The Ethos of Orthodox Catechesis: The Mind of the Orthodox Church (Part 2)


By Fr. George Morelli

Orthodox Church founded by Christ

Christ who is begotten and sent from the Father and sanctified by the Holy Spirit -- can only be known by acquiring and living one's life according to The Mind of the Church. As St. Paul tells us: "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2. 5). The Mind of Christ and His Church was sealed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and has passed down to the Church to the present day.

The Mind of Christ and His Church expressed in Sacred Tradition

Let me recount St. Paul’s words: "I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you" (1 Corinthians 11:2). St Paul told the Ephesians "you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone . . . “ (2:19,30).

The Ministry of the ApostlesThe Ministry of the Apostles

Must be in continuity with the Apostles and union with their bishop successors

St. Luke told his readers: "Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, [bishops and priests] to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28). Following St. Paul, these traditions, oral first and then written, were passed from the apostles to their successors, the bishops and priests.

The Mind of the Church, then, refers to the collective teaching of what it takes to be a true follower of Christ by those recognized by the Church as authentic followers of Christ whose teaching and way of life can be trusted. These teachers stand on and within the Gospel of Christ given to us by the Apostles and which constitute and judge the Church even today.

All we have in the Church, its oral tradition, written tradition (Holy Scripture), Holy Mysteries, Liturgy, prayers, teachings of the Church Fathers and saints, holy councils, icons, architecture, music, all proclaim the glory and mind of Christ. Interestingly Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev (2009) highlights that both liturgical tradition and the Councils of the Church are reflective of the Church as "unconditional and indisputable authority." This sacred aggregate is the Mind of the Church.

The focal point of catechesis: The Orthodox Church

Orthodoxy, that is to say the Mind of Christ and His Church, must be the ethos of catechesis. Unfortunately, I have heard it said for example: "Church school should be 50% Bible Study and 50% the Orthodox Church.” God forbid! Absolutely not!  The focal point of catechesis must be 100% The Orthodox Church. However, as Constantelos (1966) informs us, significant scriptural components can be found in every worship service of the Church.  He states that the ". . . Orthodox Church is very much a Scriptural Church . . . par excellence."  May I emphasize again, quite importantly, however, that the apprehension of Sacred Scripture can be only as understood by the Holy Spirit-inspired Church. To accentuate this point may I reference the title of an outstanding book, echoing the Mind of the Church: Scripture in Tradition (Breck, 2001).

Catechetical praxis: Connections

Several years ago The Learning Channel (TLC) ran a TV series developed by science historian David Burke called Connections. The premise of the show was that one cannot consider the development of any event in isolation. Rather, all must be seen as a gestalt,  a web of interconnected events.iii This is a perfect definition of the Orthodox Church of Christ and how the revelation of Christ and the mind of His Church should be taught as well.

Findings from Educational Psychology

The use of 'connections' in catechetics is consistent with study findings from educational psychology research laboratories.  In a review of the literature on transfer of learning, Sternberg and Frensch (1993) point out that numerous studies indicate transfer [improved learning]  is likely to occur when material is presented: in multiple settings, is organized, that is to say "connected" with material already known by the student; when  common themes are highlighted across different lessons and when students are  challenged to apply these  themes to new learning. Similarly, Greeno, Collins, and Resnick, 1996 point out the importance of "multiple representations of content."

Orthodoxy: It is all interrelated

In fact, this article and many of my past writing are based on connections. In this article I am referencing Church Tradition, Sacred Scripture, the Divine Liturgy, prayer, the counsels and sayings of the Church Fathers, icons and architecture. Understandingly I pray, is my omission of music.   Now plainly, I cannot cover the entirety of the Church in one basic essay on Catechesis. But at least I can demonstrate how a specific topic can be presented based as a unified whole, all parts interrelated and connected, which at the end presents a spiritual perception that transcends any of the parts taken alone. Essential to making these 'connections' efficacious in the journey to eternal salvation is the 'Domestic Church.'

The Holy FamilyThe Holy FamilyThe Domestic Church

Ideally, a true Orthodox Christian domestic church in our day should look like (but is not limited to) something like this: Jesus Christ is at the center or hub. Husbands, and wives, as such, and as fathers and mothers, should be the leaders of the "church at home" in Christ's name. They should bless one another and their children, bless the food which is partaken, give thanksgiving for all that God has provided (house, furnishings, etc.), thank God for health and talents, and lead by the sanctity of their conduct as well as their words (Morelli, 2005c).

No catechesis can take place without the full deployment of the Domestic Church. The Orthodox family home has to reflect in its entirety the teachings of Christ and the application of these teachings as understood by His Church in the world today. Formal parish catechetical lessons usually at best may last 45 minutes to 1 hour a week. The number of hours in an entire week is 168 hours. Considering of the importance of models in shaping behavior (Morelli, 2007, 2008, 2009), how much impact can a 1 hour Church School have when it is not reflected in the family lifestyle during the other 167 hours comprising the week?

An expanded outline of how the Domestic Church can fulfill its obligation to preach, teach and practice Christ can be found in Morelli, 2009.

Children are probably among the greatest hypocrisy detectors in the world. When they witness and experience a discrepancy between what they are taught by Christ and His Church and what is practiced in the Domestic Church the consequences are spiritually and morally devastating. The disconnect is immediately seen. The children's faith in the credibility of the Christian understanding of husband-wife, father-mother, family life and/or the moral authority of Christ and the message of His Church is shattered. Contemplate Our Lord's dire warning: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea." (Mk 9:42).

A few specific highlights

Always start out by asking children what they know or think about whatever it is that is up for discussion. It could be a catechetical topic, like in the example above: "What is the Church? or a moral issue like same-sex marriage. Three caveats: 1) let the child speak; 2) don't answer your own questions; and 3) don't assume you know what the child knows or is going to say; 4) don't preach.

Help the child make connections based on the child's understanding by asking questions. If the child does not make a connection, make show the child what it is and then query the child's understanding.

This approach is actually making use of a cognitive-educational model called the Socratic Method (Beck, 1995). Using this technique, the catechist or parent does not initially give data, knowledge or wisdom directly. Instead, the student discovers it as a result of answering a series of questions that are posed. When a child discovers something for himself, or makes appropriate connections between things, it is far more meaningful than referencing authority. When a parent asks questions like "What do you think?" or, "How is this related to what we learned in . . . (Scripture, reading the Church Fathers, a homily or church school, etc.)," chances are much greater that the child will grasp and retain important points. Be ready to fill in any gaps in theological principles in a straightforward manner. In summary: don't preach; keep it simple; use clear, focused, examples. The spirit of the 'Domestic Church' should be the words of St. Paul: "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind." (Rm 12: 2).