1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Catechumen

CATECHUMEN (Lat. catechumenus, Gr. κατηχούμενος, instructed, from κατηχεῖν, to teach orally), an ecclesiastical term applied to those receiving instruction in the principles of the Christian religion with a view to baptism. As soon as Christianity became a missionary religion, it was found necessary to make arrangements for giving instruction to new converts. At the beginning the Apostles themselves seem to have undertaken this duty, and the instruction was apparently given after baptism, for in Acts ii. 41, 42, we are told that “they that gladly received the word were baptized ... and they continued stedfastly in the Apostles’ teaching.” There are two instances in the New Testament where reference is made to individual instruction in this technical sense. Luke (i. 4) in dedicating the third Gospel to Theophilus tells him that his aim in writing the book was “that thou mightest have certainty in the things in which thou has been instructed” (κατηχήθης) and we are told that Apollos was instructed (κατηχημένος) “in the way of the Lord” (Acts xviii. 25).

With the development of Christianity the instruction became more definite and formal. It is probable that the duty of instructing converts was assigned to “the teachers,” who are ranked by Paul immediately after the Apostles and prophets (1 Cor. xii. 28), and occupied an important position in the Christian ministry. In the Didache, or Teaching of the Apostles, we have an excellent illustration of the teaching which was given to candidates for baptism in early times. There can be little doubt that the Didache was used as a manual for catechumens for several centuries. Athanasius (Festal Epistles, 39), for instance, says that “it was appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who are just recently coming to us, and wish to be instructed in the word of godliness” (κατηχεῖσθαι τὸν τῆς εὐσεβείας λόγον). The instruction prescribed by the Didache is very largely ethical, and stands in striking contrast to the more elaborate doctrinal teaching which came into vogue in later days. The Shepherd of Hermas too is another book which seems to have been used for the purpose of catechesis, for Eusebius says that it “was deemed most necessary for those who have need of elementary instruction” (Eccles. Hist. iii. 3-6).

With the rise of theological controversy and the growth of heresy catechetical instruction became of vital importance to the Church, and much greater importance was attached to it. After the middle of the 4th century it was regarded as essential that the candidate for baptism should not only be acquainted with the spiritual truths and ethical demands which form the basis of practical Christianity, but should also be trained in theology and the interpretation of the creeds. Two books have been preserved which throw a striking light upon the transformation which had taken place in the conception of catechesis; (1) the Catechetical Lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem; (2) the De rudibus Catechizandis of Augustine. Cyril’s Lectures may be termed the Pearson on the Creed of the 4th century. He takes each article separately, discusses it clause by clause, explains the meaning of each word, and justifies each statement from Scripture. Augustine’s treatise was written at the request of a catechist, named Deogratias, who had asked him for advice. After replying to the question of Deogratias, and giving sundry counsels as to the best method of interesting catechumens, Augustine concludes by giving a model catechetical lecture, in which he covers the whole of biblical history, beginning from the opening chapters of Genesis, and laying particular stress on the doctrinal parts of Scripture. Cyril and Augustine differ, as we should expect, in the doctrines which they select for emphasis, but they both agree in requiring a knowledge of sound doctrine on the part of the candidates.

In spite of the numerous references to catechumens in Patristic literature, our knowledge of the details of the system is often very deficient, and upon some points there is considerable diversity of opinion amongst experts. The following are the most important questions which come under consideration.

1. The Classification of Catechumens.—Bingham and many of the older writers held that there were four classes of catechumens, representing different stages in the process of instruction: (a) “The inquirers” whose interest in Christianity had been sufficiently aroused to make them desire further information, and who received private and individual instruction from the teachers before they were admitted into the second class, (b) “The hearers” (audientes), who were admitted into the Church for the purpose of listening to sermons and exhortations, (c) The prostrati or genu flectentes, who were allowed also to take part in the prayers, ('d) The electi or competentes, who had completed the period of probation and were deemed ready to receive baptism. Modern scholars, however, for the most part, deny that there is sufficient basis to justify this elaborate classification, and think that its advocates have confused the catechumenate with the system of penance. The evidence does not seem to warrant more than two classes, (a) the audientes, who were in the initial stages of their training, (b) the competentes, who were qualified for baptism.

2. The Relation of Catechumens to the Church.—Catechumens were allowed of course to attend church services, but at a certain point were dismissed with the words “Ite catechumeni, missa est.” The moment at which the dismissal took place cannot be exactly determined, and it is not clear whether the catechumens were allowed to remain for a portion of the Communion service, and if so, whether as spectators or as partial participants. A passage in Augustine seems to imply that in some way they shared in the Sacrament, “that which they (the catechumens) receive, though it be not the Body of Christ, is yet an holy thing and more holy than the common food which sustains us, because it is a Sacrament” (De peccatorum meritis, ii. 42). The explanation of these words has occasioned considerable controversy. Many scholars hold (and this certainly seems the most natural interpretation) that consecrated bread was taken from the Eucharist and given to the catechumens. Bingham, however, maintains that the reference is not to the consecrated bread, but to salt, which was given to them as a symbol “that they might learn to purge and cleanse their souls from sin.”

3. The Duration of the Training.—Various statements with regard to the duration of the catechumenical training are found in ecclesiastical authorities. The Apostolical Constitutions, for instance, fix it at three years;[1] the synod of Elvira at two.[2] The references in the Fathers, however, imply that for practical purposes it was limited to the forty days of Lent. Very probably, however, the forty days of actual instruction were preceded by a period of probation.

4. The Relation between the Catechumenate and Baptism.—Catechetical instruction was designed as a preliminary to baptism. There were two directions, however, in which this purpose was enlarged: (a) We have no reason to suppose that when infant baptism was introduced, those who had been baptized in infancy were excluded from the catechetical training, or that instruction was deemed unnecessary in their case, though as a matter of fact we have no definite reference to their admission. The custom of postponing baptism, which was very general in the 4th and 5th centuries, probably made such cases more rare than is generally supposed, and so accounts for the absence of any allusion to them in connexion with the catechumenate. (b) We have no reason to suppose that the instruction given in the famous catechetical schools of Alexandria and Carthage was restricted to candidates for baptism. There is no doubt that “catechetical” is used in a much wider sense when applied to the lectures of Origen than when used of the addresses of Cyril of Jerusalem. The “instruction” of Origen was given to all classes of Christians, and not merely to those who were in the initial stages.

5. Characteristics of the Catechumenical Training.—Besides instruction there were some other important features connected with the catechumenate. (a) The duty of confession was impressed on the candidates. (b) The ceremony of exorcism was often performed in order to free the catechumen from evil spirits. (c) At a certain point in the training the creed and the doctrine of the Sacraments were delivered to the candidates by the bishop with much impressive ceremonial. This teaching constituted the “holy secret” or “mystery” (disciplina arcani) of Christianity, and could only be imparted to those who were qualified to receive it. The acquisition of this arcanum was regarded as the most essential element in the catechetical discipline, and marked off its possessors from the rest of the world. There can be little doubt that this conception of the “Holy Secret” came into the Church originally from the Greek mysteries, and that much of the ceremonial connected with the catechumenate and baptism was derived from the same source.

Authorities.—Cyril, Catecheses; Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio Catechetica; Chrysostom, Catecheses ad illuminandos; Augustine, De rudibus Catechizandis; Mayer, Geschichte des Katechumenats ... in den ersten sechs Jahrhunderten (1868); S. Cheetham, The Mysteries, Pagan and Christian.  (H. T. A.) 

  1. Apost. Constit. viii 2.
  2. Canon 42.