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St. Thomas Aquinas
Catechetical Instructions

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The original and traditional meaning of "catechesis" (from the Greek:

teaching by word of mouth) was oral teaching or instruction by word. It is

used in this sense in the New Testament (e.g., in Luke i. 4; Acts, xviii.

25). "Catechetical" referred solely to this form of oral explanation of

Christian Doctrine. This is the meaning that "catechetical instruction" had

in the time of St. Thomas and throughout the Middle Ages. 12 "In this

connection," says one authority, "it must be remembered that the term

'catechetical' was very often applied to sermons and instructions for grown

people, not for children." 13 The conception of "catechetical" and

"catehism" as referring to the question and answer method of teaching

became general only during the Counter-Reformation. Thus, St. Augustine's

classic work on teaching religion, "De rudibus catechizandis" (On

Instructing the Ignorant), is straight exposition without question and

answers. The famed "Roman Catechism" (Catechism of the Council of Trent) is

not in question and answer form. Hence, the catechetical instructions of

St. Thomas, which are oral explanations of Christian Doctrine, entitle him

to a place in the history of catechetics with St. Augustine, Gerson, St.

Charles Borromeo, St. Peter Canisius and others. 14


The method of explaining Christian Doctrine by giving detailed attention to

the Creed, the Commandments, the Our Father and Hail Mary, goes back to the

early centuries of the Church. One of the first great works which embody

this fourfold division is the "Catechetical Instructions" of St. Cyril of

Jerusalem (d. 386). This division became general throughout the medieval

period, and the "Creed, Code, Sacraments and Prayer" came to be a formula

of the faith. Numerous Synods and Councils of the Church at this time

decreed that sermons and instructions must be given the faithful according

to this fourfold division. 15 The "Roman Catechism" follows this

arrangement, as do most of the Catechisms of modern times.


The catechetical instructions of St. Thomas were used generally throughout

the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as manuals and text-books for

priests and teachers of religion. 16 "The Explanations of St. Thomas," wrote

Spirago, "are remarkable for their conciseness and their simplicity of

language; they are especially noteworthy because the main parts of the

catechetical course of instruction are brought into connection with one

another so that they appear as one harmonious whole." 17 The influence of

these works is especially prominent in the "Roman Catechism" which the

Council of Trent ordered written for parish priests and for all teachers of

religion. Many of the explanatory passages in both works are almost




12. "By the catechism of St. Thomas is generally understood his explanation

of the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the

Decalogue" (Gatterer-Kruz, "The Theory and Practice of the Catechism,"

1914, p. 47).


13. Spirago-Messmer, "Spirago's Method of Christian Doctrine" (1901), 508.


14. John Gerson, the saintly chancellor of the University of Paris, wrote

"On Leading the Little Ones to Christ" in the early fifteenth century. St.

Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, was one of the founders of the

Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and one of the authors of the Roman

Catechism. St. Peter Canisius, the great Jesuit teacher of religion in the

Counter-Reformation, wrote the well-known Canisian Catechisms.


15. Cf. Callan-McHugh, "Catechism of the Council of Trent," Introduction,

xiv and xvi. See also Spirago Messmer, "op. cit.," 507.


16. Spirago-Messmer, "op. cit.," 513-514.


17. "Ibid."

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