The dismissal of the catechumens is a liturgical rite that is done any time catechumens are present at Mass:
When [catechumens] are present with the congregation of the faithful, they must normally be gently dismissed before the Eucharistic Celebration begins. (OCIA 75.3)
The practice of dismissing the catechumens before the liturgy of the Eucharist begins dates back to the third century. We sometimes hear catechumenate team members explain this early church practice as a security measure—keeping the Eucharist a secret in case there are any spies among the catechumens who might report the Christian community to the authorities. This is thrilling story, but it is just a story. It has no basis in history.
Indeed, there was a disciplina arcani (“discipline of the secret”) practiced in the early church, but it had nothing to do with keeping spies away. There were a few reasons for the secrecy.
Getting to the root
Origen, a third-century catechist, taught the doctrine of the church was not private but some elements of the Eucharist were not for the ears of outsiders. Hippolytus, a third-century bishop, wanted the catechumens to hear the teaching about Eucharist directly from the bishop, and then only after they had been baptized.
By the fourth century, the discipline of the secret was still in place, but what took place at the Eucharist was probably not too secret any more. Still, the bishops at that time believed that by maintaining the secrecy they increased the reverence that both the baptized and the catechumens had for the Eucharist. St. Ambrose also taught that catechumens had to be led gradually into the teaching of the church and would not be ready to hear the words of the Eucharist until they were baptized.
St. John Chrysostom, another fourth-century bishop, thought the dismissal of the catechumens was a teachable movement that aroused curiosity and caused both catechumens and the baptized faithful to ask questions.
St. Augustine, who was bishop in the fifth century, taught that some of the words of the church were treasures that had to be carefully and reverently handed on only when the catechumens were sufficiently prepared to hear them. This is one of the early church practices from which we get the presentations (“handing on”) of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. (For more on the history of the disciplina arcani, see The Awe-Inspiriting Rites of Initiation by Edward Yarnold, SJ, 55-59.)
The liturgical dismissal of the catechumens, along with most of the other catechumenal rites, died out in the sixth century. When the Second Vatican Council called for a restoration of the catechumenate, the dismissal of the catechumens was also restored.
What are we doing in the dismissal today?
The purpose of the dismissal of the catechumens today is no longer about keeping the Eucharist a secret. That is clearly impossible. The reformers knew this of course. They spent decades both before and after Vatican II studying the ancient rites and recovering only those aspects of the catechumenate from the third, fourth, and fifth centuries that would enable the church of today to be able to carry out our mission.
That is to say, even though the ancient rites are the inspiration for today’s initiation process, there is nothing anachronistic or obsolete about the modern catechumenate.
The purpose of the liturgical dismissal of the catechumens today is given to us in the rite itself: “[The catechumens] ought to wait for Baptism, by which they will be incorporated into the priestly people and deputed to participate in the new worship of the Christ” (OCIA 75.4).
As I wrote in a previous post, the liturgical dismissal of the catechumens is a teachable moment. It arouses curiosity and reverence among the baptized priestly people and the catechumens. And it reminds all of us of the immensely important role we have as the baptismal priesthood for offering a sacrifice of praise. And it impresses upon us the importance of gradually and carefully preparing the catechumens to join us in that sacred work.
What does the dismissal look like in your parish? How is it explained to the members of the community? How do the catechumens react to it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.