How to Become an Orthodox Christian

Photo for page on How to Become an Orthodox Christian
Photo for page on How to Become an Orthodox Christian

The Conversion of the Nations is the Mission of the Church

After our Savior's brilliant Resurrection and just prior to His glorious Ascension He commissioned His followers with these words, "Go forth into all the world and make disciples of all the nations; baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:18-20, Mk. 16:8).

It is the will of God that every human being be saved, that each and every human person become a child of God in Holy Baptism, that every human being be washed of his sin and partake of everlasting life. It is the desire of the Holy Trinity that all men, women and children of every race and region learn to live in the ways of love, holiness and dignity, in the ways that Jesus Himself lived—by learning His commandments from His Church and by keeping them as an expression of love for God and men.

For the last two thousand years the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church has been busy about this sacred commission. Bearing witness to the saving acts of God, exalting the Cross of Christ and proclaiming His victory over death, sin and the devil, and inviting all men to partake of the salvation of the Lord by faith and baptism—this has been the work of the Church. Starting where she was at the heart of the Roman Empire the Church converted the Empire itself. She extended her Gospel witness to the east in Persia, India and Western China. She extended her witness to the south in North Africa. She extended her witness to the north into Slavic lands, and to the north and west into what is now Europe and America, and she continues and will continue to make disciples of all nations until the entire earth is covered with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea, or human history comes to an end in the providence of God.

It is the very essence of the Church to be apostolic, that is, to not only be built upon the unchanging apostolic teaching, but to be messengers of the good news sent to all corners of the world to announce salvation and to bring the sweet and saving aroma of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, to all. Each local parish manifests the fullness of Christ, and serves as a beachhead for this universal missionary endeavor concretely in the city or village in which it is. There is no parish that is not to be a missionary center.

These early days of exploration can be overwhelming and eye-popping for an inquirer, who perhaps has never seen anything like the Divine Liturgy, a church temple full of sacred icons staring at the inquirer, and persons crossing themselves, bowing, and prostrating.

Disciples of Jesus Christ are formed by Chatechism

The practical means by which the Church accomplishes her task of preaching and evangelization is the catechumenate. Preaching and catechism is how the Great Commission is accomplished. The centrality of the Church's work with catechumens (Greek for 'listener') is manifested by the fact that in every liturgy in every Orthodox Church there is appointed to be prayed the Litany for the Catechumens, in which we ask that the Lord will have mercy on them, that he will teach them the word of truth, that he will reveal to them the gospel of righteousness, and that he will unite them to his holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

This litany for the catechumens is placed soon after the reading of the Holy Gospel and the sermon. This placement highlights the fact that the Holy Gospel is read and the homily is given for the evangelization and instruction of the catechumens as well as for the edification of the faithful.

The Place of the Catechumens in the Narthex

The sacred art of ecclesiastical architecture also bears witness to the important ministry of catechesis and the role of catechumens. All Orthodox churches are traditionally divided into three portions: the narthex, the nave, and the sanctuary or holy altar. The narthex is the furthest western portion of the church, and serves many purposes. It is a place of transition between the world (outside) and the kingdom of God ( the nave), and is a place where Orthodox Christians make special prayers and intentions, venerate icons, and light candles. The narthex is also the place of penitents, or those Orthodox Christians who are under penance for some particular sin. The narthex is also the place of the catechumens. The catechumens by virtue of being made catechumens have been initially separated from the world and brought near to the church, but have not yet been organically joined to her by baptism into the body of Christ. This spiritual reality is manifested by the fact that the catechumens are in the church temple, but not in its heart—the nave.

The Process of Catechism: Courtchip – Engagement – Marriage

The process of becoming an Orthodox Christian can be compared very closely to the process of becoming a married person for it involves the same basic movements of courtship, engagement and marriage. When a person first becomes interested in the Orthodox Church a series of initial interactions take place. Perhaps one visits for a liturgy, researches Orthodoxy on-line, or engages in a conversation with a friend who is Orthodox. If these initial interactions are blessed, a more studied process of inquiry follows which can be compared to the process of courtship. One who launches into this dance with the Church is called by the Church an inquirer or a seeker. These early days of exploration can be overwhelming and eye-popping for an inquirer, who perhaps has never seen anything like the Divine Liturgy, a church temple full of sacred icons staring at the inquirer, and persons crossing themselves, bowing, and prostrating. It may be the inquirer's first exposure to sacred chant, incense, and sacred space. As such it takes a while to become familiar and comfortable with these new liturgical surroundings, and the inquirer is encouraged to be patient and to expect to slowly and progressively come to a greater understanding and appreciation of the deep meaning of each liturgical action.

During this courtship with the church the inquirer is encouraged to be focused, and to attend as many divine services as possible. The best catechism is in frequent and watchful attendance at the divine services. This is true because the Church prays what she believes, and believes what she prays. Every service of prayer is deep theology, and all true theology is prayer. During the period of inquiry/courtship the seeker is also encouraged to read at least one basic text that introduces the Orthodox Church. If all proceeds well, the seeker will begin to ask himself if he could, in fact, become an Orthodox Christian, if he could envision himself living the Orthodox life. This is a natural development, much like a couple in courtship beginning to envision the possibility of wedlock.

After this initial period of serious inquiry the inquirer may come to a place in which he wishes to be enrolled amongst the catechumens of a particular parish in order to be prepared for reception into the Church. This is a very serious decision akin to becoming engaged, and Orthodoxy takes engagement very seriously. When one moves from courtship to engagement, no longer is the question asked "Will we get married?" That question was asked and answered in the act of engagement, and the engagement itself is a matter of preparation for the wedding. So it is with the inquirer becoming a catechumen. Once that move has been made, it is no longer a question of whether the person intends to be baptized into the Orthodox Church but rather it is a matter of preparing for such. It is not a question of if, but when.

At this time the inquirer should seek the blessing of the pastor of the parish he is attending, and request to be made a catechumen. Should the pastor judge that the inquirer is well-prepared to do so he will read the Prayer for Enrolling a Catechumen, making the inquirer a catechumen.

At this point the inquirer has made a definitive decision to become an Orthodox Christian forever. He knows that this commitment is not a denominational switch, but an approach to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. It is a commitment to faithfully serve God as a member of the Orthodox Church no matter where one lives on this earth. The catechumen is engaged to the Church, and will complete this engagement with the spiritual marriage which is holy baptism. It is expected at this juncture that the new catechumen inform in writing any religious body in which he was previously a member his desire to be removed from the membership of said body. The catechumen is numbered amongst a class of catechumens that belongs to the particular parish, and will begin the formal process of catechesis. From this point the catechumen self-identifies to the outside world as an Orthodox Christian. Should the catechumen die before reception into the church, he will be buried as an Orthodox Christian.

The Content and Contours of Catechism

A catechumen is an individual engaged in the process of becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ and entering into His Holy Church. As one reads the book of the Acts of the Apostles it is apparent that many of the hearers of the Holy Apostles were baptized immediately. This is because, in almost every instance, those who were listening were Jews or God-fearing Greeks. The Old Covenant Jewish life was itself an extensive two-thousand year catechism, a preparation for full Christian revelation and life. It was most natural for all the Jews to be-lieve in Jesus Christ since He was their longed for Messiah, and for the Jews to become Christians—which many of them did. As the remnant of the Jews was believing in Christ and being baptized, the Holy Apostles turned their attention to the Greeks and barbarians. In the ancient Church, the catechumenate, or time during which one is a catechumen, often lasted for as much as three years. This was the case because Greeks and barbarians were polytheists and idolatry and its superstitions were deeply imbedded in the Greco-Roman way of life. It took time to be purged of these unseemly beliefs and practices, and to form a Christian mind and disposition. Catechism itself included not only participation in some of the divine services but also formal catechesis, formal oral instruction from a teacher, often the bishop or appointed catechist, special prayers of exorcism and entreaty, and extensive involvement in the fellowship of the church which enabled the catechumens to form the new social connections that would become the most important bonds in their lives. This authentic integration into the family of believers with a supreme bond established by the blood of Christ, not by the blood of one's biological parents, has always been a central hallmark of the Christian Church. The believer's ultimate loyalty is not to one's earthly family or tribe, but to Christ and the Church. No one who loves mother or father or siblings more than Christ and the believers is worthy of Christ and His Kingdom.

One cannot embrace the Orthodox way of life quickly, and the Church and her faith uphold the whole universe. There is no reason to rush since the Church is not going anywhere. The catechumen should be zealous, focused, and stay the course at a sustainable pace.

There is no quick catechism, and the basic rule is that the deeper foundation a catechumen receives, the higher the tree of his Christian life will grow. One cannot embrace the Orthodox way of life quickly, and the Church and her faith uphold the whole universe. There is no reason to rush since the Church is not going anywhere. The catechumen should be zealous, focused, and stay the course at a sustainable pace. This catechism presupposes that the catechumen will be actively engaged in the process of learning and assimilation to Orthodox modes of belief and Christian living.

Throughout history the Church eventually became the majority religion of the lands in which it sojourned, and the catechumenate as an institution gradually died out in many places as most persons were being baptized shortly after birth. As Holy Orthodoxy has moved into the West, Asia and Africa in recent centuries, the catechumenate is naturally being revived. In some places it is still in embryonic form, but in many places it is in rapid ascendancy.

The Requirements for Catechumens

Each parish utilizes a collection of catechetical material. In general, however, catechism usually consists of faithful attendance at divine services, participation in classes, accomplishment of prescribed reading, visits to other local parishes and monasteries, and more.

The goal of all catechism is purification, and conformity to the commandments of God and the Church. For catechumens who come from pious and active non-Orthodox Christian backgrounds there will be less requirement for radical personal changes, but for those who come from no religious background and whose lives have been deeply influenced by secular culture there will be radical changes that may involve the abandonment of illegitimate employment, the cessation of certain personal associations, and deep repentance from sins. Persons who have been married and divorced, sometimes multiple times, must work through these matters with the pastor. All are welcomed to the Church for the Lord God is calling every human being to His household and family, which is the Church, but for some the adjustments will be serious.

The Role of the Sponsor

Every person received into the church is given a sponsor or godparent. The church requires one sponsor of the same sex, who will stand as sponsor at baptism. An additional sponsor of the opposite sex is not required, but may be allowed if the pastor deems fit. Multiple sponsors of the same sex are not permitted. The role of the godparent is extremely serious, and not every Orthodox Christian is qualified to be a sponsor.

The bond formed between the sponsor and the baptized in the sacrament of baptism is deep, mystical and eternal. A spiritual bond even deeper than a biological bond is established, that is to say, baptismal water is thicker than blood. The 53rd canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council forbids the marriage of sponsors to the widowed mothers of their god-children saying that "spiritual kinship is better than bodily union." Godparents and Godchildren have a spiritual and familial bond that cannot be dissolved. Godparents cannot be changed or replaced any more than one's biological parents can be. The relationship between sponsor and sponsored ought be nourished and deepened throughout life by mutual prayer and encouragement.

The role of the sponsor is to speak for the catechumen. In cases where the catechumen is an infant or young child the sponsor literally speaks for the child answering the priest's questions during the service of baptism, confessing the Nicene Creed, etc. The sponsor's job is to recommend the candidate to the church, to vouch for his character to the priest, and to assure the priest that the candidate knows and believes the Nicene Creed. Catechumens may wonder how exactly they are to identify a sponsor. This can take place through various means, but usually takes place naturally as the catechumen integrates himself into the life of the parish. Affinities will be made, and relationships established. In the course of such the catechumen might inquire of an acquaintance in the parish if he would be willing to stand as sponsor for him, or the acquaintance himself might inquire of the catechumen if they have found a sponsor. Obtaining a sponsor is a significant decision and ought to be done prayerfully. All sponsors must be approved by the pastor, since in order to serve as a sponsor in baptism one must be an upstanding Orthodox Christian. It is best, therefore, that the catechumen clear a particular name with the priest prior to soliciting a sponsor in order to avoid potential embarrassment.

Candidacy for Baptism

The traditional day for the reception of converts into the Church is the baptismal liturgy of Great and Holy Saturday. Lazarus Saturday, Holy Pentecost, and other feasts are used as alternative dates for baptisms and chrismations.

A final word to Catechumens

Each catechumen is reminded that the process of catechism is a road of repentance and faith which leads to union with the Holy Trinity and membership in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Such a road is a road toward Christ and away from the evil one. Demonic opposition is to be expected during the course of catechism. These obstacles can be overcome by the help and mercy of God and a strong resolve on the part of the catechumen. †

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