Arthur Middleton on Egeria’s account of preparation for baptism in the early Church

Egeria was a nun, probably from Gaul. She made a pilgrimage to Egypt, the Holy Land, Edessa, Asia Minor and Constantinople between 381–384. She recorded many liturgical practices. In the early Church, baptism figured prominently. Year after year, crowds of new believers were admitted to the sacrament. The Church’s rejoicing over Christ’s victory at Easter was enhanced by the solemn baptism of the candidates who had appropriated this victory for themselves. In each Christian baptism was the culmination of years of preparation: it was his or her resurrection to new life.

In the third century, each candidate for baptism went through a three year period of probation, known as the catechumenate. Stringent conditions were attached to admission; the Church did not want half-hearted Christians who might endanger its principles. Applicants were examined regarding their motives, their condition in life, and their morals. Certain occupations were considered incompatible with Christianity; these included anything connected with pagan worship, theatre, or the gladiatorial games. Even spectators at such displays were excluded. Soldiers were not admitted, since they had to swear an oath to a pagan emperor and were often obliged to execute unjust orders, and nor were officials of the state, because they could not avoid taking part in pagan rites. Even artists and teachers were treated with great reserve since their work usually involved depicting the pagan gods and explaining pagan literature.

The three years of the catechumenate were a period of moral testing, a sort of religious novitiate, accompanied by a regular course of instruction. The candidates were allowed to be present at the first Mass, now called the Liturgy of the Word but formerly known as the Mass of the Catechumens. After the sermon they were dismissed. They were also given special teaching on scripture from catechists, who paid particular attention to the moral lessons to be drawn from the biblical texts.

At the end of three years an enquiry was made into the conduct of the candidates during their probation. Those who proved ready then received several weeks of intensive preparation for baptism at Easter. During these weeks they were instructed in the whole course of salvation history, the old Testament prophecies and their fulfilment in Christ, the life and passion of Jesus Christ, and the good news of redemption. The Apostles’ Creed was systematically explained to the candidates who were required to learn it by heart so that before their baptism they could each recite it in the presence of the bishop. They were also initiated into many Christian practices: they were obliged to fast, to pray on their knees and to keep night vigils. Exorcisms were pronounced over them daily, in order that the devil’s power over them might be gradually weakened and broken.

During Holy Week, the candidates were told to wash themselves in readiness for the sacrament of baptism. The sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the eucharist were administered during the Easter Vigil and then during the whole of the following week the bishop explained to the newly-baptized the meaning of what they had received. It was held that the full meaning of the sacraments could only be grasped by means of the grace of the enlightenment that they themselves imparted. The children of Christian parents were baptized at the same time as adults.