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Fundamental Principles of Catechesis as Based on Sources from the 2nd to 5th Centuries

This article endeavours to provide and substantiate the universally applicable principles of catechesis, without reference to particular external conditions, and appropriate to the fundamental task of bringing people into the Church. This makes it possible to apply such principles to the catechetical practice of any period in Church history.

Although a single, continuous tradition of catechesis does not itself exist, and even during the period of active catechetical practice in the 2nd through 5th centuries we witness significant variation in terms of both form and content, analysis of the sum total of ancient catechetical practices shows that all examples share specific, common traits. This makes it possible for us to speak of the degree of conformity of the church’s catechetical tradition with these specific principles. The task of bringing people into the Church has never disappeared. On the one hand, there was a return to the study of the tradition for the purpose of mission to non-Christian peoples – especially as concerned the baptism of adults. On the other hand, the need to turn to early catechetical practices in the 20th and 21st centuries is driven by the everyday demands of our time, given the low level of education amongst the formally baptised. Thus, it seems that there is a need to retrace and thoroughly analyse the foundational principles of catechesis – beginning with the Early Church – in order to clarify our understanding and use these principles as benchmarks both in the analysis of historical phenomena and for the purposes of contemporary catechesis. This paper identifies “ecclesiality” (the inherently ecclesial nature of catechesis), unity of faith, prayer and life, and stage-by-stage approach as universal principles of catechesis.

Given the revival of the catechumenate in the practice of the Russian Orthodox Church, interest in catechesis itself has noticeably increased: there are new methodological materials and catechetical texts which are called to meet the new demand and expand catechetical practice under contemporary conditions. This expanded practice, however, puts us in a position of needing to delineate the basic principles for catechesis, given that this process is so significant in the life of the church.

Those catechetical texts which have been preserved down to our time, provide us primarily with a notion of catechetical content. Thanks to tangential references within these same sources, we can draw conclusions vis-a-vis several characteristic traits of catechetical practice in the church’s earliest centuries. Variation in ancient catechetical practice did not deter Deacon Pavel Gavriljuk from outlining a conditionally “canonical” model for ancient catechesis [Gavriljuk 2012]; Gavrilyuk does not provide a theoretical foundation for his model and limits himself to comparing and contrasting the elements of catechesis on a formal level.

The process of entering the Church and many practical aspects of the ancient catechumenate are described in a series of Russian and international sources. The works of Fr. Miguel Arranz [Arranz], Fr. Nikolay Afanasiev [Afanasiev], Deacon Pavel Gavriljuk [Gavriljuk 2001; 2012], and Fr. Vladimir Khulap [Khulap] are dedicated to researching the general order of catechesis in the early church, including the local peculiarities of different churches. J. N. D. Kelly [Kelly] looks at the formation of the creed from the various baptismal creeds connected with catechesis. We can find a detailed selection of mystagogical texts in the work of E. Mazza [Mazza]. However, there are not any works which endeavour to enunciate the principles of catechesis. One of only a few texts which refers to the «Guiding Principles of This Catechism», is To Be a Christian, from the Anglican Church in North America:

This document presents a working definition of a catechumenate for the Anglican Church in North America along with guiding principles for implementing this disciple-making initiative. <...> The guiding principles, which are drawn from Anglican formularies and historic patterns from the undivided Church, reflect this comprehensive framework for implementation [To Be a Christian].

Nevertheless, this document limits itself to postulating that «a catechumenate does not merely deliver information regarding the Christian faith; it also transmits the skills...», but the principles proposed by the authors are related to the specific missionary situation in a given church on North American territory. In the Catechesis of the Catholic Church there is only a mention of the fact that catechetical practice existed in the church [Catechesis of the Catholic Church]. References to the ancient tradition of the catechumenate and the comparison of external characteristics and formal approaches can also be found in contemporary catechetical materials of the Russian Orthodox Church [Zelenenko; Tugolukov; Usatov]. With this sort of approach, however, the ancient catechetical norms mentioned, including the resolutions of the Ecumenical Councils [Pravila], in fact remain disengaged from the practice of contemporary church life, given the glaring differences between the external conditions and lifestyles in the 4th and 21st centuries, as V. Yakuntsev, in particular, points out [Yakuntsev]. As such, despite significant interest in the roots of the catechetical tradition, we still witness a difficulty in relating the catechetical tradition of the Ancient Church to contemporary catechetical practice.

The primary task of catechesis is the preparation of candidates for entry into the Church. As Deacon Pavel Gavriljuk writes, “it was in the catechetical school, in particular, that a solid foundation for all subsequent life with God was laid. We might also compare catechesis with a bridge connecting the internal life of the church with the surrounding culture.” [Gavriljuk 2001, 6]. For this reason, it is important to delineate and substantiate the universal principles of catechesis, over against principles which are tied to external factors or dependent upon a particular historical era; our principles must accord to the primary task of bringing people into the Church.

First of all, it makes sense to look to the Early Church sources which have been preserved, from which we can learn much about the ancient catechumenate of the 2nd to 5th centuries, in a time when catechesis was universally mandatory and had its own orderly, everyday practice. Mentions of the catechetical process can be found in a work called “Apostolic Tradition”, which is attributed to St. Hippolytus of Rome [Apostolic Tradition], in the “Apostolic Constitutions” [Apostolic Constitutions], in the “Pilgrimage of Egeria” [Pilgrimage], and also in the resolutions of the Ecumenical and various local Church councils [Canon]. Working from these sources, and also from a number of other ancient texts, we have delineated three universal principles of catechesis: “ecclesiality”, unity of faith, prayer and life, and a stage-by-stage approach to catechizing candidates for entry into the church. Let us look at each of these principles more closely.

Ecclesiality: The Inherently Ecclesial Nature of Catechesis

In the early Christian period, the catechetical process was an affair of the whole church. Aside from the catechist or teacher, the bishop was traditionally involved in his role as the guardian of the boundaries of the church community. Each candidate also had a “sponsor”, whose role was particularly noticeable during the period of persecution, though the sponsor’s significance was preserved up until the 5th century. An exorcist also played a role in catechesis, and generally this was a separate person – not the bishop or the catechist. The entire church community also supported the catechetical process with its prayer.

Despite the significant changes in the life of the church that took place over the period in question, catechesis was a central aspect of life in church life for the entire period. We learn from the work entitled “Apostolic Tradition”, that even before the process of catechesis began, candidates for entry into the church went through an interview process:

Let those who come to hear the Word for the first time come first in the presence of the teachers, before the entire community comes in. And let them be questioned as to their reasons for which they are coming to faith. And let those who have brought them bear witness that those whom they have brought are indeed ready to listen to the Word. [Hippolytus, 15].

The interview was initially carried out by the teachers, i.e. the catechists who were thereafter to prepare these candidates for baptism. One of the primary goals of this interview was to clarify the inducements which had brought people to Christ. Later, we see development of this theme in the writings of St. Augustine, in his advice to a deacon by the name of Deogratius, who had been appointed to lead catechesis at Carthage. [Augustine, 9]. It is important for the catechist to know the initial disposition of a person, so that he can help him to “purify his motivations” for coming to Christ, if necessary, in order to come to Holy Baptism in a worthy manner.

This initial interview is also spoken of in sources which are later than the work entitled “Apostolic Tradition”:

Let the deacons bring [the candidates] to the bishop or the presbyters, and let them look into the reasons why the candidates have come to the word of the Lord, and let those who have brought them bear witness about them, providing careful and exact analysis into the candidates. [Constitutions, 32].

Here we would emphasize that in this text, which dates from about 380, it is precisely the bishop (or a presbyter) who is named as the person carrying out the interview process. In both cases, for a person to be accepted into the process of catechesis he must not only have declared and substantiated his wish to become a catechumen, he must also be recommended by a member of the church who is willing to answer for him, which was very important under conditions of persecution. Even at later times in the 4th century, when the danger of persecution and risk that a spy might slip in through the door of the church had disappeared, the role of the sponsor remained key, because the intercession of a current member in the process of bringing forward a new member is normative for the Church. In one of his catechetical meetings, St. John Chrysostom addresses sponsors and godparents who are present, reminding them that they: 

will become collaborators with glory if by their example they lead those in their charge onto the path of virtue; and quite the contrary if they are half-hearted in their role, they will be subjected to bitter judgement [John Chrysostom, 169–170].

In the Antiochian practice, the name of the sponsor was recorded along with the name of the catechumen for the purposes of ecclesial prayer [Gavriljuk 2001, 187].

Those who were brought “to hear the Word” and passed through the interview process became “listeners” [Gavriljuk 2001, 64], e.g. from that moment they were welcome to that portion of the church services which comprises the liturgy of the Word, so as to hear readings from the Scriptures. But at this stage, which was sometimes very long indeed, no special meetings were envisaged, and for this reason this first stage was followed by a second stage which directly prepared candidates for baptism, which took place, as a rule, just before Pascha. In order to get to this second stage of catechesis, which was the fundamental stage in terms of content, it was also necessary for the catechumen to declare his own desire. For instance, in Antioch during the time of St. John Chrysostom, it was possible to apply for preparation for baptism during the first days of Great Lent, and catechetical meetings began 30 days before Pascha.

Once again, an interview before transition to this second stage was mandatory. At this stage, it was once again necessary to have a sponsor who was already a member of the church. Moreover, it was precisely the sponsor who remained practically the only point of constant contact for the “listener” during the whole first stage of catechesis; apparently the sponsor was himself able to answer any questions the listener might have. Even in the 4th century, the testimony of the sponsor could be decisive for the church in making the decision to admit a candidate for baptism.

The matter of purity of intention amongst those desirous of being baptised becomes more problematic and relevant in the 4th century, when people began to come into the church en masse, given the cession of persecution and Christianity’s gradual acquisition of status and significance within the state. Even so, people were often not in a hurry to part with their former pagan views on life, sometimes pursuing false goals and seeking worldly gain in coming to Christianity. St. Ambrose of Milan, for instance, bears witness to this fact:

And here some person comes to the Church out of his desire for honour before the Christian emperor; he comes for baptism only with the imitation of respect; he bows and prostrates himself on the ground, but doesn’t bend his knee in spirit [St. Ambrose of Milan, Commentary on Psalm 118, 20, 48–49. Translation of citation according to Khulap].

Coming to catechesis during this era could also be advantageous from the point of view of dependability vis-à-vis the state, as well as in terms of developing social and interpersonal relationships. Motivations like these for being baptised are also described by St. Cyril of Jerusalem:

Possibly too you have come on another pretext. It is possible that a man is wishing to pay court to a woman, and came hither on that account. The remark applies in like manner to women also in their turn. A slave also perhaps wishes to please his master, and a friend his friend. [St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures, Prologue, 5].

The Church had to make amendments to the demands upon future catechumens, and the borders of the first stage of catechesis, inside which many issues had been aptly handled in past, were shaken and became increasingly blurred.

The role of the bishop becomes key in the interview process. He doesn’t only run the interview, but is often himself in charge of running catechesis, to which Egeria bears witness:

the chair is placed for the bishop at the martyrium in the great church, and all who are to be baptised sit around, near -the bishop, both men and women, their fathers and mothers standing there also… <…> Beginning from Genesis he goes through all the Scriptures during those forty days, explaining them, first literally, and then unfolding them spiritually. They are also taught about the Resurrection, and likewise all things concerning the Faith during those days. And this is called the catechising. [Pilgrimage, 46 (Part 7 on Baptism, section 2)].

The Church had to make amendments to the demands upon future catechumens, and the borders of the first stage of catechesis, inside which many issues had been aptly handled in past, were shaken and became increasingly blurred.

The role of the bishop becomes key in the interview process. He doesn’t only run the interview, but is often himself in charge of running catechesis, to which Egeria bears witness:

the chair is placed for the bishop at the martyrium in the great church, and all who are to be baptised sit around, near -the bishop, both men and women, their fathers and mothers standing there also… <…> Beginning from Genesis he goes through all the Scriptures during those forty days, explaining them, first literally, and then unfolding them spiritually. They are also taught about the Resurrection, and likewise all things concerning the Faith during those days. And this is called the catechising. [Pilgrimage, 46 (Part 7 on Baptism, section 2)].

In this mentoring into the faith there was also a sort of culmination – a rite of “handing over and receiving back of the Creed”. [Gavriljuk 2001, 9].

Then when five weeks are completed from the time when their teaching began, (the Competents) are then taught the Creed. And as he explained the meaning of all the Scriptures, so does he explain the meaning of the Creed [Pilgrimage, 46 (Part 7 on Baptism, section 3)].

In isolated cases, as if was, for instance, it seems, in Antioch, even if a priest ran the catechetical meetings (the catechetical homilies of St. John Chrysostom come from his time serving as a priest), the rite of “handing over and receiving back the Creed” belonged to the bishop. It was also the prerogative of the bishop to run the final catechetical meeting (with the “receiving back of the Creed”). The practice in Jerusalem at the end of the 4th century might look like this:

the bishop comes in the morning into the great church at the martyrium, and the chair is placed for him in the apse behind the altar, where they come one by one, a man with his father (godfather – K.M.) and a woman with her mother (godmother – K.M.), and recite the Creed to the bishop. [Pilgrimage, 46 (Part 7 on Baptism, section 4)].

The mandatory nature of this final interview (and, as such, the mandatory nature of catechesis itself) is recorded and repeated in several church council rulings:

It behooves those who are illuminated to learn the Creed by heart and to recite it to the bishop or presbyters on the Fifth Feria of the Week. (Canon 78 of the 6th Ecumenical Council, with reference to: I Ecumenical Council 2, 14; Trullo 96; Laodicea 19, 46) [Canon].

In addition to the bishop and the sponsor, the catechist also played a role in the catechetical process. He might be the bishop, or a priest, or – especially in the early church era – a non-ordained teacher of the church. Pantaenus, for instance, the founder of the Alexandrian catechetical school, was a layperson, and St. Clement of Alexandria, who was at the time a priest, became his student. Only later Alexandrian teachers were ordained bishops [see: Gavriljuk 2001, 99–104]. In “Apostolic Tradition”, as we said earlier, it is said that the first interview can be run by a teacher. In the same place we read:

When the teacher lays hands upon the catechumens after prayer, let him pray and send them off. Whether the teacher is a cleric or a lay person, let him do thusly. [Hippolytus, 19].

From the writings of St. Augustine we know that at the beginning of the 5th century the teacher (catechist) could be a deacon [Augustine, 1].

Further, an exorcist also played a role in the catechetical process. St. John Chrysostom specifically explains to catechumens, “why after teaching each day we send you to those who exorcise you with their invocations” [St. John Chysostom, 168]. He returns to this subject in several of his homilies, comparing the naked, barefoot, and uplifted hands of the catechumens to prisoners in need of being freed, so that the demons who have a hold on the person might be cast out by “those terrible and fearful invocations of the exorcists” [St. John Chrystostom, 111]. St. Cyril of Jerusalem also taught his listeners of the need for exorcism in a similar manner:

…receive with earnestness the exorcisms: whether thou be breathed upon or exorcised, the act is to you salvation <…> and these exorcisms are divine, having been collected out of the divine Scriptures. Your face has been veiled , that your mind may henceforward be free, lest the eye by roving make the heart rove also. But when your eyes are veiled, your ears are not hindered from receiving the means of salvation. [St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures, Prologue, 9].

In addition to the fact that there were special people within the church who participated in the catechetical process – teachers or catechesis, exorcists, sponsors or godparents, and even bishops – there is testimony to the fact that at the stage of mystagogy, anyone who wished from among the newly baptised could listen to teaching at catechetical meetings:

«But when the days of Easter have come, during those eight days, that is, from Easter to the Octave, when the dismissal from the church has been made, they go with hymns to the Anastasis. Prayer is said anon, the faithful are blessed, and the bishop stands, leaning against the inner rails which are in the cave of the Anastasis, and explains all things that are done in Baptism. In that hour no catechumen approaches the Anastasis, but only the neophytes and the faithful, who wish to hear concerning the mysteries, enter there, and the doors are shut lest any catechumen should draw near. And while the bishop discusses and sets forth each point, the voices of those who applaud are so loud that they can be heard outside the church.» [Pilgrimage, 47 (Part 7 on Baptism, section 5)].

As such, we see that all members of the church gathering were party to the catechetical process – either as direct participants, or through participation in prayer, insofar as the names of the catechumens were recorded after interviews and then these people were remembered in prayer in the services of the church during the course of several weeks before Pascha, after which each time hands were laid upon the catechumens and they were sent out before the beginning of the liturgy of the faithful. [see Gavriljuk 2001, 152, 214, 239; Cyril, Catechetical Lectures, 13]. Therefore, we can confirm that one of the principles of catechesis is exactly its “ecclesiality”, insofar as catechesis was always run in church, and all the members of the church, from laypeople to bishops, were involved in the process.

Unity of Faith, Prayer, and Life

In order to derive this principle, we need to look at the contents of catechesis and analyse not only the sermons and discussions themselves, but also all that was going on with the catechumens on the course of their entire path to the Church. Beginning with the earliest sources, we find evidence of interviews in connection with which particular demands of the catechumens are always mentioned. In the 2nd c., these demands might even apply to those who simply wished to become Christians. In «The Apostolic Tradition» and in later sources, a we find lists of activities which are incompatible with admonition in the faith and which were considered impediments to those who wished to become Christians.

Clement of Alexandria, in the beginning of his work entitled «Paedagogus», emphasizes that:

The Instructor being practical, not theoretical, His aim is thus to improve the soul, not to teach, and to train it up to a virtuous, not to an intellectual life. [Clement. Paedagog. 1.1].

In the opinion of Hiermonk Afanasy (Mikrjukov), “this particular tractate is really more a practical handbook to the Christian understanding of «ability to live» than a theoretical consideration of dogmatic character. [Mikrjukov, 193], which is exactly what is explained in his catechetical tasks. Nevertheless, Clement shows that teaching was also one of the Pedagogues tasks. But it is imperative that a person should be healed, so that he can receive these teachings, i.e., he must leave a sinful way of life behind. [see: Clement. Paedagog. 1.1].

This border dividing the Church from the world became progressively blurred. When persecution ceased and Christianity was legalised in the 4th c., and then when Christianity received the status of the state religion of the Roman Empire, this caused a massive surge in the number of people wishing to be baptised. As a result, it became possible to make demands of the catechumens only before the beginning of the enlightenment stage – i.e. directly before preparation for baptism. Moreover, the lengthening of the first stage of catechesis which had traditionally been used for putting off the decision for baptism, had also played a role here.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem said the following about the role of the catechist to those embarking upon the enlightenment stage, in order to remind them of the traditional conditions necessary for entry into the Church, and in order to warn the candidates of their own responsibility:

For we, the ministers of Christ, have admitted every one, and occupying, as it were, the place of door-keepers we left the door open: and possibly thou entered with your soul bemired with sins, and with a will defiled. You entered, and were allowed: your name was inscribed. <…> If the fashion of your soul is avarice, put on another fashion and come in. Put off your former fashion, cloke it not up. Put off, I pray you, fornication and uncleanness, and put on the brightest robe of chastity.  <…> you have forty days for repentance. <…> But if you persist in an evil purpose, the speaker is blameless, but you must not look for the grace: for the water will receive, but the Spirit will not accept you. [Cyril. Catechetical Lectures, Prologue, 4]

It is obvious that the author, at this point, is no longer depending upon a lengthy first stage, during the course of which it was previously assumed the catechumen’s life would change. At this point, the period for putting one’s life right has basically been reduced to the 40 days of the period of enlightenment. According to the homilies of St. John Chrysostom, in his practice 30 days were allotted for bringing the fruits of repentance [John Chrysostom, 63]. In general, the topic of changing one’s life, turning away from former passions and acquiring Christian virtues is present and even prevalent in the sermons of St. John Chrysostom. 

The practice of exorcism, which was mentioned above and which was mandatory at the enlightenment stage of catechesis, is also related to the task of freeing man from sin and from the manifestation of the power of the devil over him. Other authors also write of the practice of pre-baptismal exorcisms: Tertullian [Apologies 23.16], St. Cyprian of Carthage [Epistle 69, 15 CSEL 3. 764].

As such, the task of turning from sin and changing his life was not only a discussion of morals for the catechumen, but spiritual progress leading to repentance. This process had its tasks at every stage. In any case, during the entire period of time when catechesis was a regular practice, demands were made of the catechumens at each stage of the process – first and foremost moral demands. People were asked what their work was, what lifestyle they lived, etc. They were never asked what they know or think about God, «because by its works, i.e. by its fruit, “a tree is known”. [Dashevskaya, 77]. And this is what was tested at the interviews. The task of repentance and life change was one of the main themes of catechesis.

Catechumens’ participation in prayer was to aid their preparation for repentance and life change, and was therefore a mandatory part of the catechetical process. Beginning with the opportunity to be present at church services, participate in the singing of Psalms and hymns, hear Scripture readings and the sermons that followed them, they gradually moved toward the necessity to participate in all the church services of Great Lent, when it was traditional to prepare for baptism. After baptism, the neophytes received Holy Communion daily on every day of Bright Week, maintaining regular participation in the liturgy thereafter. [Cyril. Mystagogic Catecheses. 23].

Fasting was a no less important component of preparation for repentance for catechumens. In ancient practice, there was a strict one-day fast in preparation for baptism both for the person being baptised and for his god parents (sponsors), as is show in the work «Apostolic Tradition»: «Let those who are preparing for baptism fast on the even of Saturday.» [Hippolytus. 20]. In all likelihood, from the 4th c. the fast of the enlightened, and of the whole church together with them, is the 40 traditional days of Great Lent before Pascha.

So that the catechumen could enter into the prayer tradition, it was necessary to explain to him in Whom he had put his faith and to Whom his prayer is directed. As such, an inalienable part of the first stage of catechesis was always the teaching of the faith, understood first and foremost as mentoring in basic Christian teachings. This teaching envisaged a particular progression leading the person into the church tradition and teaching, which necessarily included step-by-step acquaintance with the Holy Scriptures (often via opening to him the history of salvation) and giving the catechumen the exact text of the Creed, with commentaries.

In various different catechetical practices, there were different accents put in the teaching of the foundations of the faith. In one instance, the whole cycle of catechetical lectures was based on a step-by-step discovery of the foundational principles of the Christian faith, including commentaries on each tenet of the Creed. This structure for the enlightenment phase is proposed in St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s «Catechetical Lectures» and in Theodore of Mopsuestia’s ten discussions with those being enlightened («Commentary on the Nicene Creed»). St. Ambrose of Milan, in a similar fashion, considers the text of the Apostle’s Creed with his listeners [Ambrose].

Here we should note, that during the era of the Ecumenical Councils it was fairly characteristic to pay extremely close attention to dogmatic questions, although half of the Ecumenical Councils took place in a time when catechesis had effectively ceased. It follows that in speaking about dogma in relation to the contents of catechesis in the 4th c., we need to keep in mind that at that time «dogma” was understood differently to the way we, at present, understand “dogmatics” in the era after all the Ecumenical Councils. In the 4th c., St. Basil the Great understood «dogma» as the passed-down oral tradition of secret teaching on the mysteries, i.e. that part of teaching on the faith to which only the faithful have access or which is taught to catechumens not earlier than the second stage of catechesis. The fact that the «dogmatic»part of teaching on the faith was denoted as oral tradition bears tangential witness to this. It follows that modern dogmatics in its full form obviously extends beyond the borders of the contents of the catechetical teaching given to those who are entering the Church.

In another case, the foundation of catechetical discussions at the stage of enlightenment was an introduction to Biblical history. So, for instance, St. Augustine builds his text:

The narration is full when each person is catechised in the first instance from what is written in the text, In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, on to the present times of the Church. This does not imply, however, either that we ought to repeat by memory the entire Pentateuch, and the entire Books of Judges, and Kings, and Esdras, and the entire Gospel and Acts of the Apostles, if we have learned all these word for word; or that we should put all the matters which are contained in these volumes into our own words, and in that manner unfold and expound them as a whole. For neither does the time admit of that, nor does any necessity demand it. But what we ought to do is, to give a comprehensive statement of all things, summarily and generally, so that certain of the more wonderful facts may be selected which are listened to with superior gratification, and which have been ranked so remarkably among the exact turning-points (of the history) [Augustine. 5].

Further, he points to the following main milestones in salvation history: the creation of the world and of man, and the subsequent fall of man, the stories of Noah, Abraham and Moses, the Babylonian Captivity, and through the prophets to Christ.

Moreover, in his catechetical speeches, a significant amount of attention is given to the question of changing one’s life, i.e., for him the repentance of the catechumen remains one of the central tasks of catechesis. In answer to the suggestion that before baptism one should only have to memorize the Creed, and might leave transformation of life to a later stage (supposedly taken from the example of the Ethiopian eunuch – see Acts 8:36-38), St. Augustine notes that “John the Baptist preaches a life change before baptism in the Gospel, and not the other way around: «so let all of you be baptised in this manner». [St. Augustine, Sermons. 351.2; 352.2. Cited by: Gavriljuk 2001, 238], because faith is not separable from life-change and repentance. In addition, from the basis of his choice of Biblical stories used in catechesis it is obvious that one of the criteria – «to choose those, which are numbered among those primary to the faith», i.e., in his model for catechesis the main components making up the teaching of the faith are present: Scripture, the Creed, and life transformation.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem also works in a similar way, although he builds his teaching upon a step-by-step revelation of the Creed, emphasizing along with this the significance of the Holy Scriptures, to which he gives significant attention in his discussions:

For concerning the divine and holymysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning , but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures. [Cyril. St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures, Chapter 4, 17].

Thus, every catechist could put his own accents on the material taught and could structure the material in his own way but, as D. Gzgzyan notes, the basic task that remains is to unite the catechumens to «the salvific sources of Divine Revelation – and teach them the rule of faith, to unite them to “the spirit and meaning of church service – and teach them the rule of prayer”, and to unite them to «the moral experience of the Church – and teach them the rule of life.» [Gzgzyan, 31–32]. The unbroken link is shown by all three components of the catechetical process in all instances of practice that are known. As such, we may conclude that the second principle of catechesis is the of the unity of faith, prayer and life, i.e. the necessity that the catechetical process should not disincline from any single one of these tasks.

Step-by-step Approach

The third principle is derived from the logic of the way in which the catechetical process is structured. Lengthy catechesis was recognized as necessary in the case of candidates for baptism who were already of age (until the middle of the 4th c. this was the norm for Church life). The 2nd canon of the first Ecumenical Council speak about this: “…For to the catechumen himself there is need of time and of a longer trial after baptism.” Following the «Apostolic Tradition” (“Let the catechumens listen to the Word for three years” [Hippolytus. 17] and in the “Apostolic Constitutions” we have a citation on the time necessary for catechesis: “Let him who is to be a catechumen be a catechumen for three years» [Constitutions. 32].

According to the canon 42 of the Council of Elvira (Grenada), “those who are in good standing and are striving to become Christians must be catechumens for a period of two years before they are baptised” [Canons]. Thus, we have established that the length of the first period of catechesis, when catechumens are “listeners” was originally between 2 and 3 years.

It is difficult to speak of some “golden age” of catechesis among the church fathers, insofar as by the time catechesis had become an established practice, the elements which ultimately destroyed the practice had already come into play. Thus, in the 4th c., when the boundaries and tasks of the enlightenment stage and the mystagogical portion of catechesis had come together, the borders of the first stage (when catechumens were “listeners) begins to become blurred. The traditional period of two or three years is gradually lengthened as per the tendency of the time (greatly affected by the example of Emperor Constantine), and baptism is put off for an indefinite period of time, often until death. St. John Chrysostom, along with many others, argues against this tendency: [John Chrysostom, 83–87].

In a similar way, St. Basil the Great, in his sermons, calls for people not to put off baptism:

Are you young? secure your youth against vice, by the restraint which baptism imposes. Has the vigor of life passed away? Do not neglect the necessary provision for your journey: do not lose your protection: do not consider the eleventh hour, as if it were the first; since even he who is beginning life, ought to  have death before his eyes. [Basil the Great. 13].

At times, it was the other way around, and people tried to sharply shorten the period of preparation, citing the Acts of the Apostles and affirming that a long period of catechesis was not mandatory, insofar as in the time of the Apostles no such thing was known. In this case, it was taken into account that the Ethiopian eunuch and the centurion Cornelius were required to do nothing other than declare Jesus Christ to be the Son of God, insofar as they were already familiar with the Scriptures. Therefore St. Augustine juxtaposes this justification of nominal Christianity (by which allegedly it was possible to be baptised and then think about transforming one’s life) with examples from the Gospel: John the Baptist preached repentance before baptism, and not after, and the Apostle Peter first says “repent”, and only after this “each of you must be baptised…” (Acts 2:38).

In a similar manner, St. Athanasius the Great says the following about the need to preserve the step-by-step tasks of catechesis and teach the faith to catechumens before baptism:

The Saviour commanded not only to baptise, but first to “teach”, and then to “baptise”, so that the teaching might bear true faith, and that thereafter we might be about to receive the Mystery of Baptism [St. Athanasius the Great, Contra Arian. 2.42. Citation as per: Khulap].

The next stage of “enlightenment” – direct preparation for baptism (as a rule this occurred before Pascha) – was already significantly shorter and was made to fit into only several weeks (30–40 days). The 45th canon of the Council of Laodicea clarifies that the period must begin at least two weeks before Pascha (insofar as in practice the period began to be shortened more and more): “[Candidates] for baptism are not to be received after the second week in Lent.” () It is clear that this isn’t only about maintaining a timeframe, but about the necessity to rebuild one’s life and turn away from serious sin, acquire the skill of living by faith, and at least a minimum require level of knowledge at this enlightenment stage.

According to the 78th canon of the 6th Ecumenical Council, which we have already quoted (“It behoves those who are illuminated to learn the Creed by heart and to recite it to the bishop or presbyters on the Fifth Feria of the Week.”) [Canons], at the culmination of catechesis the catechumen was the “return the Creed” and give an account of his faith. Although already by the 5th c. catechesis has ceased to be mandatory and a universal practice, and when in the 7th c. a commentary on the canons of the councils is compiled, those interpreting this text are themselves already unaware of what in particular lay behind these specific rules. Alexei Aristin points to the tradition of “returning the Creed” as historically connected with Holy Week:

Those coming to divine enlightenment, as the 46th canon of the Council of Laodicea specifies, must learn the faith and on the 5th day of that week, in which they wish to be seen fit for enlightenment they must answer for their faith to a bishop or to the priests. [Canons]

Ioann Zonara, in interpreting the abovementioned 46th canon of the Council of Laodicea, writes:

It specifies that those being enlightened, i.e. those preparing for enlightenment and catechumens, should study the mystery of the faith and on the fifth day of every week give an answer to the bishop or to a presbyter on that which they have learned during the course of that week. [Canons]

In other words, the commentator on the canon writes about something which is absolutely unknown in his time, and for this reason he gets the impression that catechumens were to regularly give an account of the material they had recently learned. The tradition of “returning the Creed” as a true culmination of their learning in the faith is no longer remembered1, it was for this reason that the rule speaks specifically of one, culminating interview during Holy Week.

Explaining the necessity of observing the conditions under which and order in which the faith is to be taught, Clement of Alexandria writes:

There is a wide difference between health and knowledge for the latter is produced by learning, the former by healing. [Clement. Paedagog. 1.1].

Clement placed first priority on spiritual health, i.e. first it was necessary to make effort at moral change, and repentance as a result of this. Only then is the next stage – the teaching of the faith, itself – possible. Clement’s text contains both elements, though the main accent is put on moral improvement, to which he devotes the attention of two of the three books in the text of Padeagogus.

Origen continues Clement’s thought in his tract “Contra Celsum”:we say that it is not the same thing to invite those who are sick in soul to be cured, and those who are in health to the knowledge and study of divine things. We, however, keeping both these things in view, at first invite all men to be healed, and exhort those who are sinners to come to the consideration of the doctrines which teach men not to sin, and those who are devoid of understanding to those which beget wisdom… [Origen. Book 3, Chapter 59]

Answering those accusations made of Christians who supposedly accept into their number anyone without discernment, Origen explains that Christians invite everyone to join their number, though this invitation implies particular conditions upon those who wish to join:

The Christians, however, having previously, so far as possible, tested the souls of those who wish to become their hearers, and having previously instructed them in private, when they appear (before entering the community) (είς τό κοινόν) to have sufficiently evinced their desire towards a virtuous life (καλώς βιούν), introduce them then (τό τηνικάδε είσάγουσιν), and not before, privately forming one class of those who are beginners, and are receiving admission (τών άρτι άρχομένων καί είσαγομένων), but who have not yet obtained the mark of complete purification (τό σύμβολον τού άποκεκαθάρθαι)… [Origen. Book 3, Chapter 51].

After the initial interview, which we have already mentioned above, a special group of “beginners” comes together. The “passing on of the Creed” also remains one of the central tasks of the next stage here, and Origen writes about this in what follows. Mentioning the particular role of those who are to “make inquiries regarding the lives and behaviour of those who join them” [Origen. Book 3, Chapter 51], i.e. catechists, he points to the distinction between various stages of catechesis. As the primary task of the catechumens remains a life-change in line with New Testament norms, it is by this criterion that advancement to the next stage is takes place, and not a result of the acquisition of any sort of knowledge.

This text written by Origen helps us to answer the question of how the Church’s mission-readiness, openness to all people and care that the Gospel be preached to all nations was harmonized with the observance of sufficiently strict conditions for entry into the Church via a lengthy catechetical process.

According to Fr. Nikolay Afanasiev, two groups of catechumens, and consequently the practice of two stages of catechesis, comes together ultimately during the course of the 3rd c. [see: Afanasiev. Vstuplenije v Tserkovj. (Entry into the Church)]. Explaining the necessity for the church to establish particular stages during the process of catechesis, Origen refers to the Apostle Paul, recalling his image of “milk”, and “solid food” (see 1 Cor. 3:2), and distinguishes between initial mentoring which is “figuratively termed milk” [Origen. Book 3, Chapter 52], and introduction to the mysteries: “For we speak wisdom among them that are perfect.” [Origen. Book 3, Chapter 59]. 

There were also cases in which a catechumen might not pass through the interview, which makes his admission to baptism problematic, saying: St. John Chrysostom says:

if any has not rectified the defects in his morals, nor furnished himself with easily acquired virtue, let him not be baptized [St. John Chrysostom. Second Instruction to Catechumens. 2].

The main stage of catechesis became the second stage of enlightenment during the course of which, in particular, the catechumens were given the text of the Creed and more systematically acquainted with the Holy Scriptures. The contents of this second stage is recorded in catechetical texts from the 3rd and 4th centuries, such as Clement of Alexandria’s “Paedagogus”, the Catechetical Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia’s “Commentary on the Nicene Creed”, St. Ambrose of Milan’s “Explanation of the Creed”, etc. 

In the 4th c. a third stage of catechesis comes about – the mystagogical stage. This was the time for making sense of and developing within the church the teaching on the mysteries, which naturally also is reflected in the catechetical process. It goes without saying that only those who have been admitted to the mysteries can be introduced to them through teaching, because it isn’t possible to speak in detail of, for instance, the Eucharist, with those who are not receiving communion. For those reason, historically the period of Mystagogy took place during Bright Week. Mystagogical texts from St. Cyril of Jerusalem2, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose of Milan and Theodore Mopsuestia have all been preserved and are accessible to us today.

And thus, we see that the process of catechesis is broken into three steps, or stages (previously, A. Budanova wrote of “sequenced progression” (“posledovateljnostj”) as a principle of catechesis [Budanova]). As a rule, the transition from stage to stage involves an interview, as a result of which the catechumen may be accepted to the next stage of catechesis.   For this reason, the Church established particular requirements, first and foremost of a moral nature, i.e. relating to the life of the catechumen, which if not fulfilled, meant that the candidate would not be allowed to advance to the teaching of the faith. Only at the enlightenment phase do catechumens become acquainted with the foundations of the faith, and before this stage no one asks them what they believe, and upon completing this foundational stage of catechesis they are required to make an account before the bishop of their faith. In addition, the teaching of the faith has a particular logic to it. In this way, each of the stages of catechesis has its particular associated tasks and borders. It follows, that we can derive a third principle of catechesis, which is its step-by-step nature.


All of the principles that have been listed in this paper serve one main goal, which is that catechesis should bear fruit and that a person’s baptism should be his authentic birth into a new life. The simple fact of immersion in water alone may not indicate a mystery, as is underscored in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s “Great Catechesis”, in the conclusion to his chapter “That without which Baptism is ineffective”:

If, then, the birth from above is a definite refashioning of the man, and yet these properties do not admit of change, it is a subject for inquiry what that is in him, by the changing of which the grace of regeneration is perfected. <…> But if, when the bath has been applied to the body, the soul has not cleansed itself from the stains of its passions and affections, but the life after initiation keeps on a level with the uninitiate life, then, though it may be a bold thing to say, yet I will say it and will not shrink; in these cases the water is but water, for the gift of the Holy Ghost in no ways appears in him who is thus baptismally born … [Gregory of Nyssa. 40].

St. Cyril of Jerusalem also speaks of the importance of the embodiment of the Word of God in life: “for they are spoken not for your ears only, but that by faith you may seal them up in the memory” [Cyril. Catechetical Lectures, Chapter 1, 5]. For this reason, the foundations of the ancient canon spoke of the necessity for sufficient time and ordered sequence, in order to properly handle all the task associated with life transformation (at least from any serious sin before the moment of baptism), for an integral approach to the teaching of the faith to catechumens, and of the interest of the whole Church in the fact that these things be inherent in the path its future member were taking.

In the course of this study we have discerned the foundational principles of catechesis, which correspond to the task of bringing people into the Church. First, we have the ecclesial nature of catechesis, insofar as all the members of the ancient church took part in the catechetical process – not only catechists and sponsors (god parents), but also bishops, exorcists and even all the faithful members of the church, who participated in prayers for those who were being enlightened. Secondly, there is the demand for the unity of faith, prayer and life, which is accomplished in the teaching of the foundations of the faith, introduction into the prayer tradition and the mandate for transformation of one’s life in line with Christian precepts, involving, at minimum a turning away from mortal sins. Thirdly, we have the step-by-step nature of catechesis, founded upon the difference of each stage, and corresponding to the specific tasks by content and supported by practical interviews between each stage.

The principles which have been discerned as a result of our study of traditional catechesis can be applied to catechetical practice in any age of church history, including the present age, despite differences in form and methodological approach. This makes it possible, on one hand, to associate contemporary catechetical systems with church tradition not on the level of form, but in essence, and on the other hand, to choose those practices, which to the greatest degree correspond to the principles derived in this paper and therefore, will be helpful in bringing about the best possible result.

1 It is also interesting to note here that it is in this form that the teaching on the canon came into Slavic practice: “Let those who wish to be enlightened make confession on the fourth day of each week” («Хотя и просветитися, веру да исповесть в четверток кое яждо недели»), which speaks to the fact that the initial understanding of this tradition had been forgotten (and probably was entirely unknown) in the Russian church.

2 There is a theory that the Mystagogical lectures, in contrast to the catechetical lectures, were written not by St. Cyril of Jerusalem but by his follower, St. John of Jerusalem. Some scholars who have studied this question (for instance, W. J. Swaans), point to differences in the attribution of manuscripts, as well as to stylistic, theological, and other differences. Other scholars (for instance, C. Beukers, Edward Yarnold) argue against this hypothesis.


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