Eight excerpts from "On the instruction of beginners" by St Augustine.
"Remember that we are listened to with much greater satisfaction when we are enjoying our work.
What we say is affected by the very joy of which we ourselves are aware, and it proceeds from us with greater ease and acceptance…
The rule, which is to be our guide, is not difficult to find. For if in material matters God loves the person who gives happily (I Corinthians 9:7) how much more will he in spiritual matters?
But certainly that this joy will be with us at the right time is something that depends on the mercy of the one who has given us this teaching…
What we ought to do is to give an overall summary so that certain of the more wonderful facts may be selected which are listened to with uncommon pleasure and which have been ranked so remarkably among the exact turning points of history…
We have to try anything that may be of some use in stirring them up and drawing them forth as it were from their place of concealment.
We must speak gently, and by reminding them that we are brothers, we should temper their reverence for us, and by questioning them we should ascertain whether they understand what is addressed to them.
We must refresh their minds by saying something seasoned with an honest joy and adapted to the matter that is being discussed, or something of a very wonderful and amazing order.”
(Augustine: De catechizandis rudibus: "On the Instructing of Beginners.")
Augustine on how to instruct.
The advice of Augustine on bringing the Christian faith to those receiving religious instruction is valuable. Of even greater interest, however, is what Augustine said about how actually to deliver that message. Augustine was a master teacher, not simply because of his immense knowledge and extraordinary power of expression, but because of his astute psychological insight. He recognises that teaching, if it is to have any real effect, is as much an emotional process as an intellectual one.
Augustine is acutely aware, for example, that body language can often convey far more that words. Even if pagans are crowding in to join the church, he wrote that the church's representatives should take care to treat each of them with dignity and respect. For example, Deogratias should offer his hearers a seat and take care not to offend them by telling them things they already know. If Christ did not stand on his dignity but came to us, even allowing Mary (a woman!) to sit at his feet, we should follow his example.
The catechist should take care to keep the message simple so that the hearer will grasp the main points without being confused or led to distraction. The key to the emotional process so vital for genuine teaching is the attitude of the teacher. It is vital that the catechist enjoy his or her work; the principle that "God loves a person who gives happily" should certainly apply to someone who is giving the bread of life. He tells Deogratias not to be discouraged because the discourse that he has had to repeat so frequently often now seems so dull to him. If he were not capable at expounding the Christian faith, people would not be seeking him out.
Augustine confided that he has often had the same feeling himself, but "Often the eagerness of those who desire to hear me shows me that my discourse is not so dull as it seems to me." Even if the hearer seems to express no interest, the catechist (the person giving instruction) should not in discouragement assume that his message is not getting through, since the person may simply be shy or, for that matter, absorbed in religious awe. If the hearer seems of insufficient intellectual capacity to understand much of what is being taught, Augustine recommends that the catechist, rather than speaking much about God to him, should rather speak much about him to God. What occurs throughout the treatise by Augustine, De catechizandis rudibus ("On the Instructing of Beginners"), is the strength of his apostolic concern that every opportunity be taken to share the Christian faith.
Augustine and the RCIA program of catechesis today.
Augustine is respected and loved by the Christian church for his many roles, but his role as a catechist has been among the least well known. The Roman Catholic Church in 1972 launched its Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). This was not a new idea as much as it was the return to a proven practice in the church of the fifth century, in which Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo were exponents of this RCIA process. To state it more appropriately, the RCIA of 1972 is basically an adoption of the catechumenate of the early church (i.e. the process by which a group is prepared for baptism), particularly of the form that the process reached at its high point in the fourth century.
The catechumenate as practised by Augustine is well documented because he wrote a number of treatises on the subject of catechesis and the catechumenate. He is the only Patristic (i.e., from the early Church) author from whom there still exist samples of each of the four stages of the ancient catechumenate. As well, within the past sixty years there have been many archaeological and textual discoveries that offer much detailed information about Augustine and his church practices in Hippo.
The sermons of Augustine are another major source of current knowledge of his catechetical method and content. The congregation listening to Augustine was often swept up by his rhetoric. There was variously applauding, weeping, cheering, and the shouting out Bible verses as Augustine preached. It is known how Augustine approached each step of the catechumenate process (as now duplicated in today's RCIA model) : evangelization, catechumenate, candidate for Baptism (Lenten catechesis), and then post-baptismal catechesis.
Especially via his instructions to catechists in his treatise, De Catechandis rudibus (for which see on a previous Augnet page on this topic), Augustine made every effort to reach out to each catechumen. For him, reaching both the head and the heart was the goal, neither whipping up hearers into an emotional fever nor overloading them precipitately with great quantities of material.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet photo gallery on the Augustinian Vicariate of India (including the photos above), click here.
An English translation of De catechizandis rudibus by Augustine on the Internet.http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF1-03/npnf1-03-25.htm