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THE ROLE OF THE CATECHIST: AUGUSTINEíS CATECHIZING BEGINNERS

Paul Turner

 

If a fifth-century North African desired to become a Christian, he or she would go for instruction.  The catechist would conduct a preliminary interview and then make the person a catechumen in some kind of formal ceremony.  A period of formation would follow, marked by prayers, sermons and ascetical practices.  Baptism would take place at the Easter Vigil, and additional catechesis would follow that week.

By the fifth century, the catechumenate had expanded well beyond its simple origins and far beyond the uncomplicated, immediate, charismatic baptisms in Acts of the Apostles.  Universal practices governing catechesis and liturgy had not yet developed in any form, but patterns and parallels can be traced among the Christian centers like Rome, Jerusalem, Syria, Gaul and North Africa.

There were some differences too.  The number of exorcisms and the occasion for anointing varied considerably.  Some Christian centers had exorcisms once in a while; others conducted them daily for weeks at a time.  Some anointed only before baptism; some another after; some anointed on both occasions.  Some communities practiced the washing of the feet of the baptized; others did not.  Travelers reported divergent ways of celebrating the liturgy.  Correspondents asked questions about local practices and received information from those with experience and access to the tools of writing.  Even within a specific locale, customs could vary.  The evidence handed down from the early centuries shows a sure-footed church growing in its vocabulary of worship and unafraid of learning from the experience of others.  Underneath it all lay a vibrant faith that informed instruction and breathed life into worship.

Deogratias, a deacon from Carthage, however, seemed despondent.  Unhappy with the limited success of his dispirited instructions, he assumed his catechetical technique needed improvement.  A lesser man might have given up and pursued another career.  But Deogratias looked for help.  He appealed to the bishop of Hippo, Augustine, and asked the worldís greatest catechist how he did it.  What does it take to be a good catechist in fifth century Africa?  Augustine, to the everlasting delight of future generations of catechists, responded.

De catechizandis rudibus[1] (Catechizing Beginners) is one of the first treatises on Christian catechesis, a remarkable document that reveals the secrets of successful instruction from a man whose writings shaped the history of Christianity.  The work affirms the goodness of Deacon Deogratias while suggesting the means for improving his skills.  It concludes with a sample catechetical session: a summary of Godís saving action in human history and its demands for the Christian life.

Insights from this work fall under four categories: the catechist, the beginner, the catechesis and the liturgy.  Augustineís advice, so practical in its day, still speaks eloquently to the modern reader.  As the message of Christianity has remained intact from the days of the gospel, so the methods of its communication remain useful.

The Catechist

Evidently, North Africans had firmly established the ministry of catechist.  Deogratias the deacon is also Deogratias the catechist.  It fell within his responsibilities to prepare those interested in joining the church.  Augustine avers that the deaconís skill must have been notable because people kept bringing him potential recruits (paragraph 4).  But it also seems clear that people recognized the role of catechist.  The community sought the assistance of someone skilled in the field.

Although Deogratias chides himself for his inadequacies, he obviously has engaged in some self-scrutiny (1).  Criticizing his own work, he realizes its lacks.  Worried about the success of his efforts, he seeks self-improvement, a quality worthy of any minister in the church or any employee in the world of business.

Another role evident from the correspondence is the master catechist, Augustine.  Deogratias, realizing he needs help, turns to the bishop of another diocese for assistance.  Not every bishop possessed the skills of an Augustine, but this bishopís abilities were so legendary that Deogratias knew where to turn for assistance in this pressing matter.  The very premise of Catechizing Beginners is that catechists need continuing formation, and that the church consents to offer it.

Like a doctor diagnosing an illness, Augustine proposes several theories about how a catechist becomes flawed.  Preparing lessons is tedious (16).  Repeating the same information to people who cannot quite get it requires patience (17).  Accepting the listless response of some students is humbling (18).  Inspiring languid students to pay attention means being creative (19).  The call of other responsibilities is distracting (20).  Suffering personal offense (21) or grief (22) inhibits oneís ability to focus on the material at hand.  Catechesis is hard.

What makes it hard is not just learning the material, but being the kind of person who can communicate it.  It is not just the material that catechizes.  The catechist catechizes.  Augustine desires catechists who are charitable and cheerful, in love with God, with the material, with the opportunity to learn and with those who present themselves for instruction (14).  The whole enterprise concerns much more than leading sessions.  It concerns the catechist.

The Beginner

The second area Augustine treats is the beginner, the one coming forward for instruction.  He urges the catechist to learn as much about beginners as possible.  Information can be obtained through mutual acquaintances, or by direct interview (9).

At this stage of formation, the main question concerns motivation.  Why is this person here?  The beginner comes with some experience in life, but what has motivated this desire to seek Christian formation?

Augustine proposes several possibilities.  Some people may have had an experience that has moved them as if it were a divine oracle (10).  Such beginners have been introduced into the mysteries of the spiritual life.  But Augustine cautions that they may be seeking miracles and dreams.  He wants them to follow a more solid path that flows from the promises and prophecies of the scriptures.

Others may have learned about the Christian life in secular schools (12).  Any school of philosophy in his day might have offered a course in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, as well as later Christian writings.  Such texts could be studied for their philosophical, historical or literary merit.  The secular schools of Augustineís day could teach this information at armís length, without fully engaging the heart of the student.  Sometimes what motivates an inquirer is the very philosophy they have been studying.  Aware of Christian beliefs intellectually, these beliefs have now begun to touch the heart.  In those cases, the catechist can build on the knowledge the inquirer brings, without having to tediously rehearse points they have already spent years learning.

Still others might be professors who have taught the very texts that others have been studying (13).  In any event, Augustine urges the catechist to evaluate the materials that led to the beginnerís conversion of heart.  Were these materials passages from the scriptures?  Were they from Christian writers?  Which Christian writers?  Are they reputable?  The catechist would need to have familiarity with a wide range of materials in order to know how they affected the young faith of a beginner.

Catechesis

Deogratias has asked for help in two areas: doctrine and method (1).  A catechist needs to have the facts right, but a catechist also needs skill in communicating them.  Augustine will help him reaffirm the basic content of Christian faith, but he will also discuss various methods.

The foundational content of Augustineís catechesis is the scriptures.  This can be easily noted in the example of a catechetical session that occupies the second half of Catechizing Beginners (24-49).  But it is comparable to the work of other catechists of the same period.

Church history was mercifully briefer in the fifth century than it is in the twenty-first.  Augustine perceived the continuity in Godís activity from the creation of the world through the history of the patriarchs, Israel in exile, the coming of the promised redeemer, Jesus Christ, and the unfolding of the life of the church from apostolic times through the eras of persecution to his present day.  For Augustine, one God was active throughout all these epochs, and the bishop of Hippo cannot tell the ancient story without interpreting it through modern eyes.

His technique borrows one employed by all the evangelists.  They wrote the gospels as the fulfillment of many prophecies.  As they told the story of Jesus, they explained how different events had been foreshadowed in the earlier scriptures.  Similarly, Augustine believed God continues unfolding this divine plan from the events of biblical times through the life of the church to his own day.

Augustine rooted his teaching on the scriptures, but he recognized that the catechist could not fully expound on all the texts of the bible (5).  There would be too much to cover, and the beginners would lose their way.  Augustine favored summaries, comprehensive statements.  Through a summary the beginner grasps the central points from the full story and distinguishes them more readily from less essential parts.

When communicating the Christian message to those who have not yet absorbed it, the catechist remains humble (15).  By definition the catechist has a firmer grasp of the material, but must present it on a level that learners can understand.  By this charitable, humble service, Augustine believes the catechist embodies the very mission of Jesus Christ, who humbled himself to become like humanity, in order to bring humanity to salvation.

The nature of catechesis will vary depending on the nature of the group.  Is it one beginner or several?  Does the catechetical method involve discussion or lecture?  Do the participants have the same level of understanding, or is there variety in the group?  The same teaching will sound very different depending on these circumstances (23).

Throughout this formation, the catechesis is meant to build on the motives of those who have come for instruction.  Sometimes their motives may not be pure, but they may provide an adequate starting point for further development.

Catechesis concludes with moral exhortation (9, 11).  Augustine is not interested simply in communicating information.  He wants people to change their behaviors as well.  If the beginners experience the love of the God they fear, they will change their behaviors to please the God they love.  A similar model can also be found in the scriptures.  Almost all the New Testament epistles begin with answers to doctrinal questions and conclude with moral exhortations.  If God has truly saved people through Jesus Christ, then people should behave in ways that please God.

The Liturgy

Catechizing Beginners makes only a brief reference to the liturgy, but it is significant (50).  Once the catechist has completed interviewing the beginner, has understood the motives that bring this person to catechesis, and has explained the core of the Christian message, the catechist makes a judgment about the suitableness of the beginner to proceed.  If that judgment is favorable, the beginner is signed in some kind of liturgical ceremony.  Augustine gives no more detail about the ceremony, but in this request he makes a direct link between catechesis and liturgy.

The liturgies of Augustineís catechumenate can be pieced together from a number of his writings, especially Baptism.  But there are references also in a number of sermons (e.g. 56-59, 132, 210, 212-216, 219, 227 and 229A) and other sources (e.g. The City of God, Faith and Works, Commentary on the Psalms and various Letters).  In the Confessions (1:11), he says his mother had him signed and given salt as an infant.  These rituals admitted Augustine the baby into the catechumenate.  He was not baptized until he was thirty-three.  In his own case, this preliminary liturgy preceded a lifetime of catechesis, as he meandered through Manichean belief before presenting himself to Ambroseís baptismal font in Milan.

These writings indicate a catechumenate rich in rites and symbols, many of which related directly to a pertinent stage of catechesis.  Those completing their instructional survey and desiring baptism submitted their names to the bishop before Easter.  Spiritual preparation in the weeks before baptism included exorcisms and scrutinies.  Those about to be baptized received a summary of their catechetical formation in the presentation of the Creed.  This document, so central to Christian belief, had been withheld from catechumens until they had learned enough to grasp its meaning.  They were never to write down the Creed, lest anyone receive it without proper instruction.  Having memorized the Creed, the catechumens repeated it back to the bishop at a later date.  He then gave them the words of the Lordís Prayer as their final preparation for the day of baptism.  The elaborate Easter Vigil brought their aspirations to their fulfillment, as they were immersed in the waters of baptism, anointed with oil, and became sharers in the eucharist.  The catechist continued offering instructions for a week after Easter, so that those who had experienced the richness of the Churchís liturgy could reflect upon it in a catechetical setting.

Throughout the catechumenate, then, Augustine orchestrated a dance between liturgy and catechesis.

Conclusions

Augustineís Catechizing Beginners established a benchmark in the history of catechesis.  It demonstrated the importance of the person of the catechist, whose teaching required the authenticity of a dedicated way of life.  It discussed the circumstances that prompted beginners to step forward and the situations that might change the nature of their instruction.  It offered practical advice on the content of catechesis, complete with a full text giving an example.  And it made the link between catechesis and liturgy, to show that what we learn is never separated from how we pray, and who we become is never distant from how we believe.

Catechists today will still be enriched by this text.

         They will hear the challenge to be people of the gospel who catechize first by their lives and then by their content.

         They will recognize many of the concerns Augustine expressed about the beginners: how to purify the motives of those who approach the church, and how to vary the catechetical method to make the teaching more attainable by those with different needs and circumstances.

         His sample catechetical session would probably not work in todayís culture.  It is just too long.  Catechists today would break up this content over a series of sessions utilizing a variety of methods, but Augustine makes it clear what people should learn by the end of their formation: salvation history and the continued interest God takes in the course of human events.

         The link between catechesis and liturgy has become more and more clear.  The Sunday eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life.  All catechesis both leads to it and flows from it.  The catechist who links worship with instruction presents a fuller experience of the church and the mystery of God, revealed in understanding and prayer.

 

If a twenty-first century North American desired to become a Christian, he or she would go for instruction.  If a good experience of catechesis followed, it probably received some inspiration from Augustine.

[This article first appeared in The Living Light 39/1 (Fall, 2002):17]

[1] Corpus Christianorum latinorum 46 (1969) 121-178.

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