A Last Minute Word to Catechumens

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“Are we really going to do this?”

Those were the words I greeted by dear wife with upon waking in our hotel room on February 15, 1998. We were in Columbia, SC, for the purpose of being received into the Orthodox Church by Father Peter Smith (then Rector of Holy Apostles in Columbia). Along with us were our four children, the oldest being 17 and the youngest age 7. This day that we had discussed and fantasized about for the whole of that decade was now upon us.

I had left the Episcopal Church; formally and voluntarily renounced my holy orders (it seemed the gentleman’s way of leaving) accepted a job as a Hospice Chaplain, and were now to be received into the Church. The week before was my last Sunday as an Episcopal priest. I had said my last Mass, preached my farewell sermon, and cried with many friends whom I knew I would be leaving.

As for catechumenate: my spiritual father later told me that it would have been better had we spent a few months as catechumens before being received into the Church. But such was not the case. The directive from the Archbishop to Father Peter was: “Chrismate them now. They’ve waited long enough!” Added to that was his request that I immediately accept the position as lay pastor for the newly founded OCA mission in the Knoxville, TN area. I had no idea what I was saying yes to. Nor have I ever looked back.

My wife’s answer that Sunday morning (accompanied by a groan) was, “Yes, we’re really going to do this.” As if I thought there could be any other answer. Given what I’ve seen since, I am deeply grateful that we were actually intact as a family, all reasonably healthy (no bugs, no infections) and together in Columbia for the day.

We were received. When our youngest, Clare, read the oath, “This true faith of the Orthodox Church, which I now voluntarily confess and truly hold, that same I will firmly maintain and confess, whole and unchanged, even until my last breath, God helping me. And I will teach and proclaim it, insofar as I am able. And I will strive to fulfill its obligations with zeal and joy, preserving my heart in good deeds and blamelessness. In witness of this, my true and pure-hearted confession, I kiss the Word and Cross of my Savior. Amen,” her voice rang clear and pure. She was a good reader and did not stumble in the least – either over the difficulty of some words, much less the boldness of what she was saying. You could hear the echo of the many child martyrs the Church has known through the ages. Somehow all of us felt embarrassed by the purity and sincerity of her words – purity that older men and women rarely have any longer.

I was overwhelmed by the day and in many ways still feel overwhelmed. The 17 and 15 year olds are now married to priests, and will put their oath to the test far more than they could have imagined on that day.

The child of 7 is now 16, driving her own car, but it’s in the parking lot of the Church every Sunday and a number of other times. She knows who she is and what she promised.

And I am now a man heading to his mid-fifties. I have a congregation and a parish I could not have imagined on that day.

None of us can know the fullness of what we promise as we say, “Yes!” to God and to His Church. But what I know for a truth is that the fullness that is given to us is nothing less than God Himself. That is both staggering and renewing. To this day I feel like David in King Saul’s armor: far too small for the task set before me.

Tomorrow I will take my place and Baptize and Chrismate others. None of them can know yet the fullness that lies before them, because there are not words to describe it. But I know it to be the fullness that “filleth all in all.” My prayer is that God keep safe all the catechumens around the globe this week. Preserve them from harm, from doubt, from fear or alarm. Coming home is not a fearful thing – it is the thing we were all created for.

So that Sunday morning in 1998, I did what my wife told me: I got out of bed, put on my pants and shirt and headed home to Church.

25 Responses to “A Last Minute Word to Catechumens”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    The photo is with my young family (about 10 years ago) in our mission in the “Warehouse” not terribly long after our Chrismations. The children are all taller, and I am, doubtless, shorter and more gray.

  2. Steve Says:

    I would be interested in knowing more about your time as a lay pastor and how it worked.

    I have been trying to persuade our biahop to have some people as lay pastors, and an example of how it worked in other places could be useful.

  3. Mimi Says:

    Father, bless,

    I had to click on the photo to see you guys up close! Thanks be to God.
    What a beautiful post as those who are being illumined in the next week approach their big day, and for those of us who remember them in our prayers, and remember our big days.

  4. Sophocles Says:

    Father Bless,

    Thank you as always for your thoughtful reflections which do that which is best to those reading: I reflect and view myself and in this case my journey in the Orthodox Faith which truly unfolds itself ever moreso and continually stuns me with its beauty and power.
    You have enriched my own Faith.
    May our wonderful and gracious Lord always illumine your heart, dear Father.

    In Christ and in fellowship,

  5. Meg Says:

    Father, the priest who chrismated you — Father Peter Smith — was he from Brooklyn, NY, do you know? I mean, did he tawk like people on “Seinfeld,” and does he now have a parish in Atlanta? I used to correspond with him a few years ago, and we always laughed about our mutual background. I miss him!

    Many years to your new catechumens, and to you, dear Father. Wishing you and your family a most blessed Holy Week and Pascha!

  6. Margaret Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for sharing this. We thank you and your family for your willingness to serve.

    We are almost two years out of the Episcopal Church. We were welcomed home into Orthodoxy a year ago this Holy Saturday. I continue to be amazed at the way our family has been blessed by God through His Church!

    May God grant you and your family many years!

  7. A Kiss and a Vow | Kevin Basil Says:

    […] Read the rest: A Last Minute Word to Catechumens « Glory to God for All Things […]

  8. Fatherstephen Says:

    Meg,

    Yes, the very same Fr. Peter (who is also my Godfather). There was a time when I thought of Orthodoxy as purely “ethnic” (not English or American or something like that). When I met Fr. Peter and the good people at Holy Apostles it was as American as hotdogs. Not exactly Southern 🙂 but whatever my excuses were that thought that Orthodoxy was not a place for Anglo’s like me were completely removed after meeting Fr. Peter.

  9. EYTYXOΣ Says:

    Father, bless,

    Pray for us, too – 11 of us (3 children) are entering the church by baptism and chrismation on Holy Saturday, and a five more (including 3 children, one of whom is the newborn grandchild of one of your parishioners) a short while later when the 40 days after childbirth have passed.

  10. Matt Says:

    Eric, you are entering by chrismation AND baptism? Have you not been baptized in the name of the Trinity already? Fr. Joseph told us that if we have been baptized in the name of the Trinity that we do not need to undergo baptism again in the Orthodox Church – just chrismation. So I’m confused now. My wife and children and I have all been baptized in the name of the Trinity, but I don’t want to miss out on something. If it is proper and right for us to receive the sacrament of baptism in the Orthodox Church, then we should do so.

    Are there other catechumens/converts out there who had already been baptized in the name of the Trinity, yet, upon joining the Orthodox Church, were baptized again? There seems to be a variety of opinion out there regarding this issue, but it doesn’t seem to be one of those things that should generate different opinions within Orthodoxy.

    Very curious as to Father Stephen’s thoughts on this matter and other folks’ experiences . . .

  11. Michael Bauman Says:

    Matt: Remember what Jesus told Peter when Peter asked Jesus about John. The essence was not to worry yourself about what path others are called to, but what path I, Jesus, am calling you to. Trust your priest, be obedient to you bishop, confess your sins and “go forth with no further care”. Have a blessed Holy Week and many years to you in the embrace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  12. mrh Says:

    While I agree with Michael Bauman’s advice, I also sympathize with prospective converts who are disturbed when they find practices in the Orthodox Church are not quite so uniform as they imagined. Those of us coming from communions that promised a degree of uniformity they couldn’t deliver may be understandably skittish.

    So perhaps it’s okay to state that practices in reception of converts do vary somewhat from bishop to bishop and from one jurisdiction to another, and are applied with some degree of discretion by individual priests under the guidance of their bishops. And it has always been so, dating back to the Donatist schism at least. Judging by what I read on the internet, much harm has been done by people who assume that every practice of their own priest or bishop or synod is universally binding Orthodox Dogma, and go around denouncing everyone who does things differently as heretics.

  13. Audrey Says:

    Thank you for your word. I am coming into the Church on Saturday and I am reeling under the glorious moment I anticipate. . .

  14. Fatherstephen Says:

    Becoming Orthodox has to include an understanding of what is uniform and what is not. The Canons themselves allow for a variety of ways of receiving the heterodox, etc. And how those canons are applied is invariably interpreted in different ways. The end is the same. You are received into the Church. You do not miss something if how one bishop or jurisdiction receives differs from another. The grace of Chrismation and the grace of Baptism are one Grace. There is only one grace – that is the Divine Life of God.

  15. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    Father, bless!

    Your story provides great encouragement to me and to other former Episcopalians. Leaving the Episcopal Church and coming home to the True Faith has been pure joy. Not easy… (I’ve been sick for 6 weeks, recovering slowly from pneumonia), but nonehteless, joyful and precious. I wish had come home sooner, but God’s timing is always perfect. May HIS Name be praised.

    Your blog blesses me and many others. Thanks for providing this ministry, which I know takes a good deal of effort and time.

  16. Matt Says:

    Michael – right on. I just want to make sure we’re not missing anything by receiving chrismation only. Father Stephen’s clarification makes me feel much better.

    Bless, Father.

  17. Fatherstephen Says:

    With great joy (I need a bigger word) we received 14 by Chrismation today and 1 by Baptism at St. Anne. The service lasted from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Afterwards we began to fold the palm crosses for tomorrow. But it felt like Pascha (Lazarus Saturday should feel something like Pascha). My joy could not have been greater.

    I’m sure each family and individual would have a story to share. For some it’s been a longer journey than others but for all, a journey home.

    I am greeting a Russian delegation this afternoon from Oak Ridge’s sister city. Had to do some quick study to be sure how to say “Palm Sunday” in Russian. They’ll be surprised to be given palms instead of pussy willows! Life just gets more interesting.

  18. handmaidleah Says:

    My husband had never been baptized having been raised in the Baptist church, he’d never taken that step, I had been baptaized as a Methodist, in the name of the Trinity but it wasn’t a full immersion baptism and my son was baptised in the Episcopal church and it wasn’t an immersion baptism either. Our priest, Fr. Nicholas, decided to baptize all of us. I am extremely grateful that he did on a personal level. That day means so very much to me.
    I have listened to priests talk about the economia about baptisms. That in the desert, in case of emergency one can baptize by holding an infant up in the air if need be or with sand, that such baptisms have been done historically, in desert regions and though not the perferred method, if we are talking ideals the living waters of the Jordan River would be perfect!, but in an emergency God provides the grace and that is what matters.
    The key thing is that we have come to the hospital, we are anointed with oil and we are healed.
    Our prayers and our joy are with those who have been welcomed into he family!
    May God bless the newly illumined!
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,
    mary-leah

  19. Frances Says:

    Probably the reason some people who have already been baptized are rebaptized is that they can’t document the first baptism. I almost fell into this category last year. I was baptized in a Southern Baptist church in Atlanta, GA when I was nine years old–many, many years ago! I had been baptized by immersion and in the name of the FAther, Son, and Holy Ghost, so my priest was perfectly willing to consider my baptism valid.

    HOwever, I had no documentation of it and my priest said that if I couldn’t document it, I would have to be rebaptized. For various personal reasons I wanted to honor that earlier baptism, so I went to work to obtain the documentation. It wasn’t easy! The church had changed its name and moved to the suburbs, but finally after many phone calls and letters, I tracked down the church and they still had a record of my baptism!

    As a result, I was received into the Church by chrismation last Palm Sunday, almost a year ago. It has been a blessed year.

  20. EYTYXOΣ Says:

    I responded to Matt’s email query to me about this why some of us who have been baptized before are being baptized on Holy Saturday. Archbishop +Dmitri gave the okay to our priest after hearing/reading the reasons our priest presented to him, many of which were based on our individual requests to be baptized and our explanations why. It really is up to the bishop as I understand it, and I also understand that chrismation completes anything lacking when a prior baptism is accepted. I don’t want to confuse things by giving all our religious backgrounds and the reasons for our requests, because I’m sure there are converts in similar situations whose bishop would not consider rebaptism right or necessary. Those of us who were given permission to be rebaptized are joyful about that, but even had we not been granted it, we would rejoice in our entrance into the Church by chrismation only. May you have a blessed Palm Sunday.

  21. James the Thickheaded Says:

    “Are we really doing this?”

    The exact words that ran through my mind just prior to Chrismation. You step out (of where you came from), you step in (to the Orthodox Church and faith), you puzzle a bit and wonder (see above), and then you step up and forward.

    Thanks be to God!

  22. Barnabas Powell Says:

    Oh, Father, we share a godfather! Fr. Peter Smith received us as we entered the Church in 2001 at St. Mary of Egypt parish. What a glorious day!

    And now we deliberately move to the Cross and then to the Tomb, but even now “the night that is brighter than the day” mixes joy and weeping together!

    Kali Anastasi!

  23. Fatherstephen Says:

    Barnabas,

    There are very many of us who owe a great deal to Fr. Peter – more than may every be known (I hope he doesn’t read blogs!). But I pray that God reward him abundantly for the great kindness and strength he has shown and his steady witness to the Orthodox faith.

  24. kh.kathryn Says:

    This story dances across a soft place of my heart, like tiny fingers tickling! The memory of that cold morning, and of Clare’s clear voice setting the path ahead for us all.

    “None of us can know the fullness of what we promise as we say, “Yes!” to God and to His Church. But what I know for a truth is that the fullness that is given to us is nothing less than God Himself. That is both staggering and renewing. To this day I feel like David in King Saul’s armor: far too small for the task set before me.”

    How this speaks to me!

    Love you,
    K

  25. fatherstephen Says:

    My dearest Khouria (this is one of my daughters),

    I have always thought that you children showed the most amazing courage. Your mother and I knew (more or less) what we were doing and felt daunted, and you all had even less of an inkling, and yet there you were. What trust (though I know there were questions). And God got us all through even to where we are now.

    And so now again, we do not know precisely what we are doing or what we are getting ourselves into day by day – except that the same God is the One Who lead us in. So it must be better than we imagined, despite anything we think or see to the contrary.

    I cannot think of a greater joy in my life than the day I entered this journey with the family. And you know well how frightful so much of it was – but I would not want my life without this journey. May God bless your Pascha and shower His gifts on Father Philip!

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