Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Christian Initiation in the Third Century

Reading N°56 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

In the third century, initiation into the Christian life was by Baptism, preceded by the catechumenate, and immediately followed by Confirmation and participation in the Holy Eucharist. When a pagan, disillusioned from the mysteries of his religion or touched by the courage of the martyrs or by the example of Christian virtues, comes to the bishop to ask for a share in the Christian mysteries, the bishop first makes him undergo a probation, vaguely mentioned by Hermas[1] and St. Justin,[2] clearly organized in the time of Tertullian,[3] and called the catechumenate. For several days, the postulant remains at the entrance to the Christian meeting during the celebration of the mysteries, for, right after the first prayers, the deacons exclude the catechumens. But the Church gives him instruction apart.[4] She then requires that he "renounce the devil and his pomp and his angels,"[5] that he prepare for the solemn initiation by prayer, fasting, vigils, and confession of his sins.[6] Such, at least, was the rule at Carthage, as described by Tertullian. He says that the Church is thus exacting with the candidate for Baptism in order to be assured that he will not fall back into sin once he is baptized.[7] The Church should be composed only of saints.

3rd century representation of Baptism
Catacomb of Ss. Marcellinus and Peter
Then comes the day of Baptism, "illumination," "reconciliation," "palingenesis" (new birth) as it is called.[8] Regularly the candidate is dipped three times in the water, in memory of Christ's burial; his threefold coming out of the water symbolizes the mystery of the Resurrection. At each immersion, the name of one of the three divine persons is pronounced.[9] In case of necessity, however, especially in case of sickness, Baptism was conferred by sprinkling or pouring. Some paintings of the third centtlry depict ceremonies which may go back to the end of the second century, showing the candidate standing in the baptistry, with the water reaching to his knees, and being sprinkled on the head.[10]

The days especially reserved for the initiation of the catechumens are the Saturday before Easter and the Saturday before Pentecost, but Tertullian declares that, strictly speaking, Baptism may be conferred on any Sunday or even on any ordinary day.[11]

When the baptismal ceremony is over, the new Christian is clothed in a white garment and introduced into the assembly of the faithful. The bishop, seated, presides at the meeting. The priests, at the bishop's side, and the deacons, whose duty it is to maintain order, are the only ones occupying places of honor. The rich are shoulder to shoulder with the poor, the freemen with the slaves. The newly initiated comes up to the bishop. The head of the Church, by the imposition of hands and anointing with holy chrism, confers on him the Sacrament of Confirmation, which makes him a perfect Christian and is looked upon as the complement of Baptism.[12]

At length the newly baptized is admitted to participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice. We have already given St. Justin's description of the principal ceremonies of this rite. Passages from Tertullian, St. Cyprian, and the canons of Hippolytus[13] enable us to complete the picture. From the middle of the second century, the "breaking of bread" is finally separated from the fraternal meal which accompanied it. The sacred function henceforth appears in all the purity of its rite, free from the abuses that so greatly afflicted St. Paul. We can easily imagille the neophyte's feeling when, for the first time, he was present at the mystery so long awaited.

3rd century representation of the Eucharist
Catacomb of Commodilla

A movement among the deacons and inferior ministers is a sign that the sacrifice is about to begin. Some go among the assembled faithful to see that each one stays in his proper place and to direct the liturgical acts; the others place on the altar the bread and the chalices prepared for the sacred repast.

"The Lord be with you all," says the bishop. "And with thy spirit," they respond. "Raise up your hearts," the bishop then says. To which they answer: "They are with the Lord." He continues: "It is fitting and just."

After several prayers, the chief of which is an invocation to the thrice holy God, the bishop, amid profound silence, slowly pronounces over the bread and wine the mysterious words first uttered by the Savior the night before He died. The mystery is consummated. Christ is on the altar, in the midst of His faithful, under the mystical veils of the consecrated elements. Again the prayer begins, more earnestly, addressed to the God here present, though invisible. Suddenly a deacon's voice cries out: "Sancta sanctis" (holy things are for the holy). "Amen," the people respond. The bishop receives communion, then the priests and deacons, and lastly all those present. The bishop lays the consecrated host in the communicant's right hand, which is open and held up by the left hand. The deacon holds the chalice, from which each one drinks directly. At each communion, the bishop says: "The body of Christ," and the deacon: "The blood of Christ." Each communicant responds "Amen."

When the communion is over, the deacon gives the signal for prayer. All pray, sometimes kneeling or even prostrate, in sign of humiliation and penance, sometimes standing up, with arms extended and the hands open like Jesus on the cross, to testify that they are ready to endure every suffering. Says Tertullian:
Thither [toward Heaven] we lift our eyes, with hands outstretched, because free from sin; with head uncovered, for we have nothing whereof to be ashamed. [...] With our hands thus stretched out and up to God, rend us with your iron claws, hang us up on crosses, wrap us in flames, take our heads from us with the sword, let loose the wild beasts on us - the very attitude of a Christian praying is one of preparation for all punishment.[14]


[1] Hermas, Visions, III, vii, 3.
[2] First Apology, 61.
[3] De praescr., 41. Tertullian's De poenitentia was addressed to catechumens.
[4] Idem, De baptismo, 1.
[5] Idem, De corona militis, 3.
[6] Idem, De baptismo, 20.
[7] Idem, De poenitentia, 6; De baptismo, 20.
[8] Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, I, 6.
[9] On the triple immersion, see Tertullian, Adversus Praxean, 26.
[10] De Rossi, Roma sotterranea, II, 334.
[11] Tertullian, De baptismo, 19.
[12] On Confirmation, see St. Irenaeus, Haereres, IV, xxxviii, 2; Tertullian, De baptismo, 7f; St. Cyprian, Letters, 73. The Sacrament of Confirmation is sometimes called consignatio.
[13] The authority of Tertullian and St. Cyprian is well known. As to the Canons of Hippolytus, Batiffol says, "we possess no more complete and explicit description of the institutions of the early Church: it is a document of the highest rank." (Anciennes littératures chrétiennes, p. 158.) Save for a few easily recognized retouchings, the Canons of Hippolytus agree admirably with whatever we know about the liturgy in use at the beginning of the third century. (Ibid.)
[14] Tertullian, Apol., 30.


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  1. I don't have an interesting comment, but am wondering what an N(degree symbol)56 is. Thanks to the answerer!

  2. It's the 56th installment in a series, i.e. N(umber) 56.


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