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Canons of the seven ecumenical councils
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As concerning catechumens and lapsers, it has seemed proper to the holy great Council to let them off with only three years’ listening and to allow them thereafter to pray together with catechumens.
(c. V of Neocaes, c. XIX of Laod.; c. XX of Basil; c. VI of Timothy; c. V. of Cyril.)
They are called catechumens because this word is one derived from the Greek verb catecho (altered to “catechize” in English), which is defined as meaning to teach beginners the faith by word of mouth, because these persons had to be catechized and taught the dogmas of the Orthodox faith. They were divided into two classes. The first class, which was the more perfect and complete, was called that of “knee-bowers,” they having embraced the faith and having deferred only the rite of baptism. Wherefore they were allowed to come to church and stay there until the time came for the catechumens’ prayer, according to c. XIX of Laodicea, and after they had said this prayer under their breath (or, as the Greek has it, “mystically”) and had had the priest lay his hand upon them, they bowed their knee. But when the time came for the pronouncement of the words “All catechumens come forward,” they had to leave the church. The second class was the more imperfect and incomplete, and was called that of the “listeners,” who stood in the narthex towards the “royal gates” and listened to the Holy Scriptures, and after hearing the divine gospels they would leave, according to Blastaris and the commentator on Armenopoulos in the latter’s Epitome of the Canons (Section 5, Heading 3). These two classes are to be seen clearly depicted in the drawing of the temple which we have traced. Cardinal Bonas (Book I concerning liturgical matters) and some others, in addition to these two classes, enumerate two more classes, which they gleaned from the writings of the Western Fathers. One of these classes was called that of the “co-petitioners” (because they were requesting to be baptized), and the other was known as that of the “elect,” who were thus called after being enrolled in the list of persons to be baptized, who were designated the illuminated, or illuminati, in ch. 7 of Book VIII of the Apostolical Injunctions. The same name is applied to them also by St. Cyril in his catechism. Chapter 8 of the same Book of the Injunctions refers to them as being baptized, and these persons are likewise mentioned in c. VI of Timothy. These facts being as stated, the present Canon proceeds to say: As for all catechumens that belong to the first and higher class and have denied the faith, it has appeared reasonable to this holy great Council for them to stand for three years in the ranks of the second and lower class of catechumens, namely, the audients, or “listeners,” in the narthex of the church, and after three years have passed for them to pray together with the first and higher class of catechumens inside the church. But one likely as not might justifiably wonder why the councils impose penances upon sinful catechumens. St. Basil the Great in his c. XX says: “And in general the events in the life of a catechumen do not entail responsibilities.” By way of solving this apparent contradiction it may be said, according to Zonaras, that St. Basil the Great did not say for the catechumens not to be penanced for sinning before baptism. For in that case he would have been contradicting the Canons of the Councils; but what he really said was simply that the sins of the catechumens did not entail responsibilities, or, in other words, any liability to punishment after they have been baptized, since everything sinful that the catechumens did while they were catechumens, but also even whatever sinful acts they committed before becoming catechumens, i.e., when they were unbelievers, are all pardoned and wiped out by virtue of the rite of holy baptism. But the catechumens are penanced nevertheless, because, though not really in the church nor actually members of the Church, yet, with respect to yearning and willingness of soul and virtually, they are in the Church. For, according to (Gregory) the Theologian (in his Discourse on the Lights) these persons are on the threshold of piety, and have been caught in the faith, even though they have not yet been reborn through baptism (seeing that they are not utterly without hope of salvation, either, in case they should die unbaptized as a matter of necessity), as is shown by the funeral oration of St. Ambrose respecting Emperor Valentinian, who died while still being catechized. So the Councils on this account penance catechumens, on the ground that they already are intimates, and have accepted the faith, and are nominally Christians; accordingly, whatever the law says to them, it is speaking to them as to persons in the law, according to the Apostolic statement (Rom. 3:19).