Teaching converts

Anthony Gelston reminds us of the Eastertide teaching we still possess from a number of fourth century bishops

We are fortunate to possess records of at least part of the training of converts to Christianity by four bishops towards the end of the fourth century. The detailed pattern varied from place to place, but it was basically centred around the annual baptism at Easter. At this period the focus was still primarily on the initiation of adult converts to Christianity. Whatever the earlier stages of preparation may have been, candidates for the forthcoming Easter Baptism were enrolled at the beginning of Lent, during which they underwent an intensive programme of training. During the week after Easter Day they attended a further series of daily instructions on the meaning of the Easter Baptismal Liturgy, not divulged to the unbaptized, and therefore explained only retrospectively to the candidates themselves.

St Cyril of Jerusalem

In the case of Jerusalem we possess a complete set of the pre-Easter lectures by Bishop Cyril. After an introductory lecture on the preparation for Baptism there follows a series of eighteen lectures, of which the first two concentrate on repentance, the third on the meaning of Baptism, and the rest on the Christian faith as summarized in the Creed. The five lectures during Easter week go through the Baptismal Liturgy step by step: the pre-baptismal rites, the post-baptismal anointing, the meaning of the Eucharist, and the Eucharistic rite, including an exposition of the Lords Prayer. The last concludes with the quality of life expected of the newly baptized Christians, which may represent the vestige of an original sixth lecture.

In the case of Bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia there is no question that the whole series of sixteen lectures are his. The first ten concern the Creed, the eleventh the Lord’s Prayer, the next three the Baptismal rites, and the last two the Eucharist.

In the case of Bishop Ambrose of Milan we possess only one pre-baptismal instruction on the occasion of the disclosure of the text of the Creed to the candidates on Palm Sunday; this naturally serves as an introduction to the Creed. We do, however,

possess a complete set of his post-baptismal instructions, which follow a similar pattern to those of Cyril.

Bishop John Chrysostom of Constantinople adopted a less precise pattern of instructions, with much more emphasis on the pastoral formation of the candidates, and a more allusive approach to the liturgical details of the rites.

Adult catechesis

An interesting selection from all four sets of instructions can be found conveniently in English translation in E. Yarnold’s The Awe-inspiring Rites of Initiation. These texts are generally studied for the information that can be gleaned about liturgical forms and practice at that highly creative period, and for their theological content. Their existence, however, prompts a few reflections about what we could profitably learn from the faith of these fathers for the formation of adult converts today.

One is immediately struck by the degree of understanding of the theological content of the Creed that these converts were expected to acquire. Theological students today might well struggle with Theodores exposition of Trinitarian and Christo-logical doctrine, and not least with the technical terminology he employed. More important, however, is the insistence on an informed knowledge of the content of Christian belief, and the way this knowledge is carefully built up on the basis of many scriptural passages. The Creed itself was held out as a priceless treasure, being in effect an outline summary of Christian belief. It was to be memorized, and constantly recalled and reflected on, in the course of living the Christian life.

Another thing that strikes the reader is the pastoral concern of the bishops for their converts. These are no abstract lectures in a theological school. They are an important part of a wider initiation into Christian life, including teaching on prayer and the moral aspects of living. A lively personal faith, finding expression within the communal life of the Church, reverberates through the instructions.

2017-09-29T14:42:52+00:00 April 2007 Articles|