“You have entreated me, brother Deogratias, to send you something in writing which might be of use to you on the question of instructing beginners in the faith. As you say, in Carthage, where you are a deacon, those who are to be given their initial grounding in Christian faith are often brought to you because you are thought to be extremely skilled in offering this instruction…” – (Augustine of Hippo, Instructing Beginners in the Faith, p. 3).
A Deacon’s Request
The opening words to Saint Augustine’s little “handbook” give us the briefest background to the work itself, a request by a Carthaginian deacon for a small book, such as he might easily keep on hand, to help him articulate the Christian faith to newcomers, in a way every person could understand. Such Patristic responses often feel like eavesdropping on someone’s phone conversation; we can hear one side, the famous reply, and not the other, the humble request. We know little about Deogratias, only that he was a deacon in Carthage, and that he must have been a respected and learned man who had a pastoral concern to make the Gospel simple and vibrant for those who did not have his academic foundation in the faith. In other words, this deacon is both pastor and scholar. He has a concern for souls and a reputation for sound rhetoric.
A few decades earlier, Ephraem the Syrian, himself a deacon and renowned for his exegetical poetry, describes the life (and death) of the deacon in this way, “He loved to proclaim, the words of thy doctrine, and delighted to listen to the utterances of the Spirit: Let him hear the sound of the trumpet! He wondered at and admired the riches of thy oracles, and his heart exulted in the words of the Holy Ghost: Unite him with thy glorified ones!” This poem, “On the Death of a Deacon” is perhaps one of the clearest descriptions of the order that we have from the Patristic era, focusing not only on the ministries we have come to associate with the diaconate, ministry to the marginalized and needy, but also on ministries of proclamation, catechesis, liturgy, and scholarship. Ephraem himself, who came to be remembered as “the Harp of the Holy Spirit” lived both the ivory tower life of scholarship, and the kenotic dying of his order as he cared for his neighbors suffering from plague.
Both Deogratias and Ephraem were deacons with a respected ministry in Christian formation, not unlike the deacon Phoebe, to whom Paul entrusted his letter to the Romans, and the deacons of Ephesus, whom Paul exhorts to “hold the mysteries of the faith in good conscience”—being first tested and found blameless (1 Timothy, 3:9-10) before, presumably, initiating others into these mysteries as well.
A Shift Away
It is difficult for me to pinpoint exactly how the Church shifted from this ancient view of the deacon as a catechist or teacher of the faith to a world in which, as I was told in my early explorations of the diaconate, that teaching was not a diaconal gift but a unique charism of the priesthood. While the deacon’s role in instructing the faithful seems to have waxed and waned over the centuries, it remained integral to the order through the Victorian era (in which all “ministers” were responsible for the catechesis of those in country parishes, and many in academia were ordained deacons but not priests as until they might be granted “a cure of souls.”) Even as late as the 1940 Book of Common Prayer, the exhortation for “The Ordering of Deacons” includes the explicit reminder that, “It appertaineth to the Office of a Deacon, in the Church where he shall be appointed to serve… to read the Holy Scriptures and Homilies in the Church; and to instruct the youth in catechism; in the absence of the Priest to baptize infants and to preach” (BCP 1940, p. 533).
No such catechetical emphasis exists in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, where the ordination rite for the diaconate takes on a decidedly social justice focus. While given authority, as in previous liturgies, to proclaim God’s Word, the deacon is only exhorted to read the Scriptures and pattern his or her life after them (BCP 1979, p. 543).
A Return to Deacons as Catechists
The Church can be grateful that the exhortation to the deacon as a catechist was returned to the Book of Common Prayer in 2019. Here deacons are told that “You are to read the Gospel and proclaim Christ at all times through your service, to instruct both young and old in the Catechism, and at the direction of the Bishop or Priest, to baptize and preach” (BCP 2019, pp. 478-479). While this is a return to the traditional diaconate, forty years of the previous liturgy have left the Church with a generation of deacons who are unprepared for the central ministry of catechesis.
If the reader is a member of that generation of deacons, you are probably asking two very pressing questions right now. First, what exactly is catechesis? Second, how can I learn to engage in this ministry? I’m glad you asked.
What is Catechesis?
Catechesis is not limited to old-school question and answer repetition of catechism questions and answers. In fact, I am convinced that is the worst use we could ever invent for the document we know as the catechism. The ACNA Catechism (To Be a Christian) is a useful tool, but it cannot be used as a bat with which to beat rote learning into a very resistant congregation. Instead, it can be used in reverse, to ask the questions and encourage the conversation around such topics as “who is God” and “what is the Church” before using the suggested Biblical and liturgical texts and the catechism’s scripted responses as an answer key, asking the Sunday School class “how did we do” or sometimes “how did the catechism writers do?” if the group is a little more lively.
Catechesis comes from the Greek word κατηχέω, literally “I teach,” but with a nuance of passing on the communication that has been received (BDAG, p. 534). Catechesis is the handing down of the faith from one generation to another. It is relational learning. “Gossip the gospel” used to be a tagline in the Church to the extent that it became cloyingly cliché, but that is the foundation of catechesis.
While there are many published resources available, the best way to get into the business of catechism is to know the faith well and be willing to bring yourself fully to the table. Some years ago, Anglican Youth Initiative put forward a model of relational catechesis in one-on-one mentoring, using public places and cups of coffee or hot chocolate. Catechists shared the Scriptures and themselves with young curious catechumens (those learning the faith).
Augustine’s advice to Deogratias is also suitable for all of us:
“you should not think of yourself as a failure just because you do not find the words you want to express what you discern intellectually… but good people make progress from day to day toward the vision that will be theirs on that day when the heavens no longer revolve and the night falls no more… there you have the main reason why, when we are giving newcomers to Christianity their initial grounding in the faith, our words seem trifling to us: for it pleases us to gain extraordinary insight but irks us to have to give utterance to it in ordinary speech.”
This also is the bane of the preacher! We all wish to consider ourselves as clever; the joy of the Gospel is that it preaches not out of our exquisite wisdom, but from its own. As St. Paul wrote, “ For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
If you have studied your Scriptures and been formed by them, have prayed and grown in love for the person with whom you are to share the faith, and have reconciled yourself to the awe-filled fact that you are called to put into words the very Word that created you, then you have already engaged in the hardest part of catechesis.
As for the rest, someone (and I am sorry I cannot remember who) once said to me that we should not fear to share the gospel because, no matter how badly it seems to go, there is nothing we can say or do that will drive someone so far away that God cannot reach them. Reading Augustine’s reply to Deogratias, I believe he needed to hear those words as much as I did.
Everyone is Involved in Catechesis
Finally, while the diaconal order may be the ancient and iconic choice to lead the church in Christian learning, it is not only the deacon’s responsibility. All priests and bishops are still deacons (and exhorted to teach the faith). All Christians everywhere are responsible to share the love of Christ with those with whom we come in contact. Some of us may have special gifts related to catechesis; all of us should be formed by the Scripture such that it overflows to others around us. We are not expected to go door to door or stand on street corners thumping Bibles; we are simply expected to bubble forth with the Good News of Jesus Christ such that it may be seen by others, and to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15).