Would we catechize Benedict XVI, Thérèse of Lisieux, John Paul II, or Mother Teresa if they wished to become Orthodox?
The reception of converts from heterodox confessions inevitably raises a variety of questions. The method of reception, the question of serving an Orthodox marriage for those who have lived married for years before coming to the Church, and questions surrounding clerical office are most common. The question of the need for catechism is not usually up for grabs: it is assumed that any convert would receive some kind of satisfactory catechism before (and sometimes even after) entering the Church.
An interesting twist on this question recently arose in an Orthodox forum on the topic of ecumenism: what would happen if notable heterodox, such as a Roman Catholic pope, were to convert to Orthodoxy? What about someone that the Roman Catholics recognize as a saint? Surely, such individuals would have immense learning, perhaps extensive theological degrees, and in some cases, even immense holiness? Surely, such an individual would not require catechism? They could teach the Orthodox a thing or two about their own Orthodox Faith - couldn't they?
The fact that the question emerges reveals something of the lack of a deep understanding of the nature of Orthodox catechism, something which is not only relevant with such celebrated conversions, but more importantly, in cases of catechism for all of us "regular" folk. If catechism is such an important process (and it is), how can one determine if one is actually receiving a "good" catechism?
We must begin by asking, what is the purpose of Orthodox catechism? Unlike catechism amoung heterodox believers, catechism is not primarily about understanding what the faith believes, or the liturgical life, or the meaning of icons. All these things come into play during proper catechism, but none of them represent the essence of true Orthodox catechesis. The primary purpose of a good catechism is to help the catechumen acquire the mind of the Church - the same manner of seeing the world, God, and our human condition, that the saints of all times and places share.
Catechism is about acquiring an Orthodox heart, not about academic study. Although reading is helpful and important, it is not the heart of the matter. Many so-called "Orthodox" academics and some seminaries have forgotten this, adopting the westernized concept that we know God through the mind. Such thinking leads to the idea that even liturgical and prayer should be reconstructed based on academic study, rather than inherited, living experience of Holy Tradition. This is foreign to the mind and heart of the Church - the mind and heart that one must desire more than anything, if one is to be one with the Body of Christ, the Orthodox Church.
&Many converts to Orthodoxy (and not a few Orthodox who have been raised in the Church) suffer from what has been called "pseudomorphisism" - the approach to the Faith using "false forms" of understanding or outlook. In this respect, it is harder to come to the Church from heterodoxy than from a non-Christian background. The differences are sometimes subtle, and we can think we know what we do not.
How does this "pseudomorphisism" manifest itself? False forms (that is, forms of worship and belief foreign to the collected wisdom and experience of the Church) are evident in the casual incorporation into prayer and worship of practices with which an individual or group is comfortable, but which have no root in Orthodox practice. A convert from Pentecostalism who raises her hands during the Divine Liturgy, or a convert from Roman Catholicism who continued to use the Rosary would be two examples. There are examples, both ancient and modern, of converts who are warm to the idea of "speaking in tongues", not as it is seen at the first Pentecost, but rather as it is displayed at protestant charismatic revival meetings. Some of these kind of practices - including this manner of "speaking in tongues" - have been condemned as heresies by the Church long ago, while others simply run counter to the witness of Holy Tradition, that collected measure of belief, morals, and worship shared by the saints across time and place.
When one comes to the Church, it is reasonable to assume that an individual wants all She has to give: the fullness of faith, practice, and belief, the life-changing medicine of ascetical discipline, and the Holy Mysteries. In coming to the Orthodox Church, one is saying no to the spiritual salad bar of our times, and yes to the Orthodox Faith. This move means leaving the mind of the world - including the heterodox mind - behind, in order to humbly seek instruction from the Bride of the Lord, His Church and its saints, who reflect His Likeness.
Catechism represents in a concentrated way the whole labour of the Orthodox life: the acquisition of the mind and heart of the Church, in order to acquire holiness in following the same path as the saints. Justin Popovich, a great saint of our time and land who received an honourary doctorate from St. Vladimir's Seminary, recognized the distinct difference in spirit that exists between Orthodoxy and the mind outside the Church, going so far as to condemn the blurring of the two through so-called "ecumenical" dialogue as the greatest heresy of our time. The witness of a legion of other saints reflects the same approach.
That the Holy Spirit is active in drawing people from all backgrounds to the Church is evidenced in the face of missions throughout the world today. The great task of Orthodox mission work is to do everything possible to share the mind and heart of Holy Tradition, in order that those who come to the Orthodox Church might not be deprived of Her fullness, or given a distorted picture as the fragile foundation of their newly planted Orthodox faith. The prayers of the saints, the services of the Church, the gift of holy icons, the observance of the fasts, experience of the authentic Orthodox monastic tradition - all of these are gifts we can and must give through catechism. One does not have to be a priest to give them: the missionary obligation, to share the faith, to teach it by word and example, is an obligation for all of us. If even a child can share the life of a saint, kiss an icon, or speak a prayer, those of us who are "mature" can and must do at least that for our beloved brothers and sisters who come to the Orthodox faith. Since we hear from our Lord that we must become as children in order to inherit the Kingdom, we must actually strive to do this, whoever we are, and wherever we come from.
Which in the case of catechism, means everyone.