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").
a catechist is a person who gives religious instruction;
the catechumenate is a structured program by which a person is prepared for baptism and life within a Christian congregation;
a catechumen - or candidate - is a person enrolled in the catechumenate;
catechesis is a word generally equivalent in meaning to "religious instruction".
Instruction from the fifth century to the Dark Ages.
Emperor Constantine in the year 313 made the Christian Faith the official religion of the Roman Empire, reversing centuries of Roman persecution. De catechizandis rudibus ("On the instruction of the beginner") of Augustine gave detailed principles and guidelines on (1) the methodology for religious instruction - before and after baptism, ideally for adults; and (2) the process and foundations of evangelisation (i.e., promoting the Christian mission).
Augustine favoured preaching in lecture style for instruction that was based on:
....* the love of the teacher for the students and for the Christian faith;
....* stories and narratives revealing the love of God to the hearers, designed to move hearers to love of god and neighbour.
By the end of the fourth century - in 399, when Augustine had been a Christian leader in Hippo for only four years - baptism of large groups and increasingly of persons in infancy was taking place. There was some instruction of adults by way of preparation (often in the weeks before Easter). However, systemised instruction was largely lost, and there was not any real concerted Christian education again until after the Protestant Reformation many centuries later.
Augustine as a model for catechists.
Augustine, who was both a trained orator and gifted theologian, was asked to reveal how he instructed beginners in the Christian Faith. Once this happened, Augustine came to serve as a model for other catechists. Augustine gave the first catechetical instruction himself, rather than assign it to his assistants. In historical circumstances of the fifth century Augustine had much opportunity to have done so. Before an enquirer reached the stage of formally enrolling as a catechumen (a candidate for membership in the church), Augustine advocated that he or she be given a single session, face to face with one person or with a small group.
The content of the session outlined by Augustine consists of two parts, a brief summary of the Christian story (narratio, in Latin) from the creation "down to the present period of church history" and an exhortation (exhortatio) to grasp the opportunity of a life without end that has been promised to those who are just. At all times the catechist (the person giving the instruction) should direct his hearer to the love of God manifested in the coming of Christ to us. At the end of his treatise called De catechizandis rudibus Augustine provides two specimens of this message, one that would take about two hours and one that would take about half an hour.
It is in the first of these parts that he introduced the notion of history in terms of two cities, taken from the Donatist theologian Tyconius, that he later developed in one of his major books, City of God. He also enunciates the classic definition of early Christian exegesis: "in the Old Testament the New is concealed, and the New the Old is revealed." For Augustine, reaching both the head and the heart was the goal. He wished neither to cause in his hearers an emotional frenzy nor to bore them to death with long lectures on theological facts.
Augustine as a teacher of religion
Augustine is regularly written about in his capacity of being a priest, bishop, philosopher, theologian, a founder of communities, and a great scholar. His role as a catechist, however, has not been as well highlighted. This is so for numerous reasons. Augustine wrote a number of treatises about catechesis and the catechumenate (the process by which a group is prepared for baptism). Augustine is the only patristic (i.e. in the early church) author from whom we have samples of each of the four stages of the ancient catechumenate. The writings of Augustine are generally obtainable, both in the original Latin and less satisfactorily in English translations; and, finally, within the past seventy years there have been many archaeological and textual discoveries that have provided much detailed information about Augustine and his Church in Hippo.
The catechetical experience of Augustine personally began with his own preparation for baptism by Saint Ambrose of Milan. In his writings (especially in his De catechizandis rudibus) Augustine treats each of the four stages in the classic catechumenate model: evangelization, catechumenate, candidate for Baptism (Lenten catechesis), and then post-Baptismal catechesis. As well, the sermons of Augustine are a good resource for gleaning additional information about his catechetical method and content. Even so, Augustine at times became frustrated with the situations encountered.
Writing about the catechetical task, Augustine once rehearsed the vices of catechumens: "Those persons who fill the churches in a bodily sense only: . . . persons who drink too much alcohol, people who have greed, who steal, who have bad sexual morals, who gamble, who love public spectacles, the wearers of idols, the tellers of the future, or diviners employing vain arts that are not holy." Augustine did not gloss over the challenges faced when instructing catechumens or even those already baptised. He struggled realistically with the all too human qualities of the people in his church, yet continued to strive for uncompromising excellence in the service of the Christian Faith.
Photo: The above image is from a fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli at the Church of Saint Augustine at San Gimignano, Italy. For an Internet source of further images, go to
For the Augnet gallery on San Gimignano (including the Gozzoli frescoes of St Augustine’s life), click here.