Religious instruction (catechesis) in North Africa in the time of Augustine.
Bishops, priests and deacons having to respond to persons inquiring about become Christian was a frequent Church role in the time of Augustine because the Roman emperor had not long beforehand designated the Christian Faith as the approved religion of the Empire.
In the year 313 the Emperor Constantine made the Christian religion the official religion of the Roman Empire, reversing centuries of Roman persecution.
By the year 400 Christendom (the "Christian empire") was just beginning.
The Roman Emperor had finally outlawed pagan worship the year before, and the church was rapidly gaining cultural prestige along with political power.
Becoming a Christian, which, for legal purposes meant enrolling as a catechumen (a candidate for the Christian church), was clearly a wise precaution to undertake.
In Carthage, when pagans approached Bishop Aurelius for this purpose, he sent Deogratias, one of his deacons, to speak to them.
Deogratias would seek, as best he could, to determine the seriousness of the person about becoming Christian.
If Deogratias were satisfied, he would explain the basic teachings of the Christian faith.
If the person said he believed these teachings, Deogratias would admit that person to the catechumenate (the process of preparation of a group of persons for baptism).
More intensive instruction in the Christian faith would then follow before the person was baptised.
Finding that he no longer enjoyed this task, partially because he found it an unwelcome distraction from other business and partially because he was not confident that he was doing the best approach, Deogratias wrote to Augustine.
Augustine had recently become bishop of Hippo after a distinguished career as a teacher and was already known as the leading spiritual and intellectual authority among North African Catholics.
As well as his theological understanding of the matter, Augustine also had his pastoral experience in Hippo to offer Deogratias.
He did Deogratias and the Christian world ever afterwards a great service by writing for Deogratias a short treatise, De catizandis rudibus, ("On catechising beginners" or "The First Catechetical Instruction").
(Continued on the next page.)