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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Work on Catechesis as Discipleship (The Use of Catechism as Discipleship)

In the generations after the apostolic era significant changes in the population and social status of the Church compelled the leaders of the faith to develop new ways of fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission.[1] Paul’s emphasis on imitation gradually developed through the church Fathers into what has come to be known as catechesis.[2] In contrast to the later development of the Catholic Catechism of question-and-answer doctrinal positions, the early catechesis of the Church was a framework of instruction that prepared would-be Christians for Baptism, usually on Easter or Pentecost.
            The historic cause of this transition is one largely based on organizational structure. After the events of Pentecost[3] the leaders of the fledgling Church had many new believers to deal with. How would they be made into disciples? What was required of these crowds of people being “added to their number” in those early days? Michel Dujarier comments that the focal point in the Pentecost narrative is not that so many were baptized, but that so many believed.[4] He identifies two “thresholds” that represent the two distinct stages of discipleship in that Acts narrative:
“First, there is the kerygmatic announcement (Acts 2:14-36). This period, in which the mystery of the risen Christ is proclaimed, terminates in the first threshold: “…now what shall we do?” This almost ritual question occurs again and again in the kerygmatic context. It manifests the first conversion that allows the taking of a step toward baptism. Indeed, what is involved is a real and profound faith, a faith prepared to move on to action…But the faith was not yet stabilized. It had to be consolidated by more thorough teaching…Once across the first threshold, there was a certain period of catechesis (Acts 2:38-40). This time of instruction and formation ends with the second threshold, where it is a question of determining if the candidates have applied the message in their lives, if they have “received the word” (Acts 2:41), that is to say, if they have obeyed Christ in practice, if they have changed their behavior enough to be admitted to baptism.”[5]
Such a reading of the early post-Pentecost activity of the Church renders the management of the glut of new converts more possible for the leaders of the Way.
            It should be noted that the making of disciples in the earliest years of the Church was a consequence of the proclamation of the Gospel. The initial proclamation of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ represented the first “stage” of faith in the early church. By hearing and responding to the Spirit’s leading after the preaching of the Gospel, many came to believe. These would-be followers of the Way were initiated into the Church by way of imitation, however the object of that imitation evolved from Christ himself, to those who walked directly with the Lord, to those who had “passed on that which they had received.”[6] It is this latest iteration of the kerygma that formed the new believers at Pentecost; they “devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”[7] It is clear from the Acts narrative of the Pentecost event that the new believers spent considerable time together learning, praying, and being formed into their new identities as Spirit-born Christians. Such time is not to be overlooked; being devoted to certain teachings and prayers and new forms of community were essential to the task of building a new community of God.
            This is the essential nature of what would later become known as catechesis. The word itself was adopted by early Christians to represent acts of service, the Christian life, and acts of public worship.[8] Beginning with the preaching of the Gospel, catechesis represented a continuum from Gospel to catechesis to liturgy to further catechesis and Gospel service.[9] Weiss concludes that the goal of this cycle was “to nurture the disciples on their journey of conversion, faith, Christian living, and witness.”[10] In the absence of the immediate presence of Jesus, discipleship developed into the imitation of those who did. As even this generation understood the Gospel more and more through the ministry of the Holy Spirit they increasingly made disciples through the practices of the Gospel life, that is, the teachings of Jesus applied to their lives, the fellowship of the faithful amidst a culture of persecution, and an increasingly developing body of prayers and rituals to aid in that formation.
            Catechesis, then, became the modus operandi of discipleship in the early Church. As we have seen, imitation was a persistent theme in Christian formation throughout the generations of the Fathers, but it is the rituals, teachings, and practices of those being imitated that form the core of Patristic catechesis.

Examination of the Catechetical process
            Catechesis in the Early Church was actually a two-stage process through which converts to Christianity were prepared and nurtured in the faith. The central event in this process was baptism. An intense period of preparation preceded the believer’s immersion, which was followed by an even more in-depth examination of the teachings of the Church. John Westerhoff is extremely helpful in describing these two stages as evangelization and catechesis: “evangelization, along with prescribed rites, may be defined as a formative process of initiation through participation in and the practice of the Christian life of faith. It aims at conversion and the preparation of persons for Baptism…catechesis is the intentional, life-long process by which Christians are made, fashioned, and nurtured.”[11] Dujarier also identifies these two categories of Christian discipleship, saying, “In the journey toward baptism, the catechumenate is not the first step. It follows a period of search and discovery that is too often forgotten. This is the time of evangelization, a period during which, after interest has been aroused in Christ or Christianity, direct contact is made with individual Christians…it is the period of the first conversion to Christ that implies a decision to transform one’s life, without which none would succeed in being admitted to the catechumenate.”[12]
            One of the most informative extant documents concerning this period of immersion into the Christian life is The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus.[13] According to this third-century manual of church order, the catechumenate consisted of several stages that promoted the understanding of conversion as a process of initiation into the Gospel. Weiss sums up that process, saying,
“Those who desired to become Christians had to undergo a catechumenate that might last up to three years. In order to enter upon this, they were required to have sponsors who could attest to their capacity to “hear the Word” and change their way of life. During this preparatory period the catechumens received regular instruction in the faith but were not permitted to attend the celebration of the Eucharist, or even to pray together with those who were already baptized or to exchange the kiss of peace with them, since they were regarded as not yet holy. At the end of this time their lives were again examined in order to determine whether they were ready to be baptized, and their sponsors had to bear witness to the fact that they had displayed good conduct while catechumens, especially with regard to works of charity.”[14]
            After a successful examination of the catechumen[15], that individual would be admitted to an intense period of fasting and prayer immediately before Easter and would then be baptized on Easter Sunday.[16] The time of formation was far from over, though, as Hippolytus lays out in The Apostolic Tradition that the newly included believers were required to sit a series of post-Easter sermons that emphasized both formation and teaching in the spiritual meanings of baptism and the Eucharist.[17] This period was referred to as the mystagogia since the mysteries of the Gospel were revealed to the heretofore-ignorant disciples.[18]
The vision of Christian discipleship demonstrated in these early generations of the church is essential to a healthy formative ministry. While the bar is admittedly high for baptism, it is helpful to see that the Gospel was treated with reverence and had high demands for those who would believe.[19] This period of catechesis-as-discipleship was necessary in light of the growing numbers of believers and as the Gospel reached farther and wider from Jerusalem.[20] The catechumenate was a middle ground between the exclusively personal nature of imitation and the more general culturally based Christianity that developed in subsequent generations.
What should also not be overlooked is the context in which the catechetical process took place. Whether through the supervision of sponsors, the oversight of a Bishop, or the inclusion within the baptized congregation, the catechumen was always involved in the community of faith that was forming the new believer. At no point was there room for “lone ranger” Christianity; instead, the Church saw to it that the rookie believers were catechized by the community. Further, evangelization, the doorway to the catechetical process, was not exclusively the task of the Bishop. Rather, “each individual Christian was involved in leading his neighbors to faith.”[21] Such “friendship evangelism” was certainly the prerequisite to the sponsorship of supplicants for catechesis – relationship between the mature and the neophyte was essential. Weiss frames this reliance on the Christian community in terms of the liturgy of the early Church, saying, “the first centuries of the patristic era witness the intrinsic relationship between catechesis and liturgy in the pastoral care of the catechumenate. At each stage of initiation, catechesis took place in a liturgical framework. Here the motivating force of the candidates’ conversion was the Word proclaimed, reflected upon, and lived out in the community. The conversion process was further supported by the life, prayer, and witness of the Christian community.”[22]
It is this emphasis on the formation of believers within the established community both before and after baptism that must be highlighted. Other ancient documents of Church order emphasize this very involvement thorough the catechetical process, especially the Didache.[23] Glassford comments that, “The Didache is concerned with both the catechumen’s knowledge and lifestyle. In addressing these two areas it assumes the catechumen’s affections are altered through the relationship with the teacher and participation in the community.”[24] Participation in the community is the emphasis of the catechetical process; without the experience of more mature believers passed on through imitation to new converts there could be no continuity or solidarity among those who claimed the Way as their new way of life.

[1] Church history footnote, combo of Olson’s Green Monster and Gutierrez
[2] Definition of Catachesis.
[3] Acts 2
[4] Dujarier, A History of the Catechumenate, 19.
[5] Ibid.
[6] I Corinthians 11.
[7] Acts 2:42, emphasis mine.
[8] Weiss, “Liturgy and Catechesis,” 57.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Westerhoff, “Evangelism, Evangelization, and Catechesis,” 157.
[12] Dujarier, 57. It is also important to note that the hearing of the kerygma was not an automatic qualifier for the catechumenate. Dujarier comments that “even though the structure of the school of catechesis was very flexible, and even though pagans and neophytes mixed with the catechumens to listen to this teaching, one thing is certain: there as a special group of converts who followed a special course of formation before being admitted to the sacraments of initiation” (43).
[13] Source the Apostolic Tradition
[14] Weiss, “Liturgy and Catechesis,” 58. See also Geoffrey J. Cuming, Hippolytus: A Text for Students (Bramcote Notts: Grove Books, 1984) 16-17. See also Apostolic Tradition 17:1-2; 18:1-4; 20:1-2.
[15] The practices of examining the life of the petitioning believer is a curiosity to modern readers, even though it was a practice aimed at making the Church relevant to what could be called ancient “seekers.” Bradshaw comments that, “it rather looks as though it was behaving that was the prerequisite to belonging on the early church, and that at least some believing might have been expected to come later. Indeed, it appears to have been the behavior of Christians rather than their beliefs as asuch that was the principal attraction to the religion for pagans and the most effective means of evangelization. Christians would thus not have needed to tell them everything about the gospel in order to draw them into the catechumenate. The ethical precepts of the Lord might have been enough, and the deepest mysteries of the faith might well have been reserved for the time when they were ready to make the final commitment of baptism” (152).
[16] See Dujarier, 39.
[17] See Marthaler, Berard L., “Catechesis: A Semantic Evolution?,” 2; Weiss, “Liturgy and Catechesis,” 58; Apostolic Tradition 41:1-3.
[18] Berard Marthaler surveys a wide selection of Patristic traditions at this point: “Catechemens who presented themselves for baptism at Easter entered a new phase of preparation that occureed during Lent, the forty days (quadrigesima). In Greek they were referred to as photizomenoi (“the enlightened”) and in Latin as competentes (“petitioners”), though Rome had the unique custom of calling them electi (“chosen ones”).” “Catechesis: A Semantic Evolution?,” 2.
[19] The Gospel itself seems to have been a separate catechetical topic for the early church, separate even in practice from the kerygma. Bradshaw summarizes this curiosity within the Apostolic Tradition, saying, “the baptismal candidates have already undergone a lengthy catechumenate, which involved considerable teaching, but it is only now, after an examination of their conduct while they were catechumens, that they will be allowed to hear ‘the gospel’ in the final stages of their preparation for baptism. What was ‘the gospel’? Was it some particular, secret text? Or gospel readings in general? If the latter, then obviously in this community, wherever and whatever it was, catechumens cannot have attended the regular Eucharistic ministry of the word or they would have already heard many gospel passages.” He demonstrates the evolution of this curiosity in the Apostolic Constitutions which, “for example, locates the dismissal of the catechumens after the reading of the gospel and the sermon at the Eucharistic liturgy” (144).
[20] Thanks in large part to the persecution of the church under various Roman emperors.
[21] Dujarier, 37.
[22] Weiss, 58.
[23] See above discussion on the Didache as imitation.
[24] Glassford, “The Future is Behind Us,” S-176.

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