How the Irish Changed Penance

The history of a sacrament
Fr. Laurence Tracy hears a confession at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Rochester, New York, April 9, 2009 (CNS Photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier).

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.

 

Although the Irish monks practiced frequent confession of their “faults”—and recommended that fellow Catholics do the same—they also continued for some time to impose severe penances on those who committed serious sins. As Hugh Connolly notes in The Irish Penitentials, the monk-missionaries brought handbooks known as “penitentials” with them on their travels. The handbooks suggested a suitable “tariff” or penance to “pay” according to the rank of the sinner, the rank of the person offended against, and the objective seriousness of the sin. Abuses were not unknown: wealthy penitents were sometimes able to negotiate a reduction in the tariff—or hire a substitute or “assistant” to carry out part or all of a severe penance. But over time the penitentials fostered consensus about the comparative seriousness of various sins and thus made assessments of the appropriate penance more uniform and less arbitrary.

Let’s consider some tariffs from a typical ninth-century penitential. For the sin of theft, a layman was to perform one year of penance; a cleric, two; a subdeacon, three; a deacon, four; a priest, five; a bishop, six. For murder or perjury, the penance lasted three, five, six, seven, ten or twelve years, escalating according to rank. Heresy required a penance of twelve years. Perjury warranted a penance of between seven and eleven years if committed in violation of an oath to God. Usury brought three years; infanticide, fifteen; idolatry or demon-worship, ten. Violations of the sixth commandment were punished with particular severity, with penances ranging from three to fifteen years. The most extreme penalty was reserved for incest, for which the penance might last for as long as twenty-five years. 

Whatever their duration, the penances included fasting on bread and water, either for the whole period or for specified parts of it. Those who could not fast were instead required to recite a certain number of psalms per day, to give alms, to “take the discipline” (scourging), or to perform some other penitential exercise as determined by the confessor. However, once reconciled, the penitent was restored to equal status with other members of the Church. The serious sins requiring a lengthy process of public reconciliation were gradually narrowed down to three—murder, apostasy, and adultery. 

As the Irish monks made converts and founded new communities on the continent, they promoted a conception of penance aimed at restoring the sinner to a full relationship with God rather than at reconciliation with the community. They also shifted the focus from performing penances to making sincere and sorrowful confessions. In this new conception, the anamchara became a soul “doctor,” empowered by God to help rescue the sinner from grave sickness of the soul, with confession serving as a kind of spiritual emetic. As one penitential handbook put it: “As the wounds of the body are shown to a physician, so too the sores of the soul must be exposed. As he who takes poison is saved by a vomit, so, too, the soul is healed by confession and declaration of his sins with sorrow.”

As P. Biller and A. J. Minnis explain in Handling Sin: Confession in the Middle Ages, it was this milder form of penance promoted by the Irish missionaries that had gained wide acceptance throughout the Christian world by the early Middle Ages. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council established that penance would involve private confession and that all Christians in the Latin Church would be obligated to confess their sins at least once a year. It was also at this time that penance officially became a sacrament. (The “dark box”—the confessional booth located in the rear of most churches—wasn’t invented until the sixteenth century, during the Counter-Reformation.) 

Those who associate Irish Catholicism with fire and brimstone may be surprised to learn that it was Irish monks who made penance more private and less exacting. In fact, as Lawrence Mick stresses in Understanding the Sacraments: Penance, it was the bishops and clergy on the continent who regarded the penitential practices of the Irish as a dangerous departure from tradition that would make reconciliation too easy. After centuries of debate, however, Rome finally sided with the Irish. Reconciliation, the Church decided, was not to be a one-time offer. A sacrament that claimed to offer God’s mercy should not also try to ration it. 

Published in the February 2022 issue: 
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John Rodden, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes frequently both on the history of Catholicism and on Irish cultural history and politics. 

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