The Catechumenate – Forming Individuals and the Church in Faith
As a congregation, Good Shepherd faces some significant challenges as she seeks to catechize individuals and bring them into the fellowship of the Sacrament of the Altar. The greatest of these challenges is the fact that we now live in a world that can be described as post-Christian. There was a time when the core values and assumptions of the Church and our culture overlapped to a large degree. As the Church worked to bring new members into the fellowship, she could assume that interested individuals shared a common morality and had a basic knowledge of the biblical narratives. However, that is no longer the case. Instead individuals are now often quite open to attitudes and behaviors that Scripture says are contrary to God’s will. They frequently have little knowledge of the basic narratives contained in Scripture. Their values and assumptions are often not those of the Church.
And even when a person is coming from a Christian background, there are still significant challenges. Located in southern Illinois, we live in an area where both the Lutheran Church and her sacramental and catholic (universal) piety are rare. The majority of people joining Good Shepherd through catechesis come from various Reformed churches that deny the Sacraments and whose worship life and piety have included very few of the catholic practices that have been the common heritage of the Church – things like liturgy, creeds, Church year, lectionary, vestments, etc.
Both of these situations underscore the need to bring people out of one culture and worldview and to bring them into an evangelical catholic culture and worldview. This is not an easy assignment. But it is also not the first time the Church has faced it. In the course of the fourth century, the Church went from facing empire-wide persecution to being the official religion of the Roman Empire. Suddenly there was a large group of people who wanted to come into the Church. However, they came from a pagan world. They needed to be shaped and formed in the Church’s culture and worldview.
The Church’s response was the catechumenate – a formal process by which individuals were gradually led deeper into the Christian faith and life. This was aimed not simply at education, but rather at forming people to live as Christ’s Church. A series of rites helped to mark the stages as a person continued on in this process and grew in their commitment.
The goal and foundation of this process was Holy Baptism that occurred at the Vigil of Easter. The season of Lent was a time of preparation and an individual experienced entrance into the Church within the setting of Holy Week. After remembering the death of Christ on Good Friday, the celebration of Easter began on Saturday night at the Vigil of Easter. St. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). Baptism at the Vigil of Easter highlighted the fact that Holy Baptism gives us a share in Christ’s saving death and resurrection. The week after Easter was then a time of ongoing reflection upon the Means of Grace and the liturgy of the Church in which they take place.
The catechumenate has been taken up again by sacramental and liturgical churches in order to meet the renewed challenge of bringing people out of the culture that surrounds us and into the culture of the Church. This fall, Good Shepherd will begin using the catechumenate to bring individuals who are not Lutheran into the congregation. At Good Shepherd, the catechumenate will take the following form:
Catechumenate at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
I. Time of Inquiry
A time to answer questions that inquirers may have about what the Lutheran Church believes.
May – Friendship Sunday
September – Enrollment of Sponsors
Catechesis focused on Lectionary and Catechism
September – Admission to the Catechumenate
III. Preparation for Baptism and Affirmation of Baptism; Confirmation and Reception in to Membership
Catechesis focused on worship and living the Christian life
First Sunday in Lent – Enrollment of Candidates for Baptism and Enrollment of Candidates for Affirmation of Baptism, Confirmation and Reception into Membership
Third Sunday in Lent – Blessing of Candidates – Renunciation of Evil
Fourth Sunday in Lent – Blessing of Candidates – Presentation of the Creed
Fifth Sunday in Lent – Blessing of Candidates – Presentation of the Lord’s Prayer
Vigil of Easter – Rite of Holy Baptism and, Confirmation and Reception into Membership
Teaching about and reflection upon the Vigil of Easter.
Wednesday in Easter Week
The catchumenate begins with a Time of Inquiry. During this period, congregation members are encouraged to invite people to attend the Divine Service. A Friendship Sunday in May will be a time particularly aimed at this. Visitors who are interested in the Lutheran Church are encouraged to continue attending the Divine Service because it is through the liturgy of Word and Sacrament that a person begins to learn about the Christian faith and to be formed by the Church’s sacramental and catholic culture. They are provided a copy of the Small Catechism to read and invited to meet with pastor in an informal setting in order to ask questions and receive an overview of what the Lutheran Church believes.
As the group who will be entering the catechumenate begins to form, they are matched with sponsors from the congregation who are enrolled in September. Sponsors pray for a catechumen, take part in catechesis with them, and serve as support and encouragement during this process.
The events that take place during the Time of Inquiry illustrate that the catechumenate is the congregation’s outreach tool. Congregation members do not simply invite people to come and visit Good Shepherd. They invite them to a process that is ready to bring those who are interested into the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Members are also part of this process as they serve as sponsors who assist individuals in becoming part of the congregation.
Inquirers who decide that they want to become part of the Lutheran Church and members at Good Shepherd are admitted into the catechumenate . This takes place at the beginning of the Divine Service on the first Sunday in October. The fact that the Admission to the Catechumenate takes place in the Divine Service highlights an important point. The catechumenate is a public process in which the congregation encourages and supports those who are entering into the fellowship.
After entering the catechumate, the individuals begin catechesis, meeting once a week with their sponsors and the pastor. Catechesis is about formation in the faith. It is not simply education. For this reason catechesis occurs in the setting of worship using the Service of Prayer and Preaching in Lutheran Service Book (pg. 260). The catechesis focuses on the Scripture readings from the previous Sunday and on the Catechism (Ten Commandments; Apostles’ Creed; Lord’s Prayer; Matthew 28:19 [Holy Baptism]; John 20:22-23 [Holy Absolution]; Words of Institution [Sacrament of the Altar]) as explained in Luther’s Small Catechism.
Catechesis continues in this way until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The Church year teaches the faith and unfolds before us the saving work of Christ. The timing of catechesis allows the catechumen to experience Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter. These seasons of the Church year become part of their formation in the faith and are integrated by the pastor into catechesis.
The beginning of Lent marks the final stage of catechesis as the catechumens prepare for Baptism or the Affirmation of Baptism; and for Confirmation and Reception in to Membership. They have completed catechesis that focuses on the content of the Catechism and are invited to express publicly their intention to be baptized or to affirm their baptism at the Vigil of Easter,and to be confirmed and received into membership. At the same time, this is a moment when the Church exercises discernment. The pastor and the sponsors prayerfully consider whether a catechumen is ready for this next step as they reflect upon their presence at the Divine Service and catechesis, and the manner in which their lives display progress in the Christian life.
The Enrollment of Candidates takes place in the Divine Service on the First Sunday in Lent. Like the Admission into the Catechumenate this portion of the service marks and helps to reinforce the deepening commitment. The candidates enter into Lent, which is a time of catechesis and growth in the faith that leads to baptism. The congregation affirms that it will support the candidates during Lent as they make this journey. In turn, the presence of the candidates reminds the congregation that Lent is a return to baptism for all of us, a point that becomes clear in the Affirmation of Baptism at the Vigil of Easter.
During Lent, catechesis focuses on worship and living the Christian life. Candidates learn about how the liturgy is the setting for the jewels of the Sacraments and about how the liturgy continues to teach the faith we confess. Through reflection upon the Scriptures, they also learn about what the Christian faith means for daily life in the world. The Lenten journey is punctuated by the Blessing of the Candidates on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays in Lent. As they learn about the Christian life, the candidates renounce evil. They are also publicly presented the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. This summarizes the catechesis in faith and prayer that they have received and emphasizes the importance of confessing the faith and praying as they enter into the fellowship.
During Holy Week candidates attend the Triduum – the one service that runs through the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Holy Saturday. At the Vigil candidates receive Holy Baptism or approach the font in order to affirm their baptism. All candidates are confirmed, received into membership and then receive the Lord’s Supper for the first time as they share in the sacrament of unity.
The individuals now share in the fellowship at Good Shepherd. However, this does not mean they are finished growing in faith. The Christian life is an ongoing process and this is exemplified by the fact that they meet on the Wednesday of Easter Week for mystagogy. Mystagogy is the process of explaining the mysteries of Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar. It is reflection upon the service and the experiences of the Vigil of Easter as we think about what they mean for our ongoing life in the faith.
Good Shepherd will begin using the catechumenate in order to transform people by taking them out of the culture of the world and bringing them into the sacramental and catholic culture of the Church. However, the catechumenate will also help in the continuing process of renewal and growth in faith of the congregation’s life. It will make outreach and evangelism part of the rhythm of the congregation. It will make Lent a time for renewed commitment to the baptismal life. The presence of the catechumens and candidates will remind us that just as they are making a journey of faith, we are called to return to that journey and what it means for us.