Saturday, December 24, 2022

Catechesis in the modern age

One of the first lessons you teach yourself in the priesthood is that there are things you do that benefit from constant innovation and tweaking and many, many more things that you do which you get right and then don't mess with again until there's a problem.

For example, in Orthodoxy there are numerous cultural strains of "little-t" traditions that people bring with them when they become parishioners. It would be impossible to tell the Serbian family that you won't participate in their Slava. Conversely, the parish isn't a menu where people get to pick which liturgical tradition I draw from in the services. There's a line between being "Orthodoxy as a rich tapestry" and "Orthodoxy as a buffet table," which you learn as a priest only after making a few mistakes (and invariably offending a few people). So, when I started having catechumens I developed a system and used it without much alteration for years.

No two people come into the church as inquirers from the same place. At the same time you can do a bit of categorization to find where in the catechetical process you need to start. The earnest young man who has read 20 books on Orthodoxy, has his favorite set of YouTube channels and podcasts, and wants to know if he can be Orthodox tomorrow is far different from the woman who just graduated from college and is reeling from decisions she made there and her dabbling in Wicca and body art. You start from different places, but by the end of the catechetical process they've covered the same core material in addition to those things specific to their situations.

Also, some people simply aren't readers.  The last young lady I brought into the church read more theologically-minded books in those months of her catechumenate than most of the parishioners had read in their entire life. She was miffed when I didn't have a new book recommendation every week and still sends me emails to this day that say things like "Bless, Father. Cult of saints and relics. Good books, please." And another catechumen considered every book I offered up for reading to be "too complicated" even as he always asked piercing questions at coffee hour about topics he had obviously been pondering for quite a while. Still, there are the essentials.

One of those essentials is Introducing the Orthodox Church by Fr. Anthony M. Coniaris. The synopsis:

Here is a genuinely different and practical book for the inquirer and potential convert to Orthodox Christianity. It is different in a number of ways, all of which commend this volume to wide use by pastors whose task it is to introduce the members of their inquirers classes to an Orthodox way of life which will touch their lives in a full and complete way (Fr. Stanley Harakas). Chapters include: What We Believe About the One Apostolic Church, the Nicene Creed, Jesus, the Holy Trinity, the Divine Liturgy, Salvation, the Church Fathers, the Church Year, Symbols, the Sacraments, the Saints and the Theotokos, Life After Death, the Bible, Icons, Prayers for the Dead, and Prayer. 

It's not too long, it's not dumbed down or filled with impossible foreign words, and it's not so expensive that I spend much time tracking people down if they don't bring it back. Actually, people tend to hand them to their friends and then they come to church asking me questions. People aren't so much stealing books as it is unsanctioned paperback evangelism.

Readers of this blog for any duration know that I am quite fond of the Newrome Press books by the Athonite author Hieromonk Gregorios. Some of his works are long and learned treatments on subjects like the Divine Liturgy and some are small booklets from his "Spiritual Life" series that speak to topics like illness, baptism, and repentance. They are all good and replete with notes that send you to other wonderful books to read. You're never more than a page away from a patristic source on any topic mundane or obscure.

He also has a catechism entitled The Orthodox Faith, Worship, and Life.

The Orthodox, Faith, Worship, and Life is an Orthodox catechism, suitable for students and teachers. Structurally, it is based on the Creed, and divided into three sections: 1) The Faith of the Church, 2) The Worshipping Church, 3) The Life in Christ. The entire Table of Contents can be found by following this link.

While its contents are extensive, and the references to the writings of the Holy Fathers are copious, it remains easy to read and understand.

This edition has been completely redesigned for its wide-release to the English speaking world.

So, to borrow from the argot of my people, I'm going to move catechetical materials from the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" category to the "hold my beer" category. The hand-outs and videos and book recommendations will stay as they are, but I am more than a little excited to see how this new text is received. It will form the basis for follow-up post around Paschaltide if not earlier on the experience. Any of your own experiences with the good author's books or this book in particular I'd be happy to read in the comments section.

1 comment:

  1. I've used Fr. Coniaris' book as my primary catechism book since I started teaching our Orthodoxy 101 classes about 12 years ago. I initially chose it for two reasons: ease of understanding, and it came with a study guide of questions to ask. I teach the class twice per year (8 weeks each), and ended up setting aside the study guide after the third or fourth class, as I began to develop my own questions based on what I was hearing from the inquirers. Over the years, the book has been supplemented with many handouts, videos, and other resources. I believe this book is now on its 24th printing. I still have the 11th printing which Fr. Coniaris signed for me.