The course of a human life on earth—if it reaches its natural conclusion—begins in the moment of conception in the womb, extends from childhood to adulthood, and culminates at last in the sleep of bodily death. But the stages of human life differ for each soul, and every path that any given person might take, whether chosen or unchosen, leads to possibilities either of sanctity or of spiritual slavery. And in each life the opportunities for ascetic self-denial in service of God’s love, and for the work of transfiguring creation, are unique.
The proper end of every life well-lived is that of “seeing God face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12), of theosis: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Yet the journey each person takes through life is also beset by temptations, most especially the temptation to follow those paths that lead only to one’s own advantages or aggrandizements rather than to expressions of love for God and solidarity with neighbor.
The Church seeks to accompany the Christian soul all along its way in this world, providing not only counsel but also the means of achieving holiness. And, at every stage, the Church proposes diverse models of life in Christ, diverse vocations for Christian living embraced within the one supreme vocation to seek the Kingdom of God and its justice.
The Orthodox Church’s reverence for God’s image, even in the smallest among us, is expressed not only in the baptism of infants, but also in their immediate admission to the Eucharist. There could be no greater sacramental affirmation of Christ’s instruction to his disciples to find the truest model of life in God’s Kingdom in the innocence of children (Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14–16, Luke 18:16–17). Christ himself entered the world by way of his mother’s womb, and passed through both infancy and childhood, growing in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52).
Every aspect of human life has been sanctified and glorified in having been assumed by the eternal Son of God; but, in becoming subject to the fragility and dependency of infancy and childhood, the Son revealed with a very special emphasis the astonishing magnitude of God’s self-outpouring love in the work of salvation. The innocence of children is, therefore, a thing of extraordinary holiness, a sign of the life of the Kingdom graciously present in our very midst, and must be the object of the Church’s ceaseless concern and diligence.
The protection and care of children is the most basic and most essential index of any society’s dedication to the good. As Christ warned us, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6; cf. Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2). Sins against the innocence of children are sins of an especially loathsome kind.
No offense against God is worse than is the sexual abuse of children, and none more intolerable to the conscience of the Church. All members of Christ’s body are charged with the protection of the young against such violation, and there is no situation in which a member of the Church, on learning of any case of the sexual abuse of a child, may fail immediately to report it to the civil authorities and to the local bishop.
Moreover, every faithful Christian is no less bound to expose those who would conceal such crimes from public knowledge or shield them from legal punishment. Neither should any priest ever grant absolution to the perpetrator of such a crime until the latter has surrendered himself or herself to criminal prosecution.
The Church is called also to strive for the protection of children around the globe who are—even in an era in which childhood mortality and disease are in decline globally—still subject in many places to war, enslavement, destitution, child labor, and (in the special case of young girls) arranged marriages, often as child brides.
So long as these conditions persist in any part of the world, the Church cannot rest in its efforts to end them, by appeal to government authorities, by charitable aid, by assistance in systems of adoption, and by advocacy on behalf of these little ones.
It is also the Church’s responsibility to work everywhere for the general improvement of childhood conditions in places where there is insufficient access to clean water, good medical care, vaccinations, and other basic necessities.
At no time can the Church cease to make clear to all children that they are known and loved by God, or fail to celebrate the exceptional charisms of childhood: spontaneous joy, curiosity, imagination, and trust. Indeed, as Christ taught us, adults should learn to emulate children in these natural gifts: “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).