[This article first appeared in Catechumenate: A Journal of Christian Initiation 19/4 (July, 1997):8-11]
"I knew it would be something weird," the voice on the phone said. I could imagine my sister rolling her eyes in despair that her brother would never get a life. She started the conversation with a friendly, "What are you working on?" And I told her the truth: "I'm reading the results of the Council of Rome from the year 1725." I know, I know. She was right. It was weird. I thought maybe she could get excited about it if I explained a little more.
"It includes a suggested conversation between a pastor and children preparing for first communion.
Pastor: Do you desire holy communion?
Children: We desire it and have for a long time.
P: What do you believe this communion to be?
C: We believe by the name of communion to be understood the sacrament of the eucharist, as we have learned in Christian doctrine."
And so on.
"It's all scripted out--IN LATIN!" Silence. I could not satisfactorily convey to her the irony of a scripted Latin conversation between kids and a priest. If you look at this stuff long enough, your funny bone itches for anything.
The study of primary sources does not appeal to everyone, and not even to everyone in the field of initiation. Caught up in the throes of pastoral issues, we generally have our hands full of the present without creaking open the door to the past.
Those who do investigate the sources, though, generally find them quite interesting and worthy of the effort to study. The work can be lonely, so when someone who's really into primary sources meets someone else with the same interest, they latch onto each other like participants in a self-help group. "Thank God," they say to themselves, "I'm not the only one."
Why Study Primary Sources?
Many people never experiment with the sources. Those who find the great books of literature as practical as last week's TV Guide are not likely to be easily sold on documents that date back before the invention of the remote control. Often they find the books are too big, the authors too obscure, the sentences too long, and the images too strange. Developing a love for that kind of literature seems--well, weird.
But for those willing to take the challenge, primary sources bring the reader into a fascinating encounter with the past. Like the discovery of old family photos, they give us a new understanding of who we are and how we got here. They provide the same thrill we experience whenever we go from what is secondhand to what is original -- from recorded music to a live concert, from sports on television to sports in the stadium, from store-bought bread to homemade bread, from hearing about the Bible to reading the Bible.
Primary-source work holds special rewards for those who work in catechumenate ministry. The rituals, vocabulary, and goals of initiation all have their origins in the first few centuries of church life. The discovery of those texts will help us understand why we do what we do. Why do we use words like "mystagogy", "elect", and even "catechumenate"? Can't we find another word for "scrutiny" besides "exorcism"? It might help to know that the terms stem from antiquity, along with customs like the presentations of the Lord's Prayer and Creed, the choice of those three readings from John's gospel for the scrutiny Masses, and the prebaptismal fast.
A familiarity with the sources will reveal that many of the pastoral problems we face today are nothing new. For what reasons could an adult be baptized on some other day than Easter? Should confirmation precede first communion? How long should catechumens be in formation? How do you know when they're ready? What constitutes comprehensive content for catechesis? Who makes the ideal catechist? How do you deal with a neophyte who didn't experience a conversion of behaviors after baptism? The church had to face all those questions before the fifth century. Having a hard time with some cases? They've always been hard.
Some Recent Books
The recent publication of several books has made primary-source reading more accessible to the minister of the catechumenate. William Harmless's Augustine and the Catechumenate treats the experience of the great church father as catechumen and bishop. Edward Yarnold's The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: The Origins of the R.C.I.A. presents the work of four church fathers: Theodore of Mopsuestia and John Chrysostom, both from Syria; Cyril of Jerusalem; and Ambrose of Milan. Thomas M. Finn's two volumes, Early Christian Baptism and the Catechumenate: West and East Syria and Early Christian Baptism and the Catechumenate: Italy, North Africa, and Egypt present a wider collection of representative sources.
Both Yarnold and Finn present the works of the fathers with good introductory comments. They help the reader take a deep breath before plunging into the texts. Harmless weaves excerpts from Augustine throughout his essay. The result is a fine book which is more Harmless's work than Augustine's, but you feel like you know Augustine by the end.
A word of caution, though. Even though these books will get you reading primary sources, you're still several steps away from the originals. Once the texts have been translated into English they lose a little of their power. To read the original versions you'd need to know Latin, Greek and Syriac. Even then you'd most likely find the works in collections published in the last century or so. They've been compiled from manuscripts which are much harder to find. And even if you found them, you'd have manuscript editions written several hundred years after the time of the Fathers themselves. We don't have the autograph copies of any of these works. So not every primary source is really a primary source.
Still, reading English editions will bring us closer to the Fathers than reading articles about them, and writers like Harmless, Yarnold, and Finn have made this miracle possible.
Looking for a way to expand your understanding of the catechumenate this coming year? How about trying something weird? Primary sources.