Catechumens, in the ancient Church, candidates for baptism; who were placed under a course of religious instruction in order to their admission into the Church. For the derivation, SEE CATECHETICS,
I. They are classed by ancient writers as members of the Church, but the lowest order of members (e.g. Origen, Eusebius, Jerome; cited by Bingham, bk. 1, ch. 3).
1. Names. — Besides the name catechumens, they were called candidates (candidi), because they were accustomed to appear dressed in white on their admission to the Church. They Were also called novitiati, tyrones Dei, rudes, incipientes (e.g. by Tertullian, De Panitent. 100. 6.; and by Augustine, De Fide ad Catechum. lib. 2, cap. 1).
2. Admission to the Catechumenate. — Heathens were admitted to the catechumenate by the imposition of hands and prayer, with the sign of the cross. The children of believers were admitted as soon as they were of age to receive instruction, but there does not appear to have been any specific age fixed at which Jewish and heathen converts were considered as catechumens. The greater part were of adult age; even Constantine the Great was in this class. But it was essential that they should not have been baptized.
3. Period of the Catechumenate. — The time spent in preparation varied according to the usages of various churches, and particularly according to the proficiency of each individual. In the Apostolical Constitutions three years are enjoined; by the Council of Eliberis, A.D. 673, two years; by that of Agatha, A.D. 506, eight months. Sometimes the catechumenate period was limited to the forty days of Lent. Socrates observes that, in the conversion of the Burgundians, the French bishop who converted them took only seven days to catechize them, and then baptized them. But, in case of sickness or imminent death, the catechunlens were immediately baptized with what was called clinic baptism. Cyril of Jerusalem and Jerome direct the catechumens to observe a season of fasting and prayer forty days.
4. Classes of Catechumens. — They were early divided into separate classes, the number and names of which were somewhat different. The Greek canonists, followed by Beveridge, Cave, and others, among the moderns, speak of the ἀτελέστεροι, the uinitiated, and the τελέστεροι, the more advanced. Suidas distinguishes them as ἀκροωμενοί, such as were occupied in learning, and εὐχομενοί, such as are engaged in devotional pursuits. Bingham specifies four classes: First, the ἐξωθούμευοι, or those who were instructed privately without the Church, and kept at a distance from the privilege of entering into the Church for some time, to make them the more eager and desirous of it. The next degree above these were the ἀκροώμενοι, audientes, or hearers. They were so called from being admitted to hear sermons and the Scriptures read in the Church, but were not allowed to partake of the prayers. The third sort of catechumens were the γονυκλίνοντες, genu-flectentes, or kneelers, so called because they receive imposition of hands kneeling upon their knees. The fourth order was the βαπτιζόμενοι, φωτιζόμενοι, the competentes and electi, which denote the immediate candidates of baptism, or such as were appointed to be baptized the next approaching festival, before which strict examination was made into their proficiency under the several stages of catechetical exercises. The age, sex, and circumstances, of the catechumens were duly observed, men of age and rank not being classed with children (Antiquities, bk. 10, ch. 2, § 2).
5. Instruction and Admission to the Church. — The exercises of the parties till their union with "the believers" were generally directed with reference to their preparation for baptism. They were required to attend to various doctrinal and catechetical instructions, to reading the Scriptures, etc. One of Chrysostum's homilies (ad 2 Corinthians 2) is an exposition of the prayer of the Church for the catechumens (see Neander, Life of Chrysostom, tr. by Stapleton, Appendix to vol. 1). That part of divine service which preceded the common prayers of the communicants at the altar, that is, the psalmody, the reading of the Scriptures, the sermon, etc. was called missa catechumenorum, because the catechumens had the liberty of being present only at this part of the service. The advanced classes before baptism were subjected to repeated examinations, and, in later times, to a kind of exorcism, accompanied by the imposition of hands; they received the sign of the cross, and insufflation, or the breathing of the priest upon them. They also passed many days in fasting and prayer, and in learning the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer. Some days before baptism they were required to wear a veil. Their mode of admission was simple. The bishop examined the candidate, and, if he was found worthy, enrolled his name in the records of the Church. The solemnity was concluded by prayer, by the imposition of hands, and by the signing of the cross.
"No such arrangement as the catechumenate is indicated in the New Testament: when an individual professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, he was immediately admitted to the initiatory rite of Christianity. All converts then, however they might differ in their knowledge or attainments, were equally entitled to the outward sign, as they were to the inward and spiritual grace. But when the Church was augmented by the accession to her pale of large numbers from heathenism, and when her purity was no longer guarded by the presiding care of those apostles and others who possessed the power of discerning spirits, the custom of deferring the admission of members was adopted, in order to obtain satisfactory evidence of their fitness to be enrolled in the rank of the disciples. The experience of the primitive Christians had taught them that the gross habits of idolaters were not at once relinquished for the pure and spiritual principles of the Gospel, and that multitudes of professed believers held their faith by so slender a tie that the slightest temptation plunged them again into their former sensuality. The protracted inquiry into the character and views of candidates for admission into the Church was therefore designed, if possible, to prevent the occurrence of apostasies, which had disturbed the peace and prosperity of the Church, and may be traced to a laudable desire of instructing young and uninitiated converts in the principles of the Christian faith." In modern Christian usage, the words catechumen, catechumenate, are not found in the books of Church law, except with historical reference to the ancient Church. But the things designated by these terms have always existed, and the terms themselves appear likely (and very properly) to come into use again, to designate the children of the Church and their period of instruction preparatory to confirmation, in the churches which use that rite, and preparatory to communion in full membership, in those churches which do not. In the Methodist Church in England the term has been revived, especially in the efforts of the Rev. S. Jackson to establish a fixed method and course of instruction for young persons between childhood and puberty (see the volumes of the Catechumen's Reporter, London). The whole subject is also carefully discussed by Zezschwitz, System d. christl.-kirchl. Katechetik (Leipz. 1862, 1:79 sq.).
See the copious treatment of the ancient catechumenate by Bingham, Origines Ecclesie, ch. 10; and Coleman, Ancient Christianity, ch. 7, sec. 6, § 7. See also Siegel, Alterthümer, 1:364 sq.; Pfanner, De Catechumenis, Antiquae Ecclesiae (Frankfurt et Gotha, 1688, 4to); Farrar, Ecclesias. Dictionary, s.v.; Buck, Theol. Dictionary, s.v.; Neander, Church History, 1:305; and the article ARCANI DISCIPLINA SEE ARCANI DISCIPLINA .