The origin and development of the term ‘catechesis’

On the invitation of the editor of the HERALD, I agreed to contribute a series of articles on the topic of catechesis. In my first article, I wish to explain the origin and development of the term ‘catechesis’ in the Church.

Jul 14, 2023

Dr Steven Selvaraju

On the invitation of the editor of the HERALD, I agreed to contribute a series of articles on the topic of catechesis. In my first article, I wish to explain the origin and development of the term ‘catechesis’ in the Church.

Handing on the message of Jesus
The Acts of the Apostles states that after the ascension of Jesus Christ, the early believers “remained faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2: 42). Here, the “teaching of the Apostles” denotes a ‘handing on’ of the message of Jesus to the believers and new converts by the Apostles. The ‘handing on’ was done by word of mouth, that is, orally.
This was the earliest form of catechesis and was considered one of the key duties of the Apostles. It is based on the mandate of Jesus to them: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations, baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you…” (Mat. 28: 19).

Catechesis in the New Testament
The term ‘catechesis’ in itself has an ancient origin in the Church. The writings of Luke and Paul mention the term. For example, Luke addresses his Gospel to Theophilus so that he may “learn how well founded the teaching [katechounti] is that you have received (Lk. 1: 4). Paul writes that those “under instruction [katechoumenos] should always contribute something to the support of the man who is instructing them” [katechethes].

The Greek words used by Luke and Paul come from two other Greek words, namely kata meaning ‘down’, and echein meaning ‘to re-sound’, ‘to re-echo’ or ‘to sound forth’. Catechesis, therefore, implies oral instruction or verbal teaching. Basically, in the New Testament, catechesis meant either formation in the way of the Lord, oral instruction, and a handing on of all that has been received in and through Christ. The word was applied both to the message being taught (content) and the oral manner in which it was communicated (method). The message was to be taught and spoken accurately (Acts 18: 25).

The emergence of the catechumenate
The understanding of catechesis as an “oral re-echoing” of the message of Christ continued during the first four centuries of the Church. As more people entered the Church, the successors of the Apostles, the bishops, realised the need to establish a formal process of preparation before a person could be baptised. It was known as the ‘catechumenate’. One of the main aspects of the catechumenate was catechesis, that is, the doctrinal and moral instruction given to the catechumens (persons receiving instruction) before their baptism.

From about the fifth century onwards, there was a gradual decline of the catechumenate. In many places, it was replaced by the practice of infant baptism. Over the course of the next few centuries, the whole process changed. The “handing on” of the Faith shifted from something pre-baptismal to being post-baptismal, and was given largely to those already baptised. At this time, catechesis was largely in the form of preaching by the priest during the Mass. Parents were expected to “hear and re-tell the story” to the household later at home.

The emergence of catechisms
Regardless the manner in which catechesis was carried out, for more than 1,500 years, the main medium used was oral instruction or preaching (re-sound or re-echo). However, two events occurred in the 15th century that would shake the Church’s dependence on oral communication of the Faith. The first was the discovery of moveable printing by Johannes Guttenberg, sometime between 1440 – 1456. It meant that the mass production of printed materials was now possible. The “written or printed word” began to replace the “spoken word”.

The second was the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther and others began to write manual instructions to clearly spell out the Faith of the reformers. These manual instructions became known as the ‘catechism’. The term ‘catechism’ was used to denote a summary or exposition of doctrine and morals used in the teaching of the Faith to children and adults. In response, Catholic theologians, such as, Peter Canisius and Robert Bellarmine and others wrote catechisms to explain the Catholic doctrine.

Over time, the bishops in Europe saw the urgent need to produce their national or regional catechisms to counter the ones by the reformers. To ensure that the content of the catechisms was taught correctly, the instructions were undertaken mainly by the clergy or religious. Catechisms were later introduced into schools as the medium of religious instruction to children who attended “catechism classes”. As Catholic missionaries travelled to foreign lands to spread the Faith, such as to Asia, Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world, they took along their catechisms. The method of catechesis used in Europe, namely indoctrination and memorisation, was introduced in the foreign missions.

Catechesis in modern times
Around the mid-18th and 19th centuries, new approaches of transmitting the Faith to children began to develop in Europe. A return to the ancient sources of Christianity and studies on the catechumenate in the early Church led to the term ‘catechesis’ becoming popular again. After the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the pace of this development quickened. The bishops at the Council spoke of the importance of catechesis in the Church. Later, papal documents and directories on catechesis were published to explain the Church’s renewed vision of catechesis. In time, ‘catechetics’ became a field of scientific and systematic study of catechesis in Catholic universities and institutions, and the person “handing on” the Faith became known as the ‘catechist’.

We will examine further these developments in future articles. For now, it is enough to know how the term ‘catechesis’ emerged and developed in the Church. Below is a simple infographic that I prepared to help readers capture the essence of my article.

(Dr Steven Selvaraju holds a Licentiate and Doctorate in Theology with Specialisation in Catechetics from the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome, Italy. He serves as Director of the Archdiocesan Catechetical Centre, Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur.)

The origin and development of the term ‘catechesis’ in the Church

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