In my last essay, I laid out the following agenda as the goal of my future essays:
The renewal of the art of catechesis in our time requires a rediscovery and retrieval of the resources of the baptismal catechesis of the ancient catechumenate.
But why should Methodists go all the way back to the catechumenate of the early church? Aren’t there enough resources within our own tradition to renew our practices of making and forming disciples?
A quick reply to such questions is simply to quote our spiritual father, John, who appealed to the ancient catechumenate when explaining the key practices of the Methodist movement:
This is the very thing which was from the beginning of Christianity. In the earliest times, those whom God had sent forth “preached the gospel to every creature.” . . . But as soon as any of these were so convinced of the truth, as to forsake sin and seek the gospel salvation, they immediately joined them together, took an account of their names, advised them to watch over each other, and met these katechumenoi, “catechumens,” (as they were then called), apart from the great congregation, that they might instruct, rebuke, exhort, and pray with them, and for them, according to their several necessities. (“A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists”)
Questions worth discussing in these Catalyst essays are whether Wesley was merely appealing to the catechumenate as precedent, and whether Methodism has actually drawn seriously from our knowledge of the ancient catechumenate. Let’s put that on our agenda for future discussion.
Two excellent practical studies for congregations and pastors desiring to inform their discipleship formation with insights from the early church can be found in the Christian Initiation series published by Discipleship Resources:
- Come to the Waters: Baptism and Our Ministry of Welcoming Seekers and Making Disciples, by Daniel T. Benedict Jr. (1996)
- Living Hope: Baptism and the Cost of Christian Witness, by Robin Maas (1999)
Both provide a practical and challenging entre into the whole world of catechumenal preparation for baptism and discipleship.
Given the Methodist penchant for pragmatism, which feverously grasps after programs while ignoring the underlying theological issues, I want to recommend a resource that can ground our search for a renewed catechesis in a much broader ecumenical and historical conversation. I encourage seminarians and pastors to read Augustine and the Catechumenate, by William Harmless (Liturgical Press, 1995). This is an essential resource that grounds one in the basic literature and gives critical guidelines to proceed in further reading and research. In addition, it’s a delight to read.
The author is fully aware of the danger of “uncritically resurrect[ing] patristic catechetical practices” (p. 26). There are a fair number of contemporary attempts to use the catechumenal model based on anachronistic and romantic judgments. Harmless gives helpful clues about detecting this in the literature.
Harmless sets the catechumenate in a larger setting than the modern experience of schooling and schools, showing that “the catechumenate involves much more than schooling, instruction, and intellectual development” (p. 32). He asks questions from an educator’s perspective yet maintains a critical respect for the unique characteristics of the catechumenate in its historical settings.
One of the most helpful aspects of the book, particularly for those who want to explore ancient catechesis for their own ecclesial tradition, is that Harmless, a Roman Catholic, wrote the book in order to provide a more effective catechesis for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. The Catholic attempt to reform and renew rites of initiation has been revolutionary, yet has come up against many deeply ingrained habits of its liturgical, pastoral, and catechetical traditions. Harmless provides a case study of what “Augustine did with his baptismal candidates, what he said to them, and what his reflections on the experience were” (p. 29). Against entrenched and practices, Harmless gives an inspiring and instructive look at “what we can learn from those for whom the catechumenate was an ordinary reality” (p. 28).
Along the way, Harmless gives us a fascinating look at Augustine’s own experience as a catechumen, his understanding and practice of evangelization, his habits as a preacher, his sermons aimed at catechumens, his sermons focused on the stages of the catechumenal journey in Lent and on how the newly baptized must continue the “mystagogical” journey, and finally a summary of Augustine’s significance for contemporary catechesis.
I encourage my readers to share their own discoveries of resources for the renewal of catechesis in our Wesleyan tradition.