In the early church, a new Jewish or heathen convert undergoing a course of basic instruction and training in Christian doctrine and ritual, prior to BAPTISM and full incorporation into the body of the faithful.
Just before His ascension, Christ had entrusted to the disciples the task of propagating His teachings among all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Mt. 18:19, 20). Not long afterward at Pentecost, a large group of various nationalities living in Jerusalem were destined to be the first catechumens in the history of the Christian church. Among them were Parthians, Medes, Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, of Judaea and Cappadocia, Pontus, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete, and Arabia.
When the Holy Spirit came down upon the twelve disciples and they began to speak the languages of this international gathering, Peter gradually initiated them into the real meaning of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:41, 42).
The Acts of the Apostles provides us with many other instances of catechumenization: the high official of Candace of Ethiopia (8:26-40), Cornelius the centurion and his household (10:1-48), and Saul of Tarsus (9:10-20). It is characteristic that in all these instances, conversion was accomplished after a relatively short period following a significant turning point in the lives of the persons involved.
Yet, in the case of Saul, we are told that, following his experience on the road to Damascus, he spent three years in meditation in the Arabian desert near Damascus (Gal. 1:15- 18). This last episode may account for the extension of the probationary period of the catechumenate, in many cases, to cover three years.
Catechumens were classified according to their spiritual progress and achievement in assimilating Christian doctrine. Church historians differ as to the number of these grades, but there is general agreement on the following three.
- Those who were allowed to hear the Word of God were called listeners or hearers (audientes). They were admitted into the church to listen to the readings from the Epistles and the Gospel only, after which they were required to leave. Their place was therefore in the narthex, which stretched across the western end of the
- Those of longer standing, who were allowed to stay and attend the sermon given by the bishop or priest and certain prayers during which they knelt, were designated as prostrati or genuflectentes. But they were not permitted to attend the liturgy. Canon 19 of the Synod of Laodicea (343-381) laid down the following restriction: “After the sermons of the bishops, the prayer for the catechumens is to be made first by itself; and after the catechumens have gone out, the prayer for those who are under “
- Those who had passed the two previous stages and were considered to be sufficiently trained in the faith to receive the sacrament of baptism were called competentes. Throughout Lent they were thoroughly instructed in the sacraments and services of the church, with particular emphasis on the Creed, which they had to recite at baptism. The necessity for fasting, prayer, and complete continence was enjoined on all catechumens, married and unmarried alike, at this
Having satisfactorily completed these three stages, and having earned the epithet electi or perfectiores, they would be entered in a special register. This took place on the second Sunday of Lent in the church of Jerusalem, and on the fourth in other churches. Catechumens were now entitled to baptism and full membership in the community of the faithful.
During the initial period of the spread of Christianity, the apostles took upon themselves the task of teaching. Later, schools and courses were systematically organized in Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Rome, and elsewhere.
The CATECHETICAL SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA, presumably established by Saint Mark the Evangelist for the edification of catechumens, flourished at later dates under the leadership of distinguished theological scholars such as PANTAENUS, CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, and ORIGEN, under whose direction the school reached its apogee.
Catechumens studied various theological works, including the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), two books by Clement of Alexandria—the Protreptikos and the Instructor of Children—the Catecheses of CYRIL OF JERUSALEM, and De catechizandis rudibus of Augustine.
These were compiled during the most critical and controversial periods in the history of Christianity to equip catechumens with a proper understanding of the principles of faith regarding the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Second Coming, as well as the sacraments and ritual of the church.
Catechumens were kept under the close supervision and guidance of their catechists, and those of them who lapsed were subjected to strict disciplinary punishment. Canon 5 of the Council of Neocaesarea (315) stipulates: “If a catechumen coming into the church has taken his place in the order of catechumen, and falls into sin, let him, if a kneeler, become a hearer, and sin no more. But should he again sin while a hearer, let him be cast out.”
Having completed their training, catechumens were potential recruits for the presbytery. Some showed unmistakable signs of divine grace, and, in time, became pillars of the church, such as Ambrose, bishop of Milan (c. 339-397). However, to safeguard against cases of immaturity and lack of experience, certain regulations had to be laid down, of which several may be mentioned.
Canon 80 of the Apostolic Canons reads: “It is not right to ordain a man a bishop immediately after he has joined the church and been baptized if he has hitherto been leading a heathenish life, or has been converted from wicked behavior. For it is wrong to let one without experience become the teacher of others, unless in some special case this be allowed as a matter of divine favor and grace.”
According to canon 2 of the Council of NICAEA (325): “Forasmuch as, either from necessity, or through the urgency of individuals, many things have been done contrary to the ecclesiastical canon, so that men just converted from heathenism to the faith, and who have been instructed but a little while, are straightway brought to the spiritual laver, are advanced to the episcopate or presbytery, it has seemed right to us that for the time to come no such thing shall be done.
For to the catechumen himself there is need of time and a longer trial after baptism, for the apostolical saying is clear, “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride, he fall into condemnation and the snare of the devil.'”
And canon 3 of the Council of Laodicea (343-381) reads: “He who has been recently baptized ought not to be promoted to the sacerdotal order.”
- Atiya, A. S. A History of Eastern Christianity. London, 1968. Cummings, D. The Rudder. Chicago, 1957.
- Hardy, E. R. Christian Egypt: Church and People. New York, 1952. Neale, J. M. History of the Holy Eastern Church. London, 1854.
- Schwartz, E. Busstufen und Katechumenatsklassen. Strasbourg, 1911.
- Smith, W., and S. Cheetham. A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, 2 vols. London, 1908.