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"Catechumen," in the early Church, was the name applied to one who had not yet been initiated into the sacred mysteries, but was undergoing a course of preparation for that purpose. The word occurs in Gal. vi, 6: "Let him that is instructed in the word, [ho katechoumenos, is qui catechizatur] communicate to him that instructeth him [to katechounti, ei qui catechizat] in all good things." Other parts of the verb katicksein occur in I Cor., xiv, 19; Luke, i, 4; Acts, xviii, 24.
I. As the acceptance of Christianity involved belief in a body of doctrine and the observance of the Divine law ("teach, make disciples, scholars of them"; "teaching them to observe all things whatever I have commanded you", Matt., xxviii, 20), it is clear that some sort of preliminary instruction must have been given to the converts. In Apostolic times this would vary according as these were Jews or pagans, and was naturally simple in character and short in duration. When, however, the churches came to be organized, the instruction and probation would be longer and more elaborate.
Thus, as early as the date of the Epistle to the Galatians (56-57?) we meet with the mention of catechist and catechumen; but we cannot infer from this that the full regulations were already in force. It was rather the danger of apostasy, or even betrayal in time of persecution which gave rise to special precautions as to admission into the Church. To avert this danger a careful intellectual and moral preparation was needed: intellectual to guard against the arguments of the pagan philosophers; moral, to give strength against the torments of the persecutors. This is the "trial of faith more precious than gold which is tried by the fire" of which St. Peter speaks (I Pet., i, 7).
Hence we find in St. Justin's first Apology (c. lxi, P.G, VI, 420), distinct reference to the twofold preparation and also to the more elaborate rites of initiation: "Those who ,are persuaded and believe in the truth of our teachings (didaskomena) and sayings undertake to live accordingly; they are taught to ask, with fasting, the remission of their sins; we also praying and fasting with them. Then they are led by us to a place where there is water, and they are regenerated in the same way that we have been regenerated", etc. By the end of the second century we find the catechumenate in force in all its main lines.
Tertullian reproaches the heretics with disregarding it; among them, he says "one does not know which is the catechumen and which the faithful, all alike come [to the mysteries], all hear the same discourses and say the same prayers" (quis catechumenus, quis fidelis incertum est; pariter adeunt, pariter audiunt, pariter orant), "Catechumens are initiated before they are instructed" (ante sunt perfecti catechumeni quam edocti.--"De Praeser."xli, P.L., II, 56) A little later we read of Origen being in charge of the catechetical school (tou tes katecheseos didaskaleiou) at Alexandria (Eusib., Hist., Eccl., VI, iii). It is not necessary to quote further author ities for the third and fourth centuries, the age in which the catechumenate flourished in its full form.
During the years of persecution the necessity of the institution was realized, and in the intervals of peace the arrangements were more and more elaborated. When, however, Christianity finally triumphed over paganism, the reasons for retaining the catechumenate became less urgent. The majority were born of Christian families, and so were brought up in the Faith, and were in no danger of falling into paganism. Moreover, with the increasing development of the doctrine of grace, and original sin the practice of early baptism became the rule. Further, the conversion of the barbarians precluded the possibility of submitting them to any prolonged period of preparation. Hence the catechumenate gradually fell into disuse, and has merely left traces in the existing rites of baptism and reception in the Church. Still, even now, an informal species of the old regulations should be observed in the case of grown up converts.
II. The catechumens were divided into mere inquirers (audientes, akromeni) and catechumens properly so-called; and in each stage there was a three-fold preparation -- catechetical, ascetical, and liturgical.
(1) If a pagan wished to become a Christian he was given some elementary instruction in the fundamental doctrines and practices of the Church (see CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE). He had to show by his conduct that he was in earnest about the step he was about to take. So far, he was only in the stage of inquiry, and was not counted as a Christian at all. He was allowed to be present at the first part of the Mass, but he was dismissed immediately after the sermon.
(2) As soon as his instructors were satisfied that he was likely to persevere, the inquirer was promoted to the rank of catechumen. He was now entitled to be called a Christian, though he was not looked upon as one of the "faithful". "Ask a man, 'Are you a Christian?' He answers, 'No', if he is a pagan or a Jew. But if he says 'Yes', ask him again, 'Are you a catechumen or one of the faithful?'" (St. Aug., "In Joan.", xliv, 2, P.L., XXXV, 1714).
In the early ages the rites of admission to the catechumenate were quite simple, but in the course of time they became more elaborate. At first the candidates were merely signed on the forehead with the sign of the cross, or hands were imposed on them with suitable prayers; and sometimes both ceremonies were used. Thus St. Augustine in his model of an instruction to an inquirer says: "He should be asked whether he believes what he has heard, and is ready to observe it. If he answers in the affirmative he should be solemnly signed and treated according to the custom of the Church" (solemniter signandus est et ecclesiae more tractandus.-- De Cat. Rud., xxvi, P.L., XL, 344).
Eusebius mentions the imposition of hands and prayer (Vita Constantini, iv. 61, P.G., XX, 1213). Among the Latins, and especially at Rome, breathing accompanied with a form of exorcism and placing in the mouth a little exorcised salt, was employed in addition to the signing with the cross and the imposition of hands. Other rites were the opening of the ears (Mark, vii, 34) and anointing. See Martène, "De Antiquis Ecclesiae Ritibus" (Rouen, 1700), I, where several ordines ad fasciendum Christianum, or catechumenum, are given; Chardon, "Hist. des Sacrements", in Migne's "Theol. Cursus Completus", Paris, 1874, XX, 31 sqq., 149 sqq.
Catechumens when present at Mass were not dismissed with the inquirers, but were detained while a special prayer was recited over them. They then also withdrew before the Mass of the Faithful began. The instruction which they received is described in the article CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE. As to their standard of living they had to abstain from all immoral and pagan practices, and give proof by their virtue and works of penance that they were worthy to begin a more immediate preparation for baptism. The duration of this stage was not fixed. In general it lasted long enough to test the dispositions of the catechumen. The council of Elvira alludes to the custom of making it last two years and the civil law fixed it at this (Justinian, Novel. cxliv). But the causes which ultimately led to the abolition of the catechumenate (see above) tended also to shorten it.
Thus the Council of Agde (506) allowed even Jews (with regard to whom special caution was required) to receive baptism after eight months preparation; and later on St. Gregory reduced the term to forty days. On the other hand the duration of the catechumenate might be extended, and the catechumen might be reduced to the rank of the audientes, if he was guilty of grave crimes (fifth canon of Neocaesarea, fourteenth canon of Nicaea). What seems extraordinary to our modern notions is that the catechumens themselves put off their baptisms for many years, sometimes even till their last illness. Constantine the Great is an example of this extreme delay. St. Ambrose, St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. John Chrysostom were not baptized till after their thirtieth year. A question much discussed was the fate of those who died in this stage.
As we have seen, they were looked upon as Christians, but not as belonging to the "faithful", because the cleansing waters of baptism had not been poured over their souls. St. Gregory describes his terror during a storm at sea lest he might be taken away unbaptized (Carmen de Vita Sua, 324, sqq., P.G. XXXVII, 994). However, St. Ambrose has no doubt about the salvation of Valentinian the Younger, who has asked for baptism, but had died before the saint could reach him ("De Obitu Valentini.", n. 51, P.L. XVI, 1374). Hence the common teaching was that the defect of baptism might be supplied by desire. This was especially held with regard to those who were in the later stage of immediate preparation, to be described presently. On this whole question see Franzelin, "De Ecclesia" (Rome, 1887), 414 sqq.
(3) When the catechumens had completed this stage of preparation and trial, their names were inscribed among the competentes; i.e. those seeking to be baptized. The Greeks called them photizomenoi. This might mean that they were being enlightened in the mysteries of the faith; or, more probably, that they were being baptized, for the Greeks commonly spoke of baptism as "light" (cf. Heb., vi, 4; x, 32). In this advanced stage they were sometimes called fideles by anticipation (e.g. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Cat., I, 4; V, 1; P.G., XXXIII, 373, 505). Lent was the time when the three-fold preparation -- instructive, ascetical, and liturgical -- was carried on.
The ascetical preparation was severe. Prayer and fasting naturally formed part of it; but the competentes were also exhorted to keep silence as far as possible and, if they were married, to observe continence. (St. Justin, "Apol.", lxi, P.G., VI, 420; St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Cat., I, sub fin.,P.G., XXXIII, col.376; St. August., "De Fide et Op.", ix, P.L. XL, 205). Confession was also enjoined (Tertullian, "De Bapt.", xx, P.L. I, 1222 where he quotes Matt., iii, 6: "they were baptized, confessing their sins". See also St. Cyril, ib.; Eusebius, "Vita Const., iv, 61). The instruction given at this time is described in the article CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE, where an account of St. Cyril's "catecheses" will be found.
The rites connected with this stage were elaborate. There are considerable survivals of them in the first part of the order of baptism, and also traces in the Lenten Masses, especially the Mass of the Wednesday of the fourth week. The assemblies were called "scrutinies" (examination and presentation of the candidates), and were seven in number. At the first scrutiny the candidates gave in their names. After the collect of the Mass, and before the lessons, the ceremony of exorcism was performed over them. This was done at all the scrutinies except the last, by the exorcists, and then the priest signed them with the cross and laid hands upon them. It is interesting to know that the words at present used in baptism "Ergo, maledicte diabole", etc. belonged to the exorcism, and the words "Aeternam ac justissimam pietatem" etc. belonged to the laying on of hands.
The third scrutiny was of a specially solemn character, for it was then that the candidates received the Gospel, the Symbol (Creed), and the Our Father. Each of these was accompanied by a short explanation. For example, St. Augustine has left four sermons (lvi-lix) "De Oratione Domenica ad competentes" (P.L., XXXVIII, 377 sqq.), and three on the delivery of the Symbol (ibid., 1058 sqq.). In our present missal the Mass of the Wednesday of the fourth week in Lent has a lesson in addition to the ordinary Epistle, or rather lesson. The former is taken from the thirty-sixth chapter of Ezechiel, the latter from the fiftieth of Isaias; and both (together with the Introit and the two Graduals, and the Gospel, the healing of the man born blind, John, ix) have obvious reference to the "great scrutiny".
The seventh scrutiny took place on Holy Saturday, apart from the Mass, as indeed there was formerly no Mass for that day. The priest himself performed the ceremony of the exorcism and the Ephphetha (Mark, vii). Then followed the anointing on the breast and back. The candidates pronounced the three-fold renunciation of Satan and recited the Creed. The actual initiation, (baptism, confirmation, and Communion) took place at the Paschal Mass, at which the neophytes assisted for the first time, being now no longer mere catechumens. But until the Sunday after Easter they were considered as "infants", receiving further instruction, especially on the sacraments which had lately been conferred upon them (see CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE). Finally, on Low Sunday (Dominica in Albis depositis) when the Introit of the Mass speaks of the "new born babes" (I Pet., ii, 2), they put off their white garments, and were henceforth counted among the regular "faithful".
Funk (ed.), Didache, (Tuebingen , 1887); St. Justin, Apol. I in P.G. Vi, 328 sqq; Tertullian, De Baptismo, P.L. I, 1197 sqq.; St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses, P.G. XXXIII, 369, sqq.; St. Augustine, De Catech. Rudibus, P.L., XL, 309, Sermones ad competentes, lvi-lix, P.L. XXXVIII, 377, sqq.; In Traditione et Redditione Symboli, P.L. XXXVIII, 1058, sqq.; Martene, De Antiquis Ecclesiae Ritibus (Rouen, 1700), tom. I, 29, sqq.; Chardon, Hist. de Sacrements in Migne, Cursus Theologiae Completus, XX; Duchesne, Origines de cult chretien (Paris, 1898), IX; Thurston, Lent and Holy Week, (London, 1904), 169, sqq.; Kuepper in Kircheniex., s.v. Katechumenat; Bareille in Dict. de theol. cath., s.v. Catechumenat.
T. B. Scannell.