Their pious pilgrimage to Jerusalem to keep the feast shows this.  Once the apostles proclaimed the resurrection, and they believed, everything fell into place. They were ready for baptism. We see this take place through the early portion of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.

Now when Philip the evangelist encountered the Ethiopian eunuch on his way home, reading the scroll of Isaiah the prophet, he catechized him regarding the things of which he was ignorant, thus elevating him to baptismal readiness. It is important to see all the personal encounters of the New Testament and the early Church in this way. The Church as a living presence personally receives persons! This means each and every person possesses certain needs and requirements which must be addressed in the way of readiness.

There are three stages of preparedness which the Church has always recognized from the earliest times:

1. those who show interest, but without exercising any level of commitment are called in antiquity, “hearers” (in Greek, akroomenoi; in Latin, auditores). These hearers, nowadays in our American Orthodox context called “inquirers,” are free to attend the holy services of the Church. They are encouraged especially to listen to the reading of Holy Scripture (psalms, Old Testament readings, apostolic readings, and the Holy Gospel), the homily (sermon), as well as the theological hymns in which our holy doctrine is poetically expressed. The hearers, since they have no level of expressed commitment, do not have any personal relationship with the Church as of yet, although any Orthodox parish or monastery sees it as their bounden Christian duty to show them all the hospitality possible, without “smothering” them. We are not proselytizers, since we respect the express freedom and dignity due to each and every human person. We speak to hearers of the “holy things” to the degree they show respect for and interest in, these holy things. We take seriously the teaching of our Lord Jesus, “Do not throw pearls before swine.”  That is to say, we do not speak of things which the inquirers are not ready to hear, lest we offer a scandal by arousing their passionate (and potentially blasphemous) response. Usually, for many anyway, sufficient time must pass before it can be clear that inquirers learn all that is necessary before encouraging them to take the next step.  Hearers / inquirers are seeking; we respect that.

2. those who express a desire for undertaking the formative path toward entering into communion in the Holy Church are called catechumens. Since these are now making an initial commitment, they are received in a special relationship with the Church. This relationship is expressed by the writing down of their names on a special roll. This process, called “enrollment,” is important, since it is a signal to the holy community where they are enrolled that these new persons present a new responsibility of love and care. Katakhoumenos, (one who is under instruction), is a Greek word which remains untranslated in Latin and also in English, since the kind of instruction given to a catechumen differs from that given to hearers / inquirers. It is spiritual instruction, not like anything in the world. The emphasis here is on formation of the heart, rather than mere information of the head. The sum of catechetical instruction is the submission of the catechumen to confession of sins and the reception of an elementary rule of prayer to get them started on the spiritual life. Somewhere within the catechumenate, usually if the catechumen is preparing for holy Baptism and not only Chrismation, exorcisms are prayed over him or her, as part of the path toward readiness for election to holy initiation.

Catechumens will be interested to know that, should they die while still a catechumen, they would be buried with a full Orthodox funeral. (I did this once, for a 19 year old catechumen who died in an auto accident; it was deeply moving).

3. those catechumens whose catechumenate has ripened to the point where readiness for entry into full communion in the Church are called “those preparing for illumination,” (photizomenos, or in Latin, illuminandi). Those “elected” to be illumined have demonstrated their readiness by achieving a fundamental grasp of the trajectory of the Orthodox Christian way of life: death to self, and the undertaking of the ascetical struggle to live the life of the Gospel according to Our Lord’s commandments and in the power of the All-holy Spirit of grace. Those to be illumined are received into full mystical (sacramental) communion with three mysteries which together form initiation into Christ: holy Baptism, holy Chrismation, and holy Communion.

When we Orthodox receive non-Orthodox Christians, we serve only the imposition of holy Chrism (the mystical continuance of apostolic laying on of hands, dating from the era right at the passing of the Apostles from this life).  After confession of sins and examination of faith, then comes holy Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ from the reserved Holy Gifts. The point here is that there is only ONE baptism. If we discern that the baptism already administered was “of the Church,” then we recognize their Christianity. That means we fill up what is missing: the seal of the Spirit by which the new convert is integrated into the Church, and first holy Communion which unites them to Christ and us. We never re-baptize; if what has been administered actually BE baptism, it is done. If not, we baptize.

I am most interested in knowing if I have anticipated all the usual questions…  BTW, blessed leave-taking of the Feast of Pentecost!

  1. there is so much for me to learn here, look forward to digging in, your nephew.

  2. […] his FIRST impression, I had to post it! So, by way of introducting Orthodoxy 201, here is a “hearer’s” (a specific kind of seeker) impression, well before he (might?) take up Orthodoxy […]

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