(By the way, some of Roman Catholicism’s antiquity is not ancient.)
“How the Irish Changed Penance,” by John Rodden, Commonweal Magazine, January 26, 2022
Most Catholics are probably unaware that what we today call the sacrament of Reconciliation existed in a completely different form during the early Christian era. Even those who are aware of this fact may not know that it was a group of Irish monks who were largely responsible for transforming this sacrament into the version with which we’re familiar. It is all too easy to imagine that the seven sacraments have existed in something like their present form from the moment they were instituted. In truth, all of them have changed in important ways over the course of the Church’s history, and none has changed more than the sacrament of penance.
For the Church’s first seven centuries, penance could be received no more than once in a lifetime. That policy dated back to the time of St. Peter. The New Testament tells us that Jesus gave the power of forgiveness to his disciples, but it says almost nothing about how they were to exercise it. In the early Church, the prevailing belief was that baptism was the celebration of the forgiveness of sin, and that the baptized, having turned away from sin, would not need to be forgiven again. As St. Paul wrote, “How can we who died to sin yet live in it? You must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6).
Nevertheless, the Church Fathers soon realized that they needed a way to deal with post-baptismal sin because many baptized Christians were slipping back into their old way of life. A formal system of public penance was devised to handle such setbacks. Typically, after penitents confessed to the local bishop, they were assigned an onerous penance that lasted several years. During this time they wore sackcloth and garments that scratched or tore the skin, as a modest reminder of Christ’s scourging. They were also required to leave Mass immediately after the homily and forbidden to receive the Eucharist. At least part of their penance consisted of long hours of prayer and fasting. Not until they had completed this long and arduous penitential period were they “reconciled” with the Church and welcomed back into full communion. For the Church’s first seven centuries, penance could be received no more than once in a lifetime.
But reconciled penitents were expected to continue some penitential practices, such as abstinence from sexual intercourse, for the rest of their lives. Those who had been thus reconciled could not be admitted to the clergy or to most public offices. They remained permanently in a somewhat inferior position within the Church, partly for social reasons and partly as an explicit reminder of their lapse. Moreover, such a reconciliation was permitted no more than once in a lifetime, and it was required only for what were regarded as mortal sins, such as murder, adultery, and apostasy. Those guilty of what we now call venial sins were not expected to undergo any formal process; instead, they found forgiveness for their sins by participating in the Eucharist, almsgiving, and seeking forgiveness from those whom they had offended.
Christians who lapsed again into grave sin after they had been formally reconciled found themselves without recourse. “Now,” your local bishop or priest informed you, “you are left to the mercy of God.” The early Church feared that allowing sinners to be sacramentally reconciled more than once would encourage sin. But the rigors of penance and the practice of allowing Christians to receive the sacrament of penance only once had an unforeseen and highly problematic effect. Many people postponed their baptism for decades, because baptism offered forgiveness for a whole lifetime’s worth of sins without the rigors of penance. Plus, those who waited until old age to be baptized were unlikely to lapse thereafter into serious sin more than once. Emperor Constantine, who had declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313, remained a catechumen until his own deathbed baptism in 337.
By the seventh century, it had become obvious to many that the Church’s rules for penance were not working as they were intended to, but there were still no plans in Rome to reform them. It was precisely at this time that Irish monks began to travel to the European continent to proselytize the heathen Franco-German tribes. At least a century earlier, these monks had developed a different practice of penance within their own communities, adapting a little-known tradition traceable to the first monastic communities in the Egyptian desert. St. John Cassian, who had lived with these desert monks, took their practices with him when he founded a monastery in France. His writings were later taken to Ireland and it is there that they found fertile soil. Traditional public penances of the kind practiced in the early Church were not an option for the desert monks: there were no Christian communities, let alone dioceses, in the Egyptian desert. Like the monks in Ireland after them, they were struggling to overcome venial “faults” in their quest for saintliness, not seeking reconciliation after committing grave offenses such as murder, adultery, and apostasy. The Irish monks refined the work of Cassian, developing a system of confession in which the private recitation of sins was followed by the private performance of penance. Crucially, they not only adopted this practice themselves, but introduced it to the faithful outside the monastery, making it applicable to all sins and available to all sinners.
Then, without formal ecclesiastical approval, the missionary monks shared these more relaxed and flexible practices with the new converts in Europe. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes it: “During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the ‘private’ practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest.” This was a radical change in the history of the sacraments. Gradually, confession went from being public to private, and from a once-in-a-lifetime rite to an as-often-as-needed practice. The “order of penitents,” segregated from the rest of the community, disappeared.
The great virtue of the Irish monastic approach was how it aided the monk’s quest for holiness. Regular confession became the supreme weapon of Celtic spirituality in the ceaseless spiritual combat against sin. Irish monks would regularly confess their faults to the presiding abbot of the monastery. As Joseph Stoutzenberger notes in Celebrating the Sacraments, gradually the practice came to include confessing faults to a highly trusted brother monk, who became known as the anamchara (animae carus), or “soul friend.” The abbot or fraternal anamchara would pray with the penitent and prescribe actions to help him overcome his failing. Certain monks renowned for their spiritual advice became popular confessors. Eventually, people outside the monasteries began coming to those monks to confess their sins. Because the whole Irish Church was organized around the monasteries, Irish bishops were sympathetic to the monks’ approach to penance and did not regard it as lax or permissive. They recognized its practical and spiritual advantages and allowed it to continue.
But bishops elsewhere did not look so favorably on this alternative approach. Scholars such as Kate Dooley believe that the condemnation of private confession in Canon 12 at the Third Council of Toledo in 589 referred to the Irish monastic practice. That council reaffirmed the traditional rite, whereby reconciliation could be granted only once in a lifetime.Over time, fewer Christians sought the older form of penance, precisely because it was public, long, and severe.
Undeterred, the Irish monks maintained their alternative practice and disseminated it in their missions abroad. Until the twelfth century, both the traditional rite of public penance and the Irish practice of private confession co-existed uneasily. Over time, however, fewer Christians sought the older form of penance, precisely because it was public, long, and severe. Where the older form was still favored, the faithful often treated penance exactly as previous generations had treated baptism: excommunicated members of the community chose to wait until they were on their deathbeds to be reconciled to the Church because the dying sinner could receive the sacrament without performing grueling public penances.