Earliest Data (§ 1).
According to the Church Fathers (§ 2).
First Period of Development (§ 3).
Second Period of Developent (§ 4).
Decline of the Catechumenate (§ 5).
Ritual Survivals (§ 6).
Catechumenate is a term applied to the method of receiving and instructing, in preparation for baptism, those who applied for membership in the early Christian Church. As soon as the apostolic mission had reached the stage of founding a Christian society, it was natural that those who wished to enter it should be required to go through a course of instruction as to the meaning of the hopes which it held out and the demands which it made of its members. Our information as to the method pursued in the earliest period is very scanty. Apparently the gatherings of the disciples were at first freely opened to any one (I Cor. xiv. 24) who desired to know more of their faith and practise; and baptism was probably often administered with but a short delay. As time went on, more care was exercised; the need of it was demonstrated by cases of relapse into heathenism and of the seeking of membership from interested or treacherous motives. We find traces of this greater caution as early as the first Apology of Justin (c. 150). A demand is made for some security as to the belief and conduct of the candidate, who is not apparently admitted to the assembly of the faithful until he has been adjudged worthy of baptism. How this security was obtained is not clear; the preparation seems to have been private, and the one who conducted it probably answered for the candidate, as at once sponsor and catechist.
To sum up, then, what has been said, Origen shows a development of the catechumenate from what Justin gives, while Tertullian exhibits an intermediate stage. We must, however, remember that these witnesses are from different parts of the Church. The development was probably largely influenced by local conditions. In Tertullian's
This second or established period covers roughly the fourth and early fifth centuries. The candidate, accompanied by a sponsor, announces his desire, normally to a deacon, who informs the bishop or presbyter. The grounds of his desire are investigated; people of certain sinful or dubious occupations are ipso facto excluded unless they will abandon them. If the candidate is acceptable, he receives a preliminary instruction, and is then set apart by the sign of the cross, laying on of hands, and (in the West) with blessed salt, as a catechumen. For a time he receives no special instruction, sharing that which the whole congregation gets in the missa catechumenorum, though departing before the later and more solemn part of the liturgy. After two (or three) years, he may ask for baptism; he enters the class of competentes, and his name is inscribed on the church list. The immediate preparation includes special instructions, usually given by the bishop; certain ceremonies, especially of exorcism, which show the influence of the pagan mysteries; and finally the traditio symboli, or instruction in the precise words of the baptismal creed, whose general sense has long been known to him. After learning and repeating this, he is taught the words of the Lord's Prayer, which has also been withheld from him until now by the Arcani disciplina. The recitation of the creed as a solemn act and the final renunciation of paganism accompany the act of baptism, which usually takes place in the night before Easter. During the following week the neophyte receives further instructions, and on the next Sunday, still wearing his white baptismal robe, he takes his place among the congregation as a baptized Christian, and joins in the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, the prayer of the children of God. As to the matter contained in the instructions to the catechumen in this period, fullest information comes from Augustine in the West and Cyril of Jerusalem in the East.
The decline of the institution was brought about by the constantly increasing numbers of those who sought admission to the Church. A thorough examination of them all became impossible; the preliminary instruction was gradually dropped, and the catechumenate was reduced to the immediate preparation for baptism. The growing practise of baptizing infants and young children completed the process, since there was no place for instruction in their case. Something still remained, however, of the ancient procedure.
When the time came that nothing remained of the original institutions of the catechumenate except the outward ceremonies, these were more and more condensed, until they formed but a single rite leading up to the baptism which immediately followed them. In the Ordo baptismi of the Roman Ritual the order of the ancient preparations for baptism may still be traced without difficulty, and not a few relics of it remain in the evangelical baptismal ceremonies (see BAPTISM).
A very interesting survival of the ancient catechumenate is found in the Armenian work found among the modern Paulicians, translated and edited by F. C. Conybeare (The Key of Truth: A Manual of the Paulician Church of Armenia, Oxford, 1898) and believed by the editor to have been written not later than the ninth century and to represent an almost primitive form of Oriental Christianity. It is adoptionist in its Christology and drastic in its opposition to infant-baptism. It provides for a solemn consecration of the infant of Christian parents by the minister when it is seven days old, the careful training by parents and church until maturity is reached, the thorough testing of the candidates for baptism in life and in knowledge of Christian doctrine and morals, and the administration of baptism with considerable ceremony to those who have fulfilled all the conditions and have attained to the age at which Christ was baptized. A brief catechism, embracing the points of doctrine in which catechumens must be grounded, is given at the end.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: The sources are to be found in the works of Justin Martyr, Origen's Contra Celsum, the "Catechetical Lectures" of Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine's De catechizandis rudibus, and the Didache, all of which are accessible in Eng. transl. The history of the institution is traced in: G. von Zezschwitz, System der christlichen Katechetik, 2 vols., Leipsic, 1863-72; J. Mayer, Geschichte des Katechumenats . . . in den ersten sechs Jahrhunderten, Kempten, 1866 (Roman Catholic); A. Weiss, Die altkirchliche Paedagogik . . . der ersten sechs Jahrhunderte, Freiburg, 1869; F. X. Funk, in Tübinger Theologische Quartalschrift, 1883, pp. 41-77, 1886, pp. 353 sqq., 1899, pp. 434 sqq.; E. Hatch, Organization of the Early Churches, London, 1888; J. Heron, Church of Sub-Apostolic Age; its Life, Worship, and Organization, London, 1888; E. Sachsse, Evangelische Katechetik; die Lehre von der kirchlichen Erziehung, Berlin, 1897; F. Wiegand, Die Stellung des apostolischen Symbols im kirchlichen Leben des Mittelalters, i. Symbol und Katechumenat, Leipsic, 1899; Neander, Christian Church, vols. i. and ii. contain much valuable matter, consult the Index; Schaff, Christian Church, ii. 255-257; Bingham, Origines, books x., xi., xiv.; DCA, i. 317-319; the literature on the Didache usually discusses the catechetics of the early Church.
Calvin College. Last modified on 05/10/04. Contact the CCEL.