How the Church Used to Welcome People

The early Church confidently proclaimed its teaching and offered it to inquirers to take or leave

The Octave Day of Easter—the Sunday following Easter—has gone by several names, including Divine Mercy Sunday and the Second Sunday of Easter. One of its oldest names is Dominica in albis, “Sunday in white,” because this was the day that those newly baptized at the Easter Vigil historically took off the white garments they received at their baptism.

Examining the catechumenate in the early Church provides valuable lessons for current discussions about the “welcoming” nature of the Church in the run-up to this fall’s Synod on Synodality.

In the early Church, those who were curious about Christianity could be inquirers. Inquirers were just that: they wanted to know more about Christianity. In antiquity, that process required a certain degree of circumspection because, until Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, the Church was buffeted between malign neglect and active persecution, such as Domitian’s or Diocletian’s. (This is one reason why the first of the “minor orders” in the Church was porter, i.e., the person who kept the door. Even later, when persecution ceased, people still functioned as porters, including holy men like St. André Bessette or Bl. Solanus Casey. The porter might offer assistance, but back then there was no general “open door” policy).

Once an inquirer, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, decided to become a Christian, he was enrolled as a catechumen. He needed a sponsor for baptism. Godparents did not originate to confer some “honor” on a relative or friend; rather, in a world of persecution, an inquirer or catechumen needed somebody who was already Christian to vouch for him. Sponsors were the ecclesial version of background checks or references, vital in a world where infiltration of the Church could be a question of life or death.

During the catechumenate, those seeking baptism were not taught about the sacraments. Those were mystagogia, sacred mysteries not to be shared with the uninitiated. Those lessons came after baptism, usually during the Easter Octave, before the neophytes doffed their white garments on Dominica in albis.

The catechumenate focused on moral instruction, i.e., what kind of lifestyle and actions were fit for a Christian – and which were not. Given the practices that were commonplace in the pagan Roman Empire — polytheism, idolatry, political loyalty masquerading as “religion,” infanticide, abortion — the Church made clear to prospective Christians that their conversion would be profoundly countercultural. In that sense, the ancient Church was motivated by “culture war,” perhaps not to change the society (although it did that post-AD 313) but certainly to change the ways those who became Christians thought and acted. You’re welcome to join, but on the Church’s terms, not the world’s.

That lengthy moral instruction was accompanied by limited ecclesial access. We have distinct Liturgies of the Word and of the Eucharist in part because catechumens, who were invited to participate in the Liturgy of the Word as part of their formation, were literally “shown the door” at its conclusion, after receiving a blessing that often also resembled an exorcism. Those cleansings became more emphatic as the Paschal Vigil approached. There are reasons the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent focus on thirst, blindness, and death, and how Jesus remedies all three.

All this culminated in the sacraments of initiation at the Paschal Vigil. Before Baptism — that spiritual Rubicon that irreversibly divides a person’s life into “before” and “after” — the Church gave (and gives) its candidates one last choice: is this what you want? They affirm this in their baptismal vows which, like the Christian life, contain two sides of the same coin. They promise first to renounce Satan, “his works and pomps,” and the glamour of the world. They don’t do that in a vacuum. They proclaim their faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, believing in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” As the Church today proclaims, “This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church.” Only then are they baptized.

As noted above, it was after Baptism that the newly baptized were taught the Church’s “mysteries,” but they certainly received a moral formation beforehand.

The critic might reply, “Okay, but that was 1,800 years ago. The Church today is different! What’s this got to do with anything?”

A lot.

First, today’s world is not that different from antiquity. Romans left defective newborns in the woods; we therapeutically assure people “the infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.” Those are the words of a medical doctor who was also Governor of Virginia.

Second, yes, the Church’s doors are a lot more open than they were in an era of explicit persecution, but one might ask what implicit “soft power” persecution is exerted to keep Catholics behind sacristy doors, their mouths shut when it comes to contemporary moral issues.

Third, because those doors are more open, people who inquire about becoming Catholics generally have some idea of what the Church’s teaching is. It may be wildly distorted and exaggerated, but few potential converts are confused about what’s on offer in Catholicism versus, say, Episcopalianism.

Fourth, today’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) seeks to model the ancient process of joining the Church. It provides for stages of inquiry and a catechumenate. We may be more forthcoming about the breadth of our faith today than, say, in Cyril of Jerusalem’s day, but the structures — presenting our faith and how to put it on offer to potential Catholics — is the same.

So the question, in light of the upcoming Synod, is: Is this image of “welcome” as historically embodied and even formally retained today consistent with the “welcome” being advanced in some quarters of Synodal discussion? I would question that it is, given that the early Church confidently proclaimed its teaching and offered it to inquirers and others to take or leave. What it seems we’re being asked today is for an unconfident Church to bracket or even revise its teaching in light of its reception by those to whom it is offered. That seems to be exactly backwards. It is certainly alien to how the Church normatively “welcomed” potential members for millennia.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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