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In ecclesiology, a catechumen (/, /; via Latin catechumenus from Greek κατηχούμενος katēkhoumenos, "one being instructed", from κατά kata, "down" and ἦχος ēkhos, "sound") is one receiving instruction from a catechist in the principles of the Christian religion with a view to baptism. The title and practice is most often used by Orthodox Christians and by Roman Catholics.
Historic Christian practice
Although catechumens existed by the time of the Letter to the Galatians (Strong's G2727), which mentions them, the practice slowly developed, from the development of doctrine and the need to test converts against the dangers of falling away. The Bible records (Acts 19) that the Apostle Paul while visiting some people who were described as "disciples", established they had received the baptism of John for the repentance of sins but had not yet heard of or received the Holy Spirit. Further, from the second century it appears that baptisms were held only at certain times of year, indicating that periods of instruction were the rule rather than the exception. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes: "As the acceptance of Christianity involved belief in a body of doctrine and the observance of the Divine law ("teach, make disciples, scholars of them"; "teaching them to observe all things whatever I have commanded you", Matthew 28:20 (see Great Commission), it is clear that some sort of preliminary instruction must have been given to the converts." See also Council of Jerusalem. Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, cites instruction as occurring prior to baptism:
- As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated.
The "persuasion" would be carried out by the preaching of an evangelist; but since belief must precede baptism, the person concerned should be prepared spiritually to receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit through baptism. That person would receive the sign of the Cross and possibly aspersion with holy water from a minister, indicating their entry to the state of catechumen.
Catechumens were limited as to their attendance in formal services. As unbaptized, they could not actively take part in any service, for that was reserved for those baptized. One practice permitted them to remain in the first part of the mass, but even in the earliest centuries dismissed them before the Eucharist. Others had them entering through a side door, or observing from the side, from a gallery, or near the font; while it was not unknown to bar them from all services until baptized.
Their desire for baptism was held to be sufficient guarantee of their salvation, if they died before the reception. In event of their martyrdom prior to baptism by water, this was held to be a "baptism by blood" (Baptism of desire), and they were honored as martyrs.
In the fourth century, a widespread practice arose of enrolling as a catechumen and deferring baptism for years, often until shortly before death, and when so ill that the normal practice of immersion was impossible, so that aspersion or affusion—the baptism of the sick—was necessary. Constantine was the most prominent of these catechumens. See also Deathbed conversion.
Cyril of Jerusalem wrote a series of sermons aimed at catechumens, outlining via passages of scripture the main points of the faith, yet dividing between those merely interested and those intending baptism then continuing with certain sermons aimed at those who had been baptized.
St. Augustine was among those enrolled as a catechumen as an infant, and did not receive baptism until he was in his thirties. He, and other Fathers, fulminated against the practice.
Christian practice during the Middle Ages
(Stub to include the development of the Roman/Greek catechisms, relationship to forced conversion, and conversion from one part of Christianity to another).
Present Christian practice
In no case is a catechumen absolutely bound to be baptized, preserving the principle that the person concerned must be drawn spiritually to the faith rather than being intellectually persuaded.
The Roman Catholic Church revived the catechumenate with its Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) wherein being a catechumen is one of a number of stages leading to receiving the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist). This was a result of the Second Vatican Council, explicitly stated in point 64 of the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium:
- The catechumenate for adults, comprising several distinct steps, is to be restored and to be taken into use at the discretion of the local ordinary. By this means the time of the catechumenate, which is intended as a period of suitable instruction, may be sanctified by sacred rites to be celebrated at successive intervals of time.
The Neocatechumenal Way of the Roman Catholic Church takes as its inspiration the old catechumenate of early Christianity (the "primitive church") as the basis for its goal of adult faith formation for Roman Catholics.
In many Protestant churches, particularly those preferring not to baptise infants, the catechumenate status may be considered the norm amongst the young. This is especially true amongst young Christadelphians, although they never use the specific term catechumenate, more normally referring to those in this state as "being instructed" or "being taken through".
The Protestant churches who baptize infants, for instance Anglican/Episcopalian and Lutheran, tend to follow a catechumenate which can be likened to a course in the fundamentals of the religion, lasting typically six months and ending with baptism at Easter. However, this is at the discretion of the local minister, and times may be varied. The 9th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Cape Town, January 1993, stated among other points in Resolution 44:
- "that the Provinces be encouraged to restore the catechumenate, or discipling process, to help enquiries move to Christian faith, using the witness and support of lay people, and liturgically celebrating the stages of growth;"
Jehovah's Witnesses require a catechumenate of adherents prior to baptism by means of a Bible Study program led by a baptized minister, with the aid of a Bible Textbook. Students of all ages progress initially to becoming an "Unbaptized Publisher" of the faith, preaching while continuing further biblical instruction - akin to a catechumen, although the term is not specifically used. After demonstrating sufficient comprehension and application of The Bible's teachings, the student qualifies to be baptized as one of Jehovah's Witnesses.
The catechumenate and the religious education of the young baptized
A catechumen has not been baptized, and is undergoing training in the principles of the faith; one who was baptized as a child has an equal need of education, but this does not start from the same foundation, since baptism has already occurred. The theological basis is common to all sects and taken from the Gospel:
No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him—John 6:44
from which the working of God on the catechumen is presupposed. Once baptized, the relationship with God is of a different order.
Since the schisms between the parts of the Church, conversion between the denominations is also possible. Education in the specific doctrines of the sect is therefore seen as necessary, as well as a thorough grounding in the first principles of the faith. This latter may already have occurred when the convert is mature, and the status of catechumen is then usually not implied.
The three cases - baptized as an infant, come to the faith in maturer years, and conversion from one denomination to another - seem outwardly similar. This has led to discussions on their differentiation, notably the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation which, at its meeting in Toronto in 1991, stated that  the catechumenate for those about to be baptized as infants was to be absolved by their parents and sponsors, thus defining the catechumenate as necessary for all, whether directly or by proxy. The status of the "converted" was dealt with at the same time, but in a way that cannot be considered typical of general Christian thinking, when it was declared that rebaptism was not to be thought of; as a consequence the previously baptized cannot become catechumens.
The remark in the foregoing section on "stages of growth" is important to understand this confusion, and happily this can also be seen as typical of the thinking outside the Anglican church. While all parts of the Church promote the growth from catechumen to novice to full member of the communion, the Protestant churches align it with the education of the young who are already baptized, whereas the Orthodox and Roman parts of the church keep this separate. Various terms are used to describe this process: "alpha courses", "nursery courses", "starter groups", among others. The main difference between denominations is whether these courses include or exclude those who are baptized, and an overlap with youth ministries and even to an extent with evangelism is observable. For further discussion not directly related to the state of catechumen, see other Wiki articles.
The form of education varied, though the earliest recorded methods were lists of questions and answers (Catechism). Sermons were also used (Cyril of Jerusalem). Most catechisms were divided into parts, aiming to follow the spiritual growth of the catechumen. There were certain differences between catechisms for the young baptized and for the unbaptized catechumen.
Catechumens and conversion
The divergence between Christian practice as regards catechumens (a formalised, gradual approach) and the idea of conversion (a sudden, overwhelming event) as the entry into the Church, is one of appearance rather than substance. It is recorded in the Bible that Paul the Apostle, who started out as a Jewish persecutor of the Church, underwent sudden conversion on the way to Damascus when Jesus Christ appeared to him in a vision. Regarded as the type of sudden conversion, this event was followed by baptism, with, however, a period of study and learning following, lasting a number of years. While there are examples of people being immediately baptised after having declared their faith, it seems that this was the exception rather than the rule (see above). It is therefore debatable if the idea of sudden conversion, promulgated by many evangelical parts of the Church, is in any way incompatible with the catechumenate.
Quoting Shaye J. D. Cohen: From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (1987) "The Sadducees were the aristocratic opponents of the Pharisees. The Essenes were a group of religious and philosophic virtuosi, living a utopian life of the sort that would provoke the admiration of Jews and non-Jews alike. Josephus mentions their three-year catechumenate, their oath of loyalty to the group, their separation from their fellow Jews, their emphasis on purity and ablutions, but he regards them not as a "sect" but as a pietistic elite." See also Proselyte.
- "Laying a Foundation for the Right Kind of Ministers", The Watchtower, March 1, 1969, page 139.
- "Why Be Baptized", The Watchtower, April 1, 2002, pages 13.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults Resource Site
- North American Forum on the Catechumenate
- The Blog That's All About R.C.I.A.
- The Association for Catechumenal Ministry
- Waking Up Catholic - RCIA Information
- The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults Resource Site
- Catholic Encyclopedia article on Catechumen
- OrthodoxWiki:Catechumen, an OrthodoxWiki article