ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
64. The catechumenate for adults, comprising several distinct steps, is to be restored and to be taken into use at the discretion of the local ordinary. By this, means the time of the catechumenate, which is intended as a period of suitable instruction, may be sanctified by sacred rites to be celebrated at successive intervals of time.
I have finally gotten back to the commentary on Sacrosanctum Concilium, one of the most important products of Vatican II [1962-1965] which established the philosophy and practice of worship in the Catholic Church as we know it today. I was more than a little chagrinned to discover that the last blog entry on Sacrosanctum Concilium appeared on August 8, 2018, over four months ago. Part of the interruption is due to my decision to usurp the Saturday stream for postings on the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on clerical abuse in the Keystone State. I believe that the postings on Saturday ran for many weeks on that sad subject. But there have been about 60 postings over the last two years on Vatican II’s treatment of Catholic worship, and while a weekly post on Sacrosanctum Concilium might be overly ambitious, I would still like to see it through.
As luck would have it, paragraph 64 introduces a subject of which many readers have some working understanding or experience, the process of adult formation for baptism, or the RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] as the process is popularly known today. The ancient church spoke of this process as the catechumenate, and the extended preparation is well documented in early church writings and architecture. If you prefer to enrich your understandings through compelling narratives rather than textbooks, the best description of the early catechumenate may be Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, and the Mystery of Baptism  by Gary Wills. Wills, an excellent historian in his own right, describes the journey of Augustine [later the saint, bishop, and theologian of baptism] as a catechumen at the cathedral of Milan, where the future saint and Father of the Church Ambrose was the sitting bishop.
This was no ordinary catechumenate, for aside from bringing Augustine into the Christian fold—much to his mother Monica’s relief—Ambrose was under relentless pressure from the Roman Emperor Theodosius on the matter of ultimate authority. The heresy of Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ, was particularly strong in Milan despite the efforts of Ambrose. On the night of the Easter Vigil 387 A.D. Augustine and his illegitimate son were both baptized in Ambrose’s cathedral as Roman troops surrounded the church, threatening to kill everyone attending the Vigil and commandeering the church for Arian rites.
The fact that Augustine was baptized in his late 30’s with his grown son gives us some insight into the Church’s thinking about the baptismal rite. At least through the first four centuries, the Church’s instinctual orientation was the baptism of adults. When the head of a household was baptized, he would bring his entire household into the fold, even his slaves. This reflects the culture of the times and the idea that baptismal conversion was not a snap decision but one that required a period of penance, learning, and gradual initiation into the things held dear by Christians, such as the biblical prayer “Our Father.” The theological emphasis of Ambrose’s day was the integrity of the conversion of Christ as a fully engaged way of life.
It is one of the ironies of Catholic development that one of the Church’s most famous catechumens would in a generation or two create a different understanding of baptism, one that continues to impact our sacramental practice to this day. Augustine, now bishop of Hippo in North Africa, observed that after his own baptism he continued to be tempted to sin, as we all are. He speculated that the human species was born in sin, a term he refined as “original sin,” a spiritually deadly state inherited biologically from our first parents, Adam and Eve, who sinned in the garden by eating the forbidden fruit. [Genesis 2 ff.] From Augustine, then, came a new pastoral urgency for immediate baptism of infants. Augustine put greater emphasis upon the timeliness of baptism, immediately after birth if possible. The quality of the conversion was not ignored as much as postponed into later life in the church.
Para. 64 calls for a return to the ancient practice of the protracted period of preparation for baptism of adults, including the liturgical rites that accompanied the venerable catechumenate such as the scrutinies. The paragraph leaves open the question of how long the catechumenate should last. When Abraham Lincoln was asked how long a man’s leg ought to be, he replied “long enough to reach the ground.” I suspect that some of Lincoln’s logic applies here: an adult is ready for baptism when his community judges he or she is prepared. In the United States the typical catechumenate [or RCIA] program runs for about a year, integrated into the liturgical calendar, and culminating at the Easter Vigil. But never assume that one year is the norm. Such famous converts such as Cardinal Newman and Thomas Merton wrestled with the decision for years. And from my own pastoral experience, I can recall instances where adults were baptism for less than optimal reasons. Before the new rite of the catechism was available to parishes, I was working one summer in the deep south when my boss/pastor baptized a man to help him with his serious alcoholism. Everyone’s intentions were pure, but the catechetical optics were poor. I had to leave that parish to attend summer school, so I could not follow up on the man’s circumstances, but I wondered what would happen if he returned to his drinking, which so often happens in substance abusing individuals. Would the baptized man have despaired of the love of God had he relapsed? One of the first principles of AA, incidentally, is the advice to avoid making major changes or decisions during one’s first year of recovery, aside from the basic commitment to abstain from alcohol one day at a time.
Para. 64 is the first of several teachings of Sacrosanctum Concilium on the pastoral questions of baptisms, including circumstances where a convert has been previously baptized in another denomination, the customs of initiation in mission lands already established, infant baptisms and the role of the family and godparents, etc. But the imposition of para. 64 was a major theological turning point for Catholicism, for its emphasis is with the pre-Augustine pastoral concern for the integrity of the conversion. The “rush to baptize” would be called into question, gently but firmly; the idea being that the depth of the conversion experience strengthens the convert and his community for a richer life of communion with Christ.