Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Rite’s History Recalls Joyful, Persevering Faith

By FATHER THEODORE BOOK, Special Contributor | Published February 17, 2005

When the Roman emperors were still at the height of their glory and Christianity was a crime, any external observer would think that the prospects were gloomy for the nascent Church. Nero had decreed that practicing the Christian religion was a crime against the state, treason punishable by death. The Church had no armies with which to fight back, no great public leaders to make an oratorical appeal to the hearts of the public, and indeed, made no resistance to the imperial edicts. Christians prayed for the emperor and were put to death by him.

In the face of such a world, a secular observer might predict that the Church would soon fade away or at best be passed on in secret by a small isolated knot of families.

What happened was far different. Men and women from all walks of life streamed to the Church, spurning the emperor’s sentence of earthly death in order receive the gift of everlasting life promised through the waters of baptism. The Holy Spirit confounded the wisdom of the world. Thus the earliest church building surviving—the converted house at Dura Europos—has a large baptistery where catechumens would descend into the waters of baptism and arise as Christians. The reception of new members was a joyful and ongoing part of the life of the Church.

In an age where the Christian had to be prepared to hold fast to his faith before Roman judges and even in the face of torture and death, the catechumen’s need for deep spiritual preparation was very clear. He was making a choice that would shape all of his life—a choice for God, a choice to love Christ above all the things of this world. And so a process of preparation developed, which reached its perfection in the years after Constantine when the whole Roman world gradually came to embrace Christ. The process can be considered a guide for the Christians of today as well, as we seek to renew in ourselves the faith of our forefathers.

The process, which began with the first inquiry of one desiring to learn more about Christ’s Church, took on a gathering intensity as the feast of Easter and the celebration of baptism approached. In particular, during the season of Lent, the catechumens, now chosen or “elect,” then entered into a season of prayer and penitence, where the bishop and the whole church prayed for them that they might be freed from every evil influence and given the strength to live the Christian life wholly and richly. During this time, they were shown the central elements of the Christian faith, which were held closely by the Church: the Gospels, the creed, the “Our Father.”

Finally, on Holy Saturday, “as the star first appears in the sky,” they were brought in to the Easter vigil, where through prayers and signs, they were received into the fullness of the faith and life of the Church.

The catechumens of today do not face an age of persecutions and martyrdoms, but like their predecessors of many centuries ago, they need the strength and support of the Church to hold fast to the faith in the midst of a world full of indifference, where people close their eyes lest they see the supernatural and stuff cotton in their ears lest they hear the voice of God.

They need strength to make a commitment in an age that denies both the possibility and the value of dedicating one’s life to something greater than one’s self. And so the Church, ever ancient and ever new, again has taken up these rites, adapting them for the needs of today, and making them live again.

This year, on the first Saturday and Sunday in Lent, our Archbishop, Wilton D. Gregory, welcomed some 1,400 catechumens and candidates into the last phase of their preparation for Easter communion.

Coming from every part of the diocese and from every part of the globe, these men and women testified to their desire to be one with Christ, to live as a part of His Church and to hold fast to the Catholic faith. Their godparents and sponsors witnessed that they had prepared through prayer and charity and study for their coming entrance into the Church. With great joy amid the solemnity, Christ’s Church embraced those soon to be her new daughters and sons.

Together with them, this Lent can be for us a time to rediscover the richness of the faith handed down to us at such great cost by the Catholics of the first centuries. Together with them, it can be a time of repentance and preparation for the great feast of Easter.

May their faith and commitment strengthen ours and may our example of love and perseverance encourage them, so that together we may one day stand in our white baptismal robes in that reality of which all the symbols speak: the glorious kingdom of heaven.


Father Theodore Book is a parochial vicar at St. Catherine of Siena Church, Kennesaw. He was the coordinator for this year’s Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion.