Book Review

Augustine and the Catechumenate
By William Harmless, S.J.
A Pueblo Book. Collegeville:
The Liturgical Press, 1995. Pages, xii + 406.
Paper, $34.95. ISBN 0-8146-6132-7

Liturgy and catechesis blossom anew from the fertile ground of renewal. Liturgical renewal grew from a return to its sources. Catechetical renewal sprouted from new discoveries in learning theory. Unlike liturgy, however, contemporary catechesis has not yet undertaken the self-scrutiny of radical historical analysis. In the case of the catechumenate, liturgical scholars have mined the patristic era's catechetical documents to reconstruct ritual, "but these ancient documents also need to be studied in terms of what they are: records of catechesis" (p. 27).

William Harmless presents a reconstruction of patristic catechesis so that today's catechists might compare methods ancient and modern. Augustine and the Catechumenate is a welcome contribution to the conversation about the content of catechesis in parish catechumenates.

The heart of Harmless's book is a comprehensive meditation on the nature and content of catechesis in the stages of Augustine's catechumenate. The reader learns of Augustine's own journey to baptism and the path pursued by turn of the fifth-century North African initiates during his episcopacy. These chapters lavishly quote from the master and skillfully interweave the sources that document Augustine's catechumenate. Helpful charts appear throughout.

As a result, the reader gains a new appreciation not just for the structure and content of patristic catechesis, but for Augustine as catechist. This great rhetorician, following in the footsteps of Cicero, comes to life in the pages of Harmless's well-researched book. The author's excursus into classical rhetorical style (pp. 123ff) significantly contributes to an understanding of the period's catechetical theory . It gives new eyes to view Augustine's work.

The reconstruction of Augustine's catechumenate is framed by two sections concerning today's. Harmless introduces his work with a good summary of the modern rite (pp. 2-9) and an even better catalogue of its implications for the church (pp. 9-18). His concluding chapter draws from the principles of Augustine's catechumenate to analyze the contemporary scene. He stresses the importance of the art of rhetoric, the homily as a primary locus for catechesis, the virtue of not explaining everything, the role of the lectionary, and the perils of relying only on the creed for catechism. Augustine preaches Christ, Harmless argues; the message need not be complicated.

There is little over which to quibble. The author seems surprised that the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults explains so little of its catechetical content (pp. 18-24). Yet the liturgical texts for marriage, orders, penance, etc. accept the same limitations; catechetical content is not their concern. Some of the author's colloquial translations of Augustine seem too hip to capture the high-minded rhetorician's well-honed words. Would Augustine "unpack" the holy Scriptures (p. 160), or try not to leave his hearers "high and dry" (p. 173)? Harmless repeatedly uses that vapid acronym "RCIA" where the more expressive "catechumenate" would suffice.

Nonetheless, this book offers much helpful instruction for those in catechumenate ministry, patristic study, and religious education. It insightfully enters the important conversation of contrasting lectionary catechesis with catechism catechesis (e.g., p. 369). It explains mystagogy and gives an easy-to-grasp example of its application (p. 366). It cries out for similar work to be done on Augustine's contemporaries. Harmless accomplishes all this while exemplifying the catechesis he describes: rich in metaphor, steeped in tradition, adapted to the audience, and centered on Christ.

This review first appeared in Worship 70/4 (July 1996):377-378.

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