''Prepare the Way of the Lord!'' ''The Kingdom of God is at hand!'' Calling multitudes to change of heart and change of lives, these stirring words open our Gospel stories, and stir our hearts to this day. From the beginning of the Church, baptism, an ancient Jewish penitential custom, has been used by the Christian Church as the sign and celebration of our gift of salvation from a loving God. From the teaching of the apostles, this simple water ritual, this invitation to dying to self and receiving new life in Christ Jesus, has been the sign of the radical commitment it takes to be part of the Church! The New Testament records that whole families were received into the Church, the community of believers. With baptism, New Life was received, the very life of God, which propels each Christian into relationship and service of others. This action of fellowship and loving service is made possible through the power of the Holy Spirit, and as such, it was understood from the very beginning that the process which begins with baptism is ''sealed'' by the Holy Spirit.
Becoming a Christian was no easy task for those in the ancient world. Candidates for Christianity came from either pagan or philosophical backgrounds, and the Truths about the revealed God of the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition were as foreign to them, as their pagan beliefs now are to us. But perhaps they were not so different than us! They struggled with questions of faith, of meaning, of love. As such, they were led gradually to understand the mysteries of lived Trinitarian faith. By the beginning of the third century, a new normative process for the integration of new members into the Church was developed to aid in this gradual conversion process.
This catechumenate process, which took place in stages, helped each new Christian move from a pagan understanding of God to the revealed Christian God. First, candidates were brought by community members who would testify that ''they were coming together for regular instruction with the rest of the community.'' After years of formation, the catechumens were examined again to see if they were ready to be chosen for baptism. As today, baptism took place at Easter. The catechumenate, as a formalized period of preparation, was found in the third century not only in Rome, but also in other centers of the Christian church.
In the fourth century Christianity's legal status changed from persecution to tolerance and eventually to official state recognition. This led to a far weaker sense of commitment on the part of many who sought to enter the catechumenate. As Christianity became the religion of the empire, more and more people sought to become catechumens, so that they could bear the title of ''Christian.'' The initial conversion required of candidates before admission began to fade, and baptism tended to be postponed until later in life, even to the end of one's life.
The decline in the catechumenate, begun in the fourth and fifth centuries, proceeded rapidly in the six century and beyond. Candidates for baptism were now presumed to be infants brought to the Church by their parents. An emphasis on Original Sin also began to take hold, and led to the celebration of baptism as soon as possible after birth because of the high rate of infant mortality. No longer did Christian initiation bring together the elements of liturgy and catechesis, ritual and faith experience, and most importantly, the idea of communal belonging.
After the sixteenth century the Counter-Reformation saw the launching of a great missionary effort among Catholics. Missionaries found their way to America, Africa, and Asia. For the first time in several centuries, theologians and pastors began to struggle with how to develop the most thorough-going approach to initiation.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, missionaries in particular, began to wrestle with the issue of adequate preparation for baptism. The process began to take root in the conviction that conversion occurs step-by-step and adequate time is required to make the journey of faith. In this model the candidate would spend two years as a postulant (probationary candidate) and then an additional two years as a catechumen in preparation for baptism.
The restoration of the catechumenate was mandated by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 in which the catechumenate for adults was to be comprised of distinct steps marked by liturgical rites. The Council's vision included not merely a doctrinal preparation for baptism, but ''a formation in the whole of Christian life and a sufficiently prolonged period of training.'' Once again, initiation was connected to the Lent-Easter cycle, with a recovered sense of baptism finding its proper place within the celebration of Christ's death and resurrection.