William HARMLESS, Augustine and the Catechumenate, Rev. Ed. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014. pp. 476. ISBN 978-0-8146-6314-1.Reviewed by Marc TUMEINSKI, Anna Maria College, Paxton, MA 01612.
This is a welcome book, in terms of its relevance for the contemporary Church, as well as its thorough research and readability–characteristics that do not always appear together. Its clarity and depth offer a wonderful catechetical resource that is rooted in a close study of St. Augustine. The author, the late Rev. William Harmless, S.J., provides an in-depth coverage of Augustine’s catechetical approach, along with a useful historical context, and draws out from these many valuable lessons for today’s catechists. Academics, Augustine scholars, seminary faculty, lay catechists, priests and seminarians should find this text useful and thought-provoking.
Although the book stands on its own, the reader may wish to have a copy of some of Augustine’s texts close at hand when reading it, such as On Christian Doctrine or On Catechizing Beginners.
Harmless begins with a brief overview and history of RCIA, as a way of setting the stage for his deep exploration of St. Augustine as preacher and catechist. From there, the author surveys some of the foundational history and existing patterns of catechesis in Augustine’s time, including key political, ecclesial and theological developments in both the East and West. He then studies Augustine’s own experience as a catechumen.
These initial chapters help to prepare the reader to look closely at select catechetical texts, homilies and letters of the Doctor of grace. In several chapters, Harmless uses these texts to appraise Augustine’s approach to evangelization and the catechumenate.
The penultimate chapter could stand as a conclusion to the book, in the sense that it explores a goal of Augustine’s catechesis, that is, the reception of catechumens into the Church at Easter. Even the last line of this chapter resounds as a powerful conclusion to the author’s meditations on catechesis: “The poor were to be fed, clothed, sheltered, welcomed, for in them the body of Christ still suffered, and they stood before all as an indictment against an unjust social order and as poignant bearers of the mystery too often fled from or ignored: that all human beings shared a common humanity and common infirmity.”
Nonetheless, the final chapter itself is a fitting conclusion in its own way and offers solid advice for today’s catechists. Harmless uses this chapter to address topics of rhetoric, liturgy, mystagogy, Scripture and homiletics in Augustine’s works. Depending on their interests, some readers may wish to skim the brief section on classical rhetoric, though I found it to be extremely helpful in analyzing Augustine’s Biblically-based catechesis. Harmless addresses these topics as a means of offering pedagogical suggestions to contemporary catechists. He also draws beautifully on melody and composition as a metaphor for offering effective catechesis. For a seminary or university professor, this last chapter could be used as a class discussion guide or as a basis for research assignments.
Several chapters include detailed charts analyzing some of Augustine’s sermons and letters, use of rhetorical techniques, commentary on Scripture, and so on. These are fascinating resources for scholars, homilists and catechists. The book’s bibliography is divided into citations of: Augustine’s works, ancient authors, commentaries on Augustine, patristic studies, and works on the catechumenate and RCIA.
With its balanced approach to both pastoral and scholarly concerns, Harmless has provided a close reading of key catechetical texts from Augustine. He has also modeled a way of learning from St. Augustine that can speak to contemporary catechesis. It was a joy to read and is a text I will return to for ongoing study.