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(Lat. fideles, from fides, faith.)
Those who have bound themselves to a religious association, whose doctrine they accept, and into whose rites they have been initiated. Among Christians the term is applied to those who have been fully initiated by baptism and, regularly speaking, by confirmation. Such have engaged themselves to profess faith in Jesus Christ, from Whom they received it as a gift; henceforth they will proclaim His teachings, and live according to His law. Hence the term so frequent in papal documents, Christifideles, "the faithful of Jesus Christ". The distinction between Christians and faithful is now very slight, not only because adult baptism has become the exception, but also because liturgically the rite of the catechumenate and that of baptism have merged into one another. On the other hand, in the Latin Church at least, confirmation and first Communion have been separated from the baptismal initiation. In the primitive Church it was otherwise; initiation into the Christian society consisted in two distinct acts, often accomplished years apart from one another. First, one became a catechumen by the imposition of hands and the sign of the cross; this was a kind of preliminary profession of Christian faith — "eos qui ad primam fidem credulitatis accedunt" (Council of Elvira, about 300, can.xlii), which authorized the catechumen to call himself a Christian. Only by the second act of initiation, i.e. by baptism itself, was he authorized to call himself one of the faithful, and participate immediately in all the Christian mysteries, including the Eucharist.
Strictly speaking, therefore, the term faithful is opposed to catechumen; hence, it is not met in the writings of thise early Christian Fathers who flourished before the organization of the catechumenate. It is not found in St. Justin nor in St. Irenaeus of Lyons; Tertullian, however, uses it, and reproaches the heretics for obliterating all distinction between catechumens and the faithful: quis catechumenus, quis fidelis incertum est (De praeser., c. xli; P.L., II, 56). Henceforth, in the partristic writings and canons of councils we meet quite frequently the antithesis of catechumens and baptized Christians, Christians and faithful. Thus St. Augustine (Tract. in Joannem, xliv, 2; P.L., XXXV, 1714): "Ask a man: are you a Christian? If he be a pagan or a Jew, he will reply: I am not a Christian. But if he say: I am a Christian, ask him again: are you a catechumen, or one of the faithful?" Similarly the Council of Elvira considers the case of a "faithful" Christian baptizing a catechumen in case of necessity (can. xxxviii); again, of sick pagans asking for the imposition of hands of the catechumenate, and thus becoming Christians (can. xxxix); of participation in an idolatrous sacrifice on the part of a Christian, and again by one of the faithful (can. lix); of betrayal to the pagan magistrate (delatio), to which a difference of guilt is attached according as the crime was perpetrated by one of the faithful or by a catechumen (can. lxxiii).
The title fidelis was often carved on epitaphs in the early Christian period, sometimes in opposition to the title of catechumen. Thus, at Florence, a master (patronus) dedicates to his catechumen servant (alumna) the following inscription: "Sozomeneti Alumnae audienti patronus fidelis", i.e. "her master, one of the faithful, to Sozomenes, his servant and hearer", by which term he means one of the well-known degrees of the catechumenate (Martigny, Dict. des antiq. chreét., Paris, 1877). Even now the baptismal rite provides for voluntary request of baptism on the part of an infidelis, i.e. a non-Christian (see INFIDEL); it exhibits venerable vestiges of the primitive scrutinium or preliminary examination, the guarantors (sponsores) or god-father and god-mother, the rites of the catechumenate, the communication of the Creed (traditio symboli) and the Our Father, the renunciation of Satan and evil, the adhesion to Jesus Christ, and the triple profession of faith. The candidate for baptism is still asked at the entrance to the baptismal font: "Wilt thou be baptized? It was voluntary, therefore, and is so yet, that one entered the ranks of the faithful through the principal initiatory rite of baptism.
Naturally enough, even in Christian antiquity, attention was drawn to the analogous ceremonies of circumcision (the sign, if not the rite, of the admission of proselytes to the profession of Judaism) and of the bloody bath of the taurobolium, by which the faithful of Mithra were initiated (Cumont, Les Mysteéres de Mithra, Paris, 1902). The obligations of the faithful Christian are indicated by the preparatory rites of his reception and by his actual baptism. He begins by asking for faith (in Jesus Christ) and, through that faith, for eternal life. The Creed is then delivered to him, and he returns it (redditio symboli) i.e. repeats it aloud. At the baptismal font he recites solemnly the profession of faith. From all this it is clear that his first duty is to believe (see FAITH). His second duty is to regulate his life or conduct with his new Christian faith, i.e. having renounced Satan and evil, he must avoid all sin. "So behave", was it said to him, "that henceforth thou mayest be the temple of God." St. Gregory I says (Hom. in Evang. xxix, 3; P.L., LXXVI, 1215): "Then only are we truly the faithful when by our acts we realize the promises made with our lips. On the day of our baptism, indeed, we promised to renounce all the works and all the pomps of the ancient enemy."
Finally, since the faithful have voluntarily sought membership in the Christian society they are bound to submit to its authority and obey its rulers. As to the rights of the faithful, they consist chiefly in the fullest participation in all the Christian mysteries, so long as one does not become unworthy of the same. Thus the faithful Christian is entitled to take part in the Holy Sacrifice, to remain in the assembly after the deacon has sent away the catechumens, to offer up with the priest the orate fidelium or prayer of the faithful, to receive there the Body and Blood of Christ, and to receive the other rites and sacraments. He may also aspire to the highest rank of the clergy. In a word, he is a full member of the Christian society, and is such, regularly speaking, in perpetuity. If by reason of his own misdeeds he deserves to be expelled from said society, repentance and the reparatory penitential rite, a second baptism, as it were, permit his return. Finally, if he persist in the observance of his baptismal promises, he will obtain eternal life, i.e. his original petition at the moment of baptism. See BAPTISM, CATECHUMEN.