VATICAN - "Antiquum ministerium": a new ministry for an ancient service

Saturday, 6 May 2023 catechists   catechumens   pope francis  

by Stefano Lodigiani

Vatican City (Agenzia Fides) - For the first time in the history of the Church, the lay ministry of the catechist was recognized and established with the Apostolic Letter "Antiquum ministerium" of May 10, 2021. A novelty that has its roots in antiquity, as illustrated by the first Latin words of the Letter itself, "Antiquum ministerium", which according to tradition, give its title to the entire document. Pope Francis recalls that "The ministry of Catechist in the Church is an ancient one. Theologians commonly hold that the first examples are already present in the writings of the New Testament" (AM n.1).

Scholars agree that in the early days of Christianity we do not find the terms "catechism, catechist" as they are understood today, but there is no doubt that presentations of the Christian message and its fundamental contents (the creed, the sacraments, the moral life), were written down, which brings us back to the catechisms of our time. When the catechumenal journey for adults who intend to become Christians and receive the sacraments of Christian initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist) begins to take shape and structure, a form of catechesis that recalls its current meaning also begins to take shape.

The catechumenal path that developed in the second century is intrinsically linked to the writings of the Fathers of the Church, who can be considered "authoritative catechists". Among the best known documents of the time is the "Didachè" or doctrine of the Twelve Apostles, which was written by an unknown author, the text of which was only found in 1800, even though it had been widely cited in the writings of the first centuries. Here we read the exposition of the "Two Ways, the Way of Death and the Way of Life", followed by the presentation of the rites of Baptism and the Eucharistic Celebration, as well as a section on the structure of the ancient Church, and finally the eschatological conclusion.

Another document from this period is "The Shepherd of Hermas" of the apocalyptic genre, which consists of five Visions, twelve Commandments and ten Similitudes (or Parables). We owe to Saint Justine, philosopher and martyr, the work “Dialogue with Trypho”, the “Apologies”, and above all the most ancient description of the Eucharistic rite, in the Letter to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. We cannot forget St. Irenaeus of Lyons, whose works were influenced by Polycarp of Smyrna, who had been a direct disciple of St. John the Evangelist.

In the third century, the catechumenate reached its maximum development, with a systematic itinerary articulated over several years, as described, among others, by Tertullian, Cyprian, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and the catechetical "schools" of the time. With the Edict of Milan in February 313, Emperor Constantine the Great ensured freedom of religion and worship. The fourth century is referred to by historians as "the golden age of patristic catechesis" and at the same time was also the beginning of the decline of the catechumenal institute. Particularly noteworthy documents from this period are the 18 catecheses of Cyril of Jerusalem, the 8 baptismal catecheses of St. John Chrysostom, the 16 catechetical homilies of Theodore of Mopsuestia, the “De Mysteriis” and the “De Sacramentis” of St. Ambrose. Saint Augustine's “De catechizandis rudibus” contains guidelines for structuring catechetical teaching, practical examples of catechesis, methodological indications for the relationship with the student and characteristics of the profile of the catechist. Saint John Paul II called it "A little treatise on the joy of catechizing" (Catechesi tradendae, 621).

The texts of this period in the history of the Church, of which we have mentioned only a few, are still today, because of their doctrinal richness, a subject of study and a source of inspiration for liturgy and catechesis. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, published on January 6, 1972, emphasizes in paragraph 2 of the preface the reference to the catechumenate of the first centuries and its value for the mission: "In fact, the Rite includes not only the celebration of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, but also all the rites of the catechumenate which, already tested by the ancestral custom of the Church and now adapted to the missionary action in progress in the various regions, have been so requested from all sides that the Second Vatican Council decreed that they should be restored, revised and adapted to local traditions" (cf. Ad Gentes 14).

From the sixth century, the catechumenate gradually declined. There is no longer any systematic catechesis, as envisaged by the catechumenate, but left to parish priests and parents, while infant baptism, already present in the first Christian communities, is becoming more widespread. The 16th century deserves special mention in this context, when, with the invention of the printing press and the increase in the literate population, the "Book of the Catechism" was also written, a text that explains the fundamental truths of the faith in the form of questions and answers. The "Catechism of the Council of Trent", officially promulgated by the Council held there from 1545 to 1563, was a manual intended for the instruction of the laity by priests in response to the Protestant Reformation. It was also at this time that the first in-depth texts for catechists appeared (among the authors, we find Saint Robert Bellarmine).

In the second half of the 1700s, catechisms spread in the dioceses. The emergence and spread of the "catechetical movement" was the result of the First Vatican Council (1870). Under the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1902) catechists began to organize themselves and training courses, congresses were organized and magazines and publications were issued. Saint Pius X published the encyclical Acerbo nimis (1905), on religious ignorance and the importance of teaching catechism, and catechisms (Compendium of Christian Doctrine in 1902 and the Catechism of Christian Doctrine in 1912). In Europe, especially in France and Italy, the commitment of a large number of lay catechists spread.
In the first half of the century, the Catechetical Centers promoted and guided by various religious institutes multiplied, becoming centers of study, formation, preparation of texts and working materials.
(Agenzia Fides, 6/5/2023)