Augustine wrote De catechizandis rudibus ("On Cathechizing Beginners in Faith" or "The First Catechetical Instruction") in about the year 403. He did so at the request of Deogratias, a deacon at Carthage, who asked help from Augustine, who was a very talented instructor in the Faith. Deogratias would have known Augustine personally.
People ever afterwards have been pleased that Deogratias asked, and that Augustine responded by writing a treatise of fifty-five chapters - what today would more likely be described as extended paragraphs. The written response by Augustine to Deogratias is described by Frans Van der Meer in his biography, Augustine the Bishop, as "the best thought of a great spirit in its simplest form.” Although relatively brief, De catechizandis rudibus is an important work of Augustine, and very pastoral in its intention. It is among the first texts on the practice of Christian religious instruction. Augustine even thought to include the content of a sample catechetical teaching session.
In his De Catechizandis Rudibus, a "letter" (almost a book) written in reply to Deogratias on the teaching of the Faith to the common people, the method of catechetical delivery by Augustine is quite evident. When pagans in Carthage approached Bishop Aurelius to enquire about baptism, he sent Deogratias to speak to them. Deogratias would seek, as best he could, to determine the seriousness of the person about becoming Christian. If Deogratias were satisfied, he would explain the basic teachings of the Christian faith. And if the person said he believed these teachings, Deogratias would then admit that person to the catechumenate.
More intensive instruction in the Christian faith would then follow before the person was baptised. Finding that he no longer enjoyed this task, partially because he found it a distraction from other ministry and partially because he was not confident that he was adopting the best course of action, Deogratias wrote to Augustine. Augustine had recently become bishop of Hippo after a distinguished career as a teacher and was already becoming known as the leading spiritual and intellectual authority among North African Catholics. As well as his theological understanding of the matter, Augustine also had his pastoral experience in Hippo to offer Deogratias.
In De catizandis rudibus, ("On catechizing beginners in the Faith" or "The First Catechetical Instruction"), Augustine intended to help deepen the Faith of those seeking the Christian religion who were still "rude." By "rude" was meant no more than that these persons had not received any previous Christian instruction. It did not mean "uneducated" because Augustine also used this term to include some highly educated persons who sought to become Christian. Augustine stated that the intent of this book was a historical exposition (explained below) that was to be presented "in such a way that your listener by hearing it may believe, by believing may hope, and by hoping may love." He began the work with the history of the work on earth Christ, Who gives joy to both the Christian teacher and the Christian student.
At the time it was written (and copied many times by hand), De catechizandis rudibus was a practical handbook for the benefit of the catechist (teacher). Although pedagogy and teaching aids have changed over the past 1,600 years, the treatise is still of more than historical interest today. In this treatise can also be seen the reflections of Augustine on his own experience as a Christian teacher. It clearly demonstrates that Augustine was far more than a scholar, because it shows his great awareness of and experience with the problems encountered by educators of the Christian Faith. More broadly again, this lettr/book shows the profound grasp by Augustine of the human condition. This insight in Augustine was guided by his breadth of knowledge and his compassion for the basic spiritual needs of the common people of Hippo. Here Augustine moves not only from the polished Latin to a "vulgar" (i.e., common) Latin vocabulary and phrases but also, by means of the rhetorical and imaginative use of the Scripture, from an intuitive concept of Truth to a picture of ideal everyday living by the people of North Africa. He unified them in the Body of Christ by pointing to the Christ dwelling within them - as he said, "speaking to them in baby language as a nurse does to children." (De Catechizandis Rudibus, 15)
Part of the legacy of Augustine has been his demonstration of how to bridge - and also to amalgamate, to Christian advantage - the classical and Christian cultures, and how to introduce the complexity of Christian theology adequately to the hearts and minds of people who lack a formal education.
For an English translation of the text of De catechizandis rudibus on the Internet, go to http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf103.toc.html and then scroll down to “On the Catechising of the Uninstructed.” AN2143