What happened to Catechesis in the Middle Ages?

By most accounts, the patristic catechumenate declined in the middle ages. Deurbanization and mass conversions played some role, but the biggest factor of its decline was the widespread practice of infant baptism. These shifts resulted in less need for a robust pre-baptismal period of instruction.

However, this did not mean that lay instruction simply disappeared, only to be rediscovered by the reformers. A recent book by Nathan J. Ristuccia, Christianization and Commonwealth in Early Medieval Europe: A Ritual Interpretation (OUP, 2018), shows the more complex way in which catechetical imperatives shifted from the patristic to the early medieval period.

His focus is the emergence and prominence of the "Rogationtide" festival in the fifth and sixth centuries—the three-day period (Monday-Wednesday) of repentance and prayer, particularly for the land, which occurred before the Feast of the Ascension. The key insight of looking at a specific ritual and its varieties of interpretations is that it brings focus and specificity to the often vague, overarching descriptors like "Christianization." In contrast to scholars that cast the story of early medieval Christianity as a shift from the sophisticated theology of the patristics to the folklorish, quasi-pagan religion of the early medievals, Ristuccia tells this history as one of complex interplay between ritual and liturgy, institution and social formation, and doctrine and instruction. As he puts it:

Mandatory rituals fashioned the Christian commonwealth as a body separate from its non-Christian contemporaries and ancestors. But, in the early Middle Ages, mandatory rituals rarely happened alone. Basic Christian instruction accompanied these same rites. Becoming Christian in the early Middle Ages was not solely a ritual performance. Christianness brought an expectation of doctrinal knowledge and conviction, and churchmen and lay rulers alike labored to accomplish this expectation. Christianization was neither just a transfer of knowledge nor a public event; it was a nexus between rite and preaching, a performance through which Europeans learned what it meant to be Christian (p. 178).  

The memorization and understanding of the Lord's Prayer and Apostles' Creed became matters of frequent concern for medieval pastors, and Rogationtide became a particularly apt moment to teach the Lord's Prayer. It wasn't just Martin Luther who worried about the theological negligence of lay people. Learning the catechetical "standards" was also a concern of earlier generations. The Venerable Bede was one of the first preachers on record to offer an extensive homily on the Lord's Prayer interpreted within the Rogationtide feast, and many others followed in his wake.

The connection between instruction on the Lord's Prayer and Rogationtide developed thematically. 

Early medieval Rogationtide preachers often present the Lord’s Prayer as a distillation of themes of the feast itself: themes like repentance, communal solidarity, and dependence on God. Through their penance, Christians both trusted in a holy God, who judged the misdeeds of their local congregation, and felt themselves sinful and punished, confirming the truth of that faith. Praying for divine mercy was not only a model of what Christians believed; it was a model for believing it—for being Christianized. The holiday’s preaching and its performance were a dialectical whole, for “every liturgy is an education” [the footnote is, no surprise, to James K. A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom]. Churchmen shaped Christian minds by moving Christian bodies. The Rogation procession taught people not just that they were sinners, but that as Christians they could be saved (p. 179).

Ristuccia's study shows that catechetical education was still the concern of many medieval preachers, revealing a flexibility in adapting to new liturgical modes. As baptism no longer required a lengthy period of instruction, another liturgical process filled the gap. And it did so in rather thoughtful way.

Yet this relationship was not immediate or destined; Rogationtide arose as an instructional holiday at a particular moment—the Carolingian period—for specific reasons. This new purpose for Rogationtide was partly an attempt to fulfill canonical regulations about the universal knowledge of the Lord’s Prayer in an age when the catechumenate had shrunk. But explaining the Pater Noster was also a way for churchmen to interpret the significance of the holiday itself and guard it against reappropriations. The sermons on the Lord’s Prayer functioned much like a Passover Haggadah, answering “why is this night different from all other nights.” In the course of discussing the Lord’s Prayer, preachers could delve into other topics central to the feast—such as solidarity, penance, earthly blessings, and illicit rival ceremonies like magic and banqueting. Basic Christian instruction and liturgical exegesis were not separate from the Rogation procession; they were part of the march (p. 201-2).

Ristuccia notes other connections between Rogationtide and the Lord's Prayer, such as the fact that the key Rogation preaching text, Luke 11:5-13 (the parable of the friend who comes at night asking for three loaves of bread), came right after Luke's account of the Lord's Prayer (11:1-4). But it was especially the close connection between doctrinal instruction and liturgical practice that makes this an interesting study of catechesis. 

The gradual development of Rogationtide into an occasion for basic Christian instruction is a superb of example of how theological ideas on the nature of rituals shaped church practice. For Rogationtide was temporal and man-made: the putative invention of an unimportant father at a specific moment in the fifth century to deal with short-lived local problems. Yet through the Rogation Days—and through the teaching and recitation of the Pater Noster on those days—larger doctrines of divine fatherhood, human vulnerability and dependence, repentance, and salvation took physical form. Rogationtiontide—and presumably other mandatory rites—could be a hermeneutic. Church leaders believed that Rogationtide could shape how people interpreted themselves and their world, but only when leaders manage those rituals in specific ways, hence the threat of ritual failure. As Prosper of Aquitaine insisted, the correct performance of Christianizing rites ought to establish the doctrines of faith. Liturgies not only communicated doctrines, they substantiated them to the worshiper. In the same act of penance, Christians could both state they were sinners and feel themselves wretched and ready to be saved (p. 208).

Again, comparing the catechetical forms of instruction in late antiquity to the early medieval period, Ristuccia narrates both periods as exemplifying the close connection doctrinal instruction to liturgical practice. 

Explicit teaching on the Lord’s Prayer and Creed was part of a larger liturgical ceremony of Christian formation. This was true during Late Antiquity, when catechesis was central to the Lenten preparation for baptism, and remained true in the early Middle Ages, as instruction shifted to other festivals like Rogationtide. For early medieval theologians, doctrinal transmission and proper ritual practice interpenetrated. Medieval people never encountered one denuded of the other. Rather, they listened to teaching interpreting their ritual experience even as they underwent the experience itself. The ritual, in turn, embodied these teachings in its pageantry and format (p. 209).

So, did catechesis shift in the Middle Ages? Obviously, yes. But did it disappear? No.

The evidence presented in the book (which I've not done justice to in these quotations) shows the various ways in which medieval churchmen sought to instill right belief and right practice within their congregations. By looking at the Rogationtide preaching of Bede, Hrabanus Maurus, Ælfric of Eynsham, and others, Ristuccia shows how instruction in basic Christian theology not only endured through the medieval period, but also how it remained interconnected to the liturgical practices of the church. 

One question I had after reading this part of the book was how the different liturgical locale of catechesis affected what was taught and how it was interpreted differently. What sort of doctrinal differences emerged as the Lord's Prayer became tied more to Rogationtide than the pre-baptismal Lenten season? 

That question in turn prompts reflection on how we think about catechesis today—specifically, how and where catechesis is connected to the liturgy. One of the main differences between catechesis and other forms of Christian education is that it is deeply immersed and indeed inseparable from the church calendar, that is, from some specific conception of time and place. 

Pressing into the deep connection between liturgy and catechesis will be a fruitful exercise for pastors, teachers, and catechists. The liturgy cannot but teach. And more explicit modes of teaching cannot but be shaped by the liturgies and rites of which they are connected. 

Where does catechesis fit within your church? How is it connected to the liturgies, rites, and calendars of your congregation's life?