A process by which catechumens, whether adults or children of catechetical age, are prepared for Baptism according to an organized method, which includes liturgical rites as well as instruction; also the state or Order of catechumens, carrying canonically defined privileges.
Beginnings. The origins of the catechumenate can perhaps be found in Judaism, for instruction was required before an adult gentile was admitted to circumcision and proselyte baptism, and similarly before the initiatory washing practiced by the Qumram community. Mention of the catechumen (katēchoumenos ) and the catechist (katēchōn ) occurs already in Paul (Gal 6.6). In the Christian Church, Acts contains several examples of instruction given immediately before baptism (e.g. Acts 8.35). The moral teaching of the Didache (probably first century) on the 'Two Ways' (1–6) was apparently intended for pre-baptismal recitation (7.1: "having first recited all these things, baptize …" ). However, there is no evidence for a catechumenate spread over a period of time before the second half of the second century, when its existence is implied by Justin's link of fasting and prayer with instruction (1 Apology 61.2). Subsequently a considerable amount can be discovered about the catechetical practices of the early Church, though one must beware of assuming a uniform pattern. Tertullian (d. c. 220), writing in Latin, adopted the Greek term catechumeni when he reproached heretics for not making a clear distinction between the faithful (i.e. the baptized) and the catechumens (De praescr. adv. haer. 41); he recommended the postponement of baptism until the candidate was old enough to receive instruction (De bapt. 18). Although the catechetical school in Alexandria was perhaps more of a Christian university than an organization for providing preparation for baptism, both Clement (Stromata 2.95–96; Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte pp. 164–5) and Origen (In Jo. 6.144–5; Sources Chrétiennes 157.240) attest a three-year catechumenate in that city. P. Bradshaw has established that there was diversity in the Alexandrian practice, with evidence of a 40-day catechumenate. The socalled apostolic tradition (17 [ed. B. Botte, Sources Chrétiennes 11 bis ]) appears to offer similar evidence for Rome, though allowing the time to be shortened in exceptional cases. Apostolic Tradition sets out detailed provisions: members of the community had to vouch for the candidate's way of life (there was a list of prohibited professions) and motives (especially necessary when Christianity was a forbidden religion); we have here the first signs of sponsors and godparents (15–16). The Ap. Trad. (18–19) also gives rules for the conduct of catechetical classes, concluding with prayer and the laying on of the hand by the catechist (doctor ). At the end of the catechumenate the candidates underwent a second investigation as to their observance of Christian morals, again with the support of the testimony of the persons who introduced them; if they passed this test, they were allowed to "hear the gospel" (a phrase which perhaps means receiving systematic instruction on the mysteries of the faith), and after a more intensive final preparation, consisting of a two-day fast, hand-layings, and exorcisms, including a final exorcism performed by the bishop "to ascertain whether (s)he is pure" (the first sign of the Scrutinies: see below), they were allowed to proceed to baptism (Ap. Trad. 20). Thus two distinct stages must be differentiated: the actual catechumenate and the final preparation for baptism. In the East those in the latter stage were subsequently called those "given light" (phōtizomenoi ), since baptism is an enlightenment (Heb6.4; 10.32; Justin 1 Apol. 61.12); in the West "seekers" (competentes ) or "chosen" (electi ).
Though Catechumens were not admitted to the Mass of the Faithful or Eucharist proper, they listened to the readings and sermons at the Mass of the Catechumens or Service of the Word. In addition to this instruction, the catechist took the catechumens through the Bible, especially the books that presented the principles of the Christian life and were within the capacity of a beginner. Origen referred to Esther, Judith, Tobias and the Sapiential books (in Num. hom. 27.1; Patrologia Graeca 12:780–1); in the fourth century Athanasius set out a similar list with the addition of the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas (Ep. fest. 39; Patrologia Graeca 26:1177).
4th and 5th Centuries. At the beginning of this period the Council of Elvira (a.d. 305) provides evidence for the existence of a two-year catechumenate in Spain (can. 42; Hefele-Leclercq 1.245). However, once the conversion of constantine brought the period of persecution to an end, there came a new phase in the history of the catechumenate. With the increasing number of conversions it proved impractical to retain the old system. Moreover, partly because of the severity of the penitential discipline for those who relapsed into serious sin after baptism, partly because the obligations of baptism were taken very seriously, it became common in these centuries to postpone the baptism even of the children of Christian parents; Augustine quotes the saying "Let him do what he wants: he is not baptized yet (sine illum, faciat; nondum enim baptizatus est )" (Conf. 1.11.18). To fill the gap created by the postponement of baptism a child could be admitted into the catechumenate early in life and remain indefinitely in this state, which involved a degree of attachment to the Church and entitlement to the name "Christian" (Augustine, in Jo. 44.2; Patrologia Latina 35:1714), but not yet the name "faithful," which was reserved to the baptized. Each year as Easter approached there were frequent exhortations for candidates to give in their names (nomen dare ) for baptism.
Adult pagans who wished to become Christians first received an introductory catechesis, which would be adapted to the candidate's personal needs. Examples can be found in Augustine's De catechizandis rudibus (Patrologia Latina 40:309–348), which develops the principles for this kind of catechesis and presents two model instructions, a longer and a shorter. If the catechist, a deacon or a priest, was satisfied with the candidate's motives, he was to lead the candidate to faith, from faith to hope, and from hope to love; his instruction was to be characterized by cheerfulness (hiliaritas ), and would present the divine plan for redemption by telling the story of salvation from the creation of the world and the Fall to the work of Christ and the Last Judgment. The example that Gregory of Nyssa provides in the East in his Oratio catechetica (Patrologia Graeca 45:9–105) takes a more systematic form. After this preliminary instruction the applicant was admitted into the catechumenate by a rite, which might include the tracing of the sign of the cross on the candidate's forehead, exorcism, the imposition of hands, and (in the West) the administration of salt; Augustine alludes to some of these details in his own reception (Conf. 1.11.17). It appears that catechumens could be given salt repeatedly, perhaps as a substitute for the Eucharist (Third Council of Carthage, canon 5: CCSL 149.330; Augustine, De pecc. merit. et remiss. 2.26.42; Patrologia Latina 44:176). These rites were later combined in the West to form the Ordo ad catechumenum faciendum.
In addition to the postponement of baptism discussed above, the freedom from persecution in the fourth century brought about other changes in the catechumenate. Candidates might offer themselves for baptism with inadequate motivation (Cyril of Jerusalem, Procat. 3–7). Systematic formation, instead of being spread over two or three years, was now crammed into the few intense weeks between enrollment and baptism (cf. M. Dujarier, pp. 94–7). However, due weight should be given to the instruction the catechumens acquired from their many years listening to homilies, especially at the Sunday Eucharist (cf. W. Harmless, pp. 56–7, 156–7).
Several examples of baptismal catechesis survive from the fourth and fifth centuries. Notable among these are the three sets of sermons delivered by Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem from about 350 to 387: the Procatechesis, given at the beginning of Lent to the candidates who had just given in their names for baptism; eighteen Lenten Catecheses, most of which are devoted to the exposition of the Creed, which provided a convenient summary of Scripture (Cat. 5.12); and five Mystagogic Catecheses, given during Easter week, interpreting the meaning of baptism, chrismation, and first communion after they had been received at the Easter Vigil without being explained in advance. Other examples of baptismal catechesis are St. Ambrose's sermons De Elia et Ieiunio (Patrologia Latina 14:697ff) and De Abraham (Patrologia Latina 14:419ff) and his instructions De Sacramentis and De Mysteriis (Sources Chrétiennes 25 bis ), St. Augustine's Sermons 56–9 and 212–6 (Patrologia Latina 38:377ff and 1058ff), John Chrysostom's Baptismal Instructions (Ancient Christian Writers 31; Sources Chrétiennes 50 and 366), Theodore of Mopsuestia's Catechetical Homilies (Studi e Testi 145); and at Rome the frequent instructions (frequentibus praedicationibus ) to which Leo the Great refers (Epist. 16.6; Patrologia Latina 54:702).
The cultivation of secrecy, called by later historians the Disciplina arcani (see secret, discipline of the), required knowledge of certain central doctrines, prayers and rites to be withheld until candidates had given in their names for baptism, or even until after baptism. The secrecy contributed to an aura of sacred dread, which was systematically fostered in the "awe-inspiring mysteries"—a term perhaps borrowed from the pagan mystery-religions on the initiative of Constantine. As an inducement to seek baptism, preachers dangled before the eyes of the catechcumens hints of secrets to be revealed only to the initiated: "Those who are initiated understand what I mean" (Chrysostom, In Gen. 27.8; Patrologia Graeca 53:251). The pilgrim Egeria (Peregrinatio 47.2) describes the excitement which Cyril (or possibly his successor John) generated among his hearers by his catechetical preaching. Similar practices are evident elsewhere. At Milan Ambrose explained the meaning of the rites in six instructions entitled De sacramentis delivered in the week after baptism. In the region of Antioch, however, John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia thought it better to prepare the candidates by explaining the baptismal rites shortly before they were received, though even they deferred the explanation of the Eucharist until after first Communion.
A common feature of the Lenten catechumenate was the Handing Over or Presentation of the Creed (traditio symboli ), at which the candidate for the first time heard from the bishop the words of the Creed, for they were generally not revealed until a person had been accepted for baptism; sermons preached during this rite by Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose and Augustine have come down to us. After learning the words with the help of the godparents (for it was forbidden to write them down), the candidates on a later occasion had to repeat them to the bishop at a ceremony called the Recital or Giving Back of the Creed (redditio symboli ). In some Churches, e.g. St. Augustine's Hippo, there were similar rites of Presentation and Recital of the Lord's Prayer (cf. Harmless pp. 274–93).
Another rite celebrated in the West from the time of the Apostolic Tradition, though not apparently in the East, was the Scrutinies, which seem originally to have been solemn exorcisms overseen by the bishop to ascertain whether the candidates would show by their humble acquiescence that they had been truly delivered from the devil's power, or by signs of resistance that the demonic influence still continued ("we have determined that you are free [from the evil powers]": Augustine Serm. 216.11; Patrologia Latina 38:1082. Cf. A. Dondeyne, "La discipline des scrutins"). Some texts describe the candidate standing on goat skin during this rite. Both the ritual and the interpretation of the Scrutinies gradually evolved: in Rome at the beginning of the sixth century, according to John the Deacon, three times "we scrutinize their hearts through faith, to ascertain whether since the renunciation of the devil the sacred words have fastened themselves on his mind" (ad Senarium 4: Studi e Testi 59  171, 173). In the same century the Gelasian Sacramentary gives rites for scrutinies on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent (Liber Sacramentorum [Mohlberg] nn.193–257). Before the end of the sixth century the number of scrutinies has increased to seven (Ordo Romanus XI, Andrieu pp. 417–47), by which time they seem to have become little more than solemn exorcisms. This shift, which came about as an elaborate rite for adults, was now used for infants and children. The whole process that was meant to nurture conversion was now transformed into exorcism, an indication that perhaps parents might have benefited from it.
Subsequently, as adult baptism became a rarity except in missionary situations, the adult catechumenate was progressively reduced and ultimately fell into disuse. There is, however, evidence that the parents had to undergo instruction before the baptism of their child (Caesarius of Arles, Serm. 84.6: Corpus Christianorum 103.348). Although Gregory the Great still demanded a preparation of 40 days before the baptism of adults, the Apostle of the Suevians, Martin, bishop of Braga in Portugal, recorded a canon that set the requirement at only three weeks (Capitula c.49; Mansi 9:855), and even this was not always followed in the case of mass Baptism. In the first printed edition of the Rituale Romanum (1487) and in the Sarum Ritual all the preliminaries were compressed into one complicated but inconsistent rite, eventually celebrated at the church door immediately before baptism (Henry Bradshaw Society 99.25ff; Fisher 158–179).
Modern Times. The impetus towards the restoration of a prebaptismal catechumenate came originally from the missionary field. Provincial councils of Mexico and Peru demanded a 40-day period of instruction before baptism; in other places, e.g. the East Indies, a minimum of 20 days was the rule. The directives of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith were not consistent, although they did attempt to exercise greater strictness along the lines of the ancient catechumenate. Towards the end of the of nineteenth century some features of the early Christian catechumenate were reintroduced in Africa by Cardinal lavigerie, founder of the Society of Missionaries of Africa ("White Fathers"), who established a four-year preparation for Baptism divided into stages of postulantes, catechumeni and electi ; in other parts of Africa a catechumenate of two years was thought sufficient. In addition, the catechetical movement made religious educators conscious of the excessive intellectual emphasis in catechisms, while liturgical studies recalled that the early Church had placed catechesis in a liturgical context.
Consequently, in April of 1962, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, the Sacred Congregation took a first step towards the revitalization of the baptismal liturgy by publishing a new "Order of Baptism divided into various steps" (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 54  310–338), which allowed the existing prebaptismal rites to be spread over a more prolonged process of catechetical preparation. The first step linked fundamental catechesis with rites signifying a turning away from error: a renunciation and adhesion, an exorcism by means of the sign of the cross, and the giving of a new name; in the second, salt was administered; in the third, fourth, and fifth steps solemn exorcisms were performed, making the process one not just of instruction but of total conversion; the sixth step comprised the rites which prepared immediately for Baptism, namely the recital of the Creed, a last exorcism, the "opening" of the candidate's ears (cf. Mk7.34), another renunciation, and anointing with the oil of catechumens; the seventh and final step consisted of Baptism itself followed by chrismation of the candidate's head. Neither confirmation nor first Communion formed part of the process.
There had scarcely been time to implement this reform when the Second Vatican Council resolved to carry it further. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963) laid down the general directives:
- 64. The catechumenate for adults is to be restored (instauretur ) and broken up into several steps (gradibus ), and put into practice at the discretion of the local ordinary. In this way the time of the catechumenate, which is intended for appropriate formation, can be sanctified through liturgical rites to be celebrated successively at different times.
- 65. In mission territories, in addition to what is available in the Christian tradition, it should also be permitted to incorporate ceremonies (elementa ) of initiation which are found to be customary in each society, provided they can be adapted to the Christian rite ….
In 1965 the Council set out more detailed pastoral guidelines in the Decree on Missionary Liturgy (Ad gentes ). It is stated clearly that the catechumenate is a period not only of instruction but also of gradual spiritual development and introduction to the life of the local community. The catechumen embarks on a "spiritual journey" involving deepening conversion and a "progressive change of sensibility and morals (sensus et morum )" which carries "social implications" (n.13). The catechumenate is not
a mere exposition of dogmas and precepts, but a training in the Christian life as a whole and a probation (tirocinium ), to be prolonged as need be, by means of which disciples become united with Christ, their Master. Catechumens, therefore, should be initiated in a suitable way into the mystery of salvation and the practice of the moral teaching of the gospels, and introduced into the life of faith, liturgy, and charity of the people of God through sacred rites to be celebrated successively at different times (n.14).
This process calls for the cooperation not only of clergy and catechists, but of godparents (patrini ) and the whole community. Subsequently, the U.S. National Statutes for the Catechumenate required the process to be extended for at least a year (n.6).
These directives were put into effect when Christian Initiation, General Introduction was published in 1969, followed by the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in 1972. Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist form a unified process as the "sacraments of Christian initiation." The rite is divided into four "periods (tempora ) for making inquiry and maturing" and three "steps (gradus ) marking the catechumens' progress as they pass, so to speak, through another doorway or ascend to the next level." The programme is devised as follows (RCIA 6–7):
First period: Evangelization and Precatechumenate. A period of inquiry.
First step : Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens. Conferred when the candidate has reached "initial conversion" and the desire to become a Christian.
Second Period: Catechumenate. The candidate's faith and conversion develop by a process which is not merely intellectual but "directs the heart towards God, fosters participation in the liturgy, inspires apostolic activity, and nurtures a life completely in accord with the spirit of Christ" (U.S. edition 78 [Latin edition 99]). Blessings, exorcisms and other rites are celebrated not merely to mark and encourage progress but also as instruments of formation. Catechumens are already connected to the Church though not yet incorporated into it; they are admitted to the blessings of the faithful and granted a Christian burial (Codex iuris canonici 206.1; 1183.1). They are, however, normally dismissed from the eucharistic assembly after they have been prayed for in the Intercessions.
Second step : Election or Enrollment, which ideally takes place at the beginning of Lent. On the basis of the recommendation of the godparents and catechists the local community vouches for the candidate's readiness for baptism (RCIA 119 [22, 133]), and their names are recorded in a book.
Third period: Purification and Enlightenment. This is intended not for instruction but to "purify the minds and hearts of the elect" (RCIA 139 [22,153]). A key element is the Scrutinies, celebrated on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent. Instead of being an opportunity for the bishop to judge the effectiveness of the exorcisms, as in the early Church, they have become "rites for self-searching and repentance," designed to "complete the conversion of the elect" (RCIA 141 [25,154]). Later in this period the "Presentations" of the Creed and the Lord's Prayer are celebrated; on Holy Saturday the candidates recite the Creed they have learned; the public recitation of the Lord's Prayer takes place at the baptismal Eucharist.
Third step : the three sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and first Communion, ideally celebrated during the Easter Vigil.
Fourth period: Mystagogy. This is "a time for the community and the neophytes together to grow in deepening their grasp of the paschal mystery and in making it part of their lives through meditation on the Gospel, sharing in the Eucharist, and doing works of charity" (RCIA 244 ).
Particular Circumstances. The Ordo provides for adaptation for children who were not baptized as infants and have attained catechetical age. They are enrolled as catechumens, and after a formation of several years if needed (USA RCIA no. 253) they are fully initiated through the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist as are adults.
The revised OICA has also influenced the formation of adult Catholics who were baptized as infants but not catechized, and the reception of candidates into the full communion of the Catholic Church, namely those who were initiated in other Christian churches but now seek to join the Roman Catholic Church. Because they have already been baptized, their status differs significantly from the catechumens, who have not been baptized. The rite insists that "no greater burden than necessary is required" (U.S. 473, R 1) for their formation. It insists that "anything that would equate candidates for reception with those who are catechumens is to be absolutely avoided" (US 477, R 5). The U.S.A. provides liturgical rites to mark the candidate's formation, but these are distinct from the rite for catechumens. The high point of reception is eucharistic communion. This is preceded by the profession of faith and an act of reception, followed by confirmation if required.
Thus much of the ritual and the terminology of the early Church has been reintroduced, though sometimes, as with "Scrutinies" and "Mystagogy," not only the rites but also the meaning of the terms has undergone change.
Bibliography: Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (Study Edition, Chicago 1988). h. leclercq and p. de puniet, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie 2.2: 2530–2621. a. dondeyne, "La Discipline des scrutins dans l'église latine avant Charlemagne," Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 28 (1932) 5–33, 751–787. t. maertens, Histoire et pastorale du rituel du catéchuménat et du baptême (Bruges 1962). j. d. c. fisher, Christian Initiation: Baptism in the Medieval West (London 1965). Concilium (UK) 54 (1967) 72–88, "Evangelization and Catechumenate in the Church around the World." m. dujarier, A History of the Catechumenate: The First Six Centuries (New York etc. 1979). a. bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948–1975 (Collegeville 1990). e. j. yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation (2nd ed. Edinburgh and Collegeville 1994). w. harmless, Augustine and the Catechumenate (Collegeville 1995). m. e. johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (Collegeville 1999).