An Irish Legacy: The Privatization of Penance

Stained glass window depiction of Saint PatrickAn Irish Legacy: The Privatization of Penance

By Tanya R. McLaughlin and Louis Haas

McNair Research Review, Vol.3 (2005)

The Celts arrived in Ireland around 350 BC. Their tribal culture and their shared ancestry with the Gauls, the Welsh, and the Britons created the environment that through the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries transformed the history of western Christianity. Through a fierce and feared slave trade, the Irish not only enslaved their future apostle, St. Patrick, but also set into motion the events that led to Patrick’s spiritual awakening and acceptance of the Christian faith. Patrick’s subsequent mission of conversion gave the Irish the “first de-Romanized Christianity in human history, a Christianity without the sociopolitical baggage of the Greco-Roman world, a Christianity that completely inculturated itself into the Irish scene.” In addition, it inspired a flourishing of Christianity, monasticism, and theological scholarship that incorporated specifically Irish characteristics, some of which resulted in the popularization of private penance and penitential handbooks. The influential Irish Penitentials exemplify the way in which the uniqueness of Irish conversion left an indelible mark on continental Christianity.

The Christian conversion of the Irish, unparalleled in its peacefulness and lack of martyrs, began with the return to Ireland of the once enslaved Patrick. His unique ‘emotional grasp of Christian truth’ gave Patrick a spiritual strength that convinced him that “even slave traders can turn into liberators”. He showed a warrior people a ‘living alternative’ to war and death in living as a man at peace – a peace that “issued from his person like a fragrance.” Patrick revered both Irish courage and ìthe natural mysticism of the Irish, which already told them that the world was holy – all the world, not just parts of it. He showed the Irish a way of life that did not require the violent sacrifices of their pagan faith, teaching Christ had died once for all. To this, the Irish responded by abandoning human sacrifice and accepting the sacrifice of Christ as a sign that God loved them. St. Patrick, who was in spirit an Irishman, had converted enough of the Irish to Christianity by 431 to attract the attention of Rome and the appointment of a bishop to the Irish in that year. His mission, unfettered by the legally oriented Roman Church, was customized for the Irish culture and worldview, and facilitated the persistence of the Irish psychological identity.

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