Historic Christian practice
The word catechumen comes from the passive form of the Greek word κατηχέω (katēcheō), which is used seven times in the New Testament. In the passive, it means "to be instructed, informed."
The catechumenate 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.
In the early church, catechumens were instructed (catechized) in the basic elements of the faith such as the Apostles' Creed, Lord's Prayer, and sacraments in preparation for baptism. 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.
During the fourth and fifth centuries, baptism had become a several-week-long rite leading up to the baptism on Easter. During this time, catechumens attended several meetings of intensive catechetical preaching, often by the bishop himself, and often accompanied by special prayers, exorcisms, and other rites. Catechumens recited the Apostles' Creed on Holy Saturday to show that one had completed catechetical instruction. By the sixth century, most of those presented for baptism were infants, and pre-baptismal catechesis was abandoned. The decline of preaching and education in general following the barbarian invasions also affected the decline of catechesis. Later, instructors (catechists) would teach Christians who had been baptized as children, to prepare for practicing the religion as thinking persons, both older children and adults. The term, catechism, used for a manual for this instruction, appeared in the Late Middle Ages. During this time the instruction was also expanded to include memorization of the Lord's Prayer and Apostles' Creed. Some clergy probably provided expositions of this material in addition to the Ten Commandments. The main function of catechesis during this period was preparation for confession by enabling the Christian to identify their sins.
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.