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Catechesis, II (Medieval)


This essay surveys catechetical practice during the periodabout 1000 yearsbetween the decline of the catechumenate in the 5th century to the eve of the reformation in the 15th. In the first five centuries of the Church's history, catechesis focused primarily on the instructions structions given to adults as they prepared for baptism. By the 6th century, the organized catechumenate had all but disappeared. In places where Christianity had taken root the baptism of infants was common practice, and baptism of adults became the exception rather than the rule. With the mass conversions of the franks and Germanic peoples, individuals were baptized after a preparation of only a few weeks, or with little or no instruction. From this time the Church in Europe faced the challenge of educating in the faith large groups of rude, unlettered people and their children. A new concept and style of catechesis emerged as entire tribes were brought en masse into the Church.

To gain an idea of the content and flavor of the oral catechesis in the period from the 5th to the 11th centuries, study of the pastoral treatises, liturgical texts, hagiography, and directives of local councils is necessary. The pastoral treatises written by bishops and missionary monks reflect the characteristics of an oral method and aim at practical education in Christianity, not as speculation but as a way of life. The history of liturgy, the development of religious art, and records of local councils also reveal something of catechetical practice. Medieval penitentials are another written source shedding light on methods of teaching Christian morality to peoples of tribal culture.

Gregory the Great. Pope gregory i (590604) stands out as the most important single influence on pastoral catechesis in the early Middle Ages. He recognized the inner relationship between missiology, liturgy, and catechesis and proposed a form of catechesis wonderfully adapted to his times. His Liber regulae pastoralis, a pastoral manual for bishops, was widely distributed even during Gregory's lifetime. The work firmly established in Europe the ideal of the bishop as teacher and father of his flock. If the Liber regulae pastoralis is not important for catechetical content, it is nonetheless most significant for its concept of the bishop's teaching office. Gregory's Homilies give a picture of his own idea of the essence of the Christian message. A major theme is the Person of Christ, Mediator between God and men, who in His holy Church pours out on the world the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In a letter to a monk who was going to join St. Augustine of Canterbury, Gregory outlined important principles of missionary catechesis. He wrote that the temples of the idols should be converted to places of Christian worship, "that the nation, seeing their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed" (St. Bede, Hist. Eccl. 1.30). Gregory followed the same principle with regard to pagan festivals, directing that Christian feasts be gradually substituted for the pagan celebrations.

In much the same vein, one of Gregory's early successors, Pope boniface v (619625), in a letter to King Edwin of Northumbria dated a.d. 624 outlined a program of fundamental catechesis. The pagans were to be taught the emptiness of idols, and the importance of belief in a Creator God, who sent His Son to redeem the human race. As a consequence, they were called to embrace the Gospel and to be reborn as children of God by Baptism (Patrologia Latina 80:438). Throughout this period of evangelization among the barbarians, Christ was seen especially as an opponent of their heathen gods. He was the true God to whom they had vowed their loyalty, and it was their duty to live out that loyalty according to the pattern set down for them by the ministers of His Church.

Another work attributed to Gregory the Great, The Books of Dialogues on the Life and Miracles of the Italian Fathers (Libri dialogorum), illustrates another means common in medieval times for handing on the faith. The author's intention was to show that holiness was not a thing of past, but that God continues to raise up saints in the present. In describing the activities of these saintly figures, he provided much information about religious attitudes and practice of the time. Similarly, the works of St. gregory of tours, especially his Historia Francorum, are an invaluable source of information about the history and evangelization of 6th century Gaul. He reports the lives and miracles of St. Martin, who had preceded him by almost two centuries as bishop of Tours, as well as scores of other Gallic saints. These collections of tales of the marvelous and miraculous became a major source of the Christian cult of the saints. For centuries it was to their local saints that Europeans looked for a vivid illustration of the Christian life and for a bond with the next world.

Missionary Catechesis. A discourse linked to St. gall (d. 627), the Irish monk who had emigrated to Switzerland, contained a catechesis faithful to the tradition established by St. augustine of hippo in his De catechizandis rudibus. Gall's discourse gave a resume of the religious history of the world from the Fall to the Redemption and treated the mission of the Apostles, the vocation of the gentiles, and the divine constitution of the Church (PL 87:1326).

St. boniface (d. 754), the apostle of Germany, who had joined the benedictines in England, provided a link between the Romano-Anglo-Saxon religious tradition and the religious culture that flowered in the next century under the early carolingians. Boniface's missionary efforts in Frisia were characterized by fidelity to Rome, a spirit of adaptation to local customs where this could be harmonized with the Christian life, and an understanding of the need to establish permanent monastic centers for the preservation and diffusion of Christianity. The correspondence of St. Boniface shows that he always looked to Holy Scripture for the substance of his teaching.

A letter from Gregory II in 719 approved his method. "You are to teach [the pagans] the service of the kingdom of God by persuading them to accept the truth in the name of Christ, the Lord our God. You will instill into their minds the teaching of the Old and New Testaments, doing this in a spirit of love and moderation, and with arguments suited to their understanding. Finally, we command you that in admitting within the Church those who have some kind of belief in God you will insist upon using the sacramental discipline prescribed in the official ritual formulary of the Holy Apostolic See" [C. H. Talbot, tr. and ed., The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany (New York 1954) 68]. In 735 St. Boniface wrote to the Abbess Eadburga in England, "I beg you to continue the good work you have begun by copying out for me in letters of gold the epistles of my lord, St. Peter, that a reverence and love of the Holy Scriptures may be impressed on the minds of the heathens to whom I preach, and that I may ever have before my gaze the words of him who guided me along this path" (ibid. 91).

Fifteen sermons traditionally once attributed to St. Boniface are important as indicating a medieval catechesis that is faithful to the Christocentric synthesis handed down from the age of the Fathers. The moral teaching of these sermons is noteworthy for its consistent development of the law of charity (PL 89:843872).

Indicative of the prevailing pattern in Germany is the work of one of Alcuin's disciples, rabanus maurus (d.856). His treatise De disciplina ecclesiastica (PL 112:11931262) aimed to show a method of instructing pagans who asked for Baptism. The work is divided into three short books, of which the third is an amplification of the teaching of the two ways of the Didache.

Parental Responsibility. Usages of the ancient catechumenate were incorporated in the rite of Baptism, regularly administered to infants. There is no trace of a formal, ecclesiastical postbaptismal catechesis for children. It was assumed that the task of their education in the faith was the responsibility of their parents. A work attributed to St. eligius (d. c. 658), bishop of Noyon, shows him insisting on parental responsibility in handing on the truths of faith. "Know by memory the Symbol and the Lord's Prayer, and teach them to your children. Instruct and admonish the children, whom you have received as newborn from the baptismal fount, to live ever in the fear of God. Know that you have taken an oath on their behalf before God" (PL 87, 527).

By the 8th century, synods were decreeing that parents and godparents were obliged to know by heart the Our Father and the Creed, and to teach these to their children. These two formulas, essential elements in the ancient catechumenate, were considered the basic statements of Christian doctrine.

De institutione laicali by Bishop jonas of orleans, a contemporary of Alcuin, emphasizes the responsibility of parents and godparents in the training of their children (PL 106:121278). From the same period is a fragment attributed to a Christian woman, Dodena, entitled Liber manualis. The treatise illustrates the way a home catechesis might have been carried on at its best (PL 106:109118).

Other Works. A 9th-century work, Disputatio puerorum per interrogationes et responsiones, illustrates a more formal, systematic catechesis in a somewhat stilted, dialogue form. The work shows clearly an analytical approach to the teaching of Christian doctrine that was later to become a dominant method for many centuries. In its 9th-century context, however, it can hardly be taken as typical of popular catechesis, which was not yet generally directed to children or centered in schools (PL 101:10971144).

Legislation. Ecclesiastical legislation of this early period makes it clear that the minimum aimed for, sometimes evidently in circumstances of great difficulty, was the universal memorization of the Creed and the Our Father, together with a basic understanding of Christian morality. It was consistently held that around these two formulas could be developed a fuller understanding of the Christian life. The Council of Clovesho in 747 instructed bishops to visit the outlying districts of their dioceses annually, to teach the people who rarely heard the word of God to avoid pagan practices. Boys were to be chosen for the study of Holy Scripture. Above all it was necessary to teach the essentials of the Faiththe doctrine of the Trinity and the Creedand to see that godparents knew these truths (J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 12:396398). The Council of Frankfort (794) decreed that all Christians should be taught the Creed and the Our Father (Mansi 13:908). The Council of Arles (813) insisted on the duty of parents to instruct their children (Mansi 14:62).

A letter from St. bede (c. 672735) to Egbert, Archbishop of York, recommended that those, priests included, who understood only their native tongue, be taught the Creed and the Our Father in the language they understood, though Bede also insisted that Latin was to be preferred for those who could manage it (PL 94:659). A similar policy was advocated by King Alfred the Great in the 9th century. (The single instance during this period of a policy of adopting the vernacular for liturgical use was the effort of SS. cyril and methodius among the Slavs.)

Defects. A number of abuses resulted when certain elements of medieval cultural catechesis were carried to a logical extreme. Memorization and analysis of the Creed and the Our Father was sometimes overemphasized to the exclusion or neglect of the biblical narrative method, which had been so favored by the Fathers. The medieval fascination for numbers, coupled with a recognition of the need for memory aids, fostered another abuse in the ordering of the truths of the Faith according to artificial and arbitrary classifications. Thus, the number seven was used as a teaching aid: seven Sacraments, seven works of mercy, seven petitions of the Lord's Prayer, seven capital sins. Such a methodology easily distorted the inner logic, coherence, and symmetry of the Christian mystery.

Liturgical Practice. Liturgical texts indicate that despite wide variances and notable changes, catechesis continued to be linked to sacramental practice. Two documents of the Carolingian era, the one known the gelasian sacramentary, dating from the 8th century and the other as Ordo Romanus XI dating from the 9th century, show that the Roman rite of initiation had been adapted in northern Europe and adjusted to the fact that infant baptism was the general rule. There are some vestiges of the ancient scrutinies and exorcisms in the Gelasian Sacramentary during lent in preparation for baptism that would take place at Easter, but the emphasis seems to have been on the latter as a means of purifying those who were not old enough to be examined as to their knowledge and behavior.

A development not anticipated by these early sacramentaries was the fracturing of the unity of the sacraments of initiation. It was to have a lasting impact on catechesis. First, the fear that a child might die without baptism made parents and pastors alike reluctant to wait for Easter or Pentecost when the rite was normally celebrated. Then the inaccessibility of bishops, especially away from Rome, led to a lengthening of the period between baptism and confirmation. Finally, concern for the health of the infant during long ceremonies in dank and cold churches one the one hand and reverence for the sacrament led to postponing the reception of the Eucharist. Thus the Paschal significance of the sacraments of initiation and catechesis lost its focal point. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council in the canon Utriusque sexus sought a partial remedy by insisting that everyone, upon reaching the age of discernment (ad annos discretionis ), receive the Eucharist at least at Easter.

The same canon also prescribed that all the faithful should "confess all their sins to their own priest at least once a year." The annual confession, usually during lent, became, as witnessed by the The Lay Folks Catechism (1357), the occasion for parish priests to examine penitents on their knowledge of the faith. Should a penitent be unable to recite the six basic tenets found in the catechism (the 14 points of the Creed; the Ten Commandments; the seven sacraments; the seven works of mercy; the seven virtues; and the seven deadly sins), the confessor was to impose an additional penance. On the other hand, the Archbishop of York offered an indulgence of 40 days to every who could recite "the six things."

Some of the manuals used by confessors, the Libri penitentiales, directed that penitents be examined on their knowledge of the creed and be asked to recite the lord'sprayer from memory. As auricular confession became the common practice, the sacrament of penance became an occasion for more catechesis. Penitents were instructed regarding virtues to be cultivated and vices to be avoided as well as their Christian responsibilities.

The fact that certain didactic elements of the liturgy developed into miracle, mystery, and morality plays is an indication of the strength of social and cultural elements in handing on the Christian tradition. Throughout the medieval period, innumerable religious customs and works of religious art created an atmosphere that supported a vital Christian society.

12th to 15th Centuries. From about the mid-11th century, the revival of commerce, with its accompanying growth of town life and urban institutions, affected the religious orientation of European civilization and the traditional modes of catechesis. The function of community custom in religious education was recognized as inadequate. Local councils in the 13th century imposed on parish priests the obligation of explaining to the people on Sundays the articles of faith in simple and clear fashion. The Council of Lambeth (1281) provided a brief summary of the instructions priests were to give their people (Mansi 24:410413).

In the rise of the new orders, especially the dominicans and franciscans, can be seen a remarkable effort to adapt catechetical methods to the needs of urban society. The mendicants brought about a revival of popular preaching, but they were not exempt from the intellectual influences that had affected the traditional structure of the Christian message. The history of catechesis here followed closely the development of philosophy and theology. The recovery of the Aristotelian corpus and the development of systematic theology in the high Middle Ages had a profound influence on catechetical methodology, though this influence was not fully realized until the discovery of printing made it widespread. A key difference between the catechesis of the early Middle Ages, as exemplified by St. Gregory in the late 6th century, or Rabanus Maurus in the 9th, and that of the period marked by the rise of the universities was in the change from a historico-narrative to a logical organization of the content of the catechesis. Popular catechesis still emanated chiefly from the pulpit, but as the analytic method of the universities tended to carry over into the methods of the preacher, the purposes of theology and catechesis were not always clearly distinguished. That there was a significant difference between the two was clear to St. thomas aquinas (d. 1274), as a study of his catechetical sermons reveals [see St. Thomas Aquinas, The Catechetical Instructions, tr. J. B. Collins (New York 1939)]. Even in these sermons, however, St. Thomas reveals how controlling were the intellectual and social influences of his age. The traditional framework of salvation history had all but disappeared in the writings of the 13th century.

Among writers who have exercised the greatest influence on the development of catechesis must be numbered be the sometime chancellor of the University of Paris (140912), Jean gerson (13631429). Trained as a theologians and often invited to preach at court, even while he was university chancellor, he taught catechism to children. The five volumes of Gerson's written works, a goodly number in French, give evidence of his interest in reform, including the reform of theological studies, and include many treatises on the care of souls. Early in the 15th century he compiled ABC des Simples Gens, an outline of the basic teachings of the Christian faith that "simple folk" should commit to memory. Another work of the same period, is Tractatus de parvulis trahendis ad Christum, in which Gerson emphasized the need of teaching in terms a child could understand. He tried to persuade university theologians to produce simple treatises of the essentials of religion for common folk, and proposed that the treatises be made in the form of posters to be displayed in public places where people could gather to read and ponder them. Another of his works was De confessione mollicei, a manual for confessors describing children's sexual habits. The catechetical work that was to have the most lasting and widespread influence was Gerson's Opusculum tripertitum (c. 1395). One of the first works printed in the New World (Mexico 1544), it provides pastoral explanations of the Decalogue, Confession, and preparation for death. Gerson is a significant transition figure to the next period of catechesis which, with the invention of printing, came to be dominated by catechetical manuals and the printed word.

Bibliography: p. gbl, Geschichte de Katechese im Abendlande vom Verfalle des Katechumenates bis zum Ende des Mittelalters (Kempten 1880). c. hezard, Histoire du catéchisme depuis la naissance de l'église jusqu'à nos jours (Paris 1900). g. s. sloyan, ed.. Shaping the Christian Message (New York 1958). a. e. cruz, Historia de la Catequesis (Santiago de Chile 1962). j. h. westerhoff and o. c. edwards, eds. A Faithful Church: Issues in the History of Catechesis (Wilton, CT 1981). j. d. c. fisher, Christian Initiation: Baptism in the Medieval West (London 1965). m. m. gatch, Preaching and Theology in Anglo-Saxon England: Aefric and Wulfstan (Toronto 1971). j. a. weisheipl, Friar Thomas d'Aquino: His Life, Thought and Work (Garden City, NY 1974). d. douie, Archbishop Pecham (Oxford 1952). d. c. brown, Pastor and Laity in the Theology of Jean Gerson (Cambridge 1987).

[m. e. jegen/eds.]

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