Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Romanising the Celtic Christian Church

by Arthur Russell

The two Abbeys of Mellifont and Bective in Ireland were founded by the Cistercians in the early 12th century as a major part of a process to bring the Celtic Church into line with Roman practices. This arose from the fact that the Celtic Church had evolved significantly differently in several respects over the centuries since Ireland, which had never been subjected to Imperial Roman conquest, was Christianised during the 5th century.

The Roman Briton Bishop Patrick, who started his Irish mission in 432AD, is popularly credited with the work that saw Ireland become “The island of Saints and Scholars” over the next two centuries. These centuries coincided with the barbarian invasions that changed Europe and ushered in the so-called Dark Ages, which almost destroyed European learning and culture that had developed under Imperial and early Christian Rome.

Chaos in Europe - an Irish Solution

The chaos in 5th and 6th century Europe contrasted with the peace of Ireland, which quickly became a repository for Christian learning and scholarship. This period is considered a “Golden Age” which positioned Ireland to become the wellspring of renewal and regeneration for Britain and Europe in the aftermath of the barbarian invasions. Located so far west in the Atlantic Ocean, Ireland escaped the attention of Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, Huns, Franks, Jutes, Saxons, Angles and other pagan tribes who swept through what was left of the failing Roman Empire which had dominated Europe for so long and under whose shadow the Christian Church had grown and developed since the reign of the Emperor Constantine.

Johannes Scotus Eriugena
This circumstance allowed Ireland to “give back” to Europe what it had received from Patrick. The process of re-Christianising began in Scotland where Colmcille established a monastic settlement in Iona that went on to set up further daughter houses in Britain among which, Lindisfarne in Northern England. 

In Continental Europe, missionaries such as Columbanus (France and Italy), Killian (Southern Germany), and Gallen (Swtzerland) were prime movers in proselytizing the new peoples who had settled across Europe. As they traversed from one district to the next, the missionaries established monasteries and centres of learning and religion, some of which still survive:  Luxueil (France), Bobbio (Italy), St Gallen (Switzerland). The record of their visitations are recalled in place-names, churches and shrines scattered throughout western Europe. Most institutions of learning of the day, all over Europe, were likely to have one or more Irish scholars on their academic staffs. 

One of these was Johannes Scotus Eriugena [which means “born in Ireland] (817-877AD), who was considered the foremost scholar of the Carolingian era, and whose writings and theories made significant contribution to the development of late Medieval and modern Philosophy and Theology.
Note – Johannes Scotus propounded the seemingly contradictory but thought-provoking theory that: Authority is the source of knowledge; but reason of mankind is the norm by which all authority is justified. (Such ideas might not have gone down too well with an authoritarian Church!)

Rome's "Irish problem"

Problems arose when the Roman Church began to reassert itself as Europe finally emerged from the Dark Ages, finding itself at odds with some peculiarly Celtic practices. While there were no fundamental conflicts in the area of teaching and doctrines, there were differences in the way practices had diverged between the Celtic Church and the re-emerging Roman Church.  The most striking were in monastic discipline, where Celtic rule was seen as being somewhat harsher compared to the Roman system as developed by the likes of the Cistercian Order. Other differences, such as the timing of Easter, took quite a long time to resolve and not without their share of dispute and controversy.

The following quotation from a letter sent by one of the earliest Irish missionaries, Columbanus to the Pope, discussing these differences, is revealing:

St Columbanus
We Irish, though dwelling at the far ends of the earth, are all disciples of St. Peter and St. Paul ... we are bound to the Chair of Peter, and although Rome is great and renowned, through that Chair alone is she looked on as great and illustrious among us ... On account of the two Apostles of Christ, you are almost celestial, and Rome is the head of the whole world, and of the Churches.

The letter describe the Pope as "Lord and Father in Christ", the "Chosen Watchman", and the "First Pastor, set higher than all mortals"     

What this shows in that Columbanus, never the most patient of men when it came to his missionary work, was prepared, to some extent at least, to bow to what he saw as the final authority of Rome. But many of his activities and letters also show that Columbanus was always ready to argue the Celtic point of view in matters Ecclesiastic, with local bishops, and even with the Pope.

At that early stage, with so much to be done to re-establish the Church in Europe, pragmatism prevailed. Both Celtic and Roman systems managed to coexist and accommodate to each other. However, Rome was never going to allow such diversity in Christendom to continue indefinitely. That, coupled with the fact that the influence of the Celtic Church in Britain and on the Continent declined due to the Viking invasions of Britain and Ireland during the early 8th century, meant that the Celtic Church was by then under considerable stress. This resulted in a much reduced flow of scholars and teachers from Ireland and Scotland to man their British and European foundations. 

The disruption caused by Viking attacks in Northwest Europe also meant that the Celtic Church was effectively isolated from the now resurgent Roman Church. Under these circumstances, it demonstrated an increasing degree of independence in adopting existing and new directives from Rome, which was the cause of great concern there. As the end of the first millennium approached, Rome's desire to standardise practice across Christendom increased.

During the 9th and 10th centuries, Britain had become a front line of sorts in the “war” between the two competing Church traditions, with the added element that Canterbury desired to increase its influence over territories (including Ireland), which it saw as its domain.

The normalising of religious practice in Ireland was always going to take much longer to resolve than in Britain. It was not until a Synod held during the iconic year of 1111 AD in RathBreassail in the Irish midlands that the Celtic Church made the significant move of establishing the Roman diocesan system. It was here that the country was divided into the 20 dioceses which have substantially survived until the present. 

Three further Synods during the 12th century removed most of the remaining differences in practice, so that by the time of the issue of Bull Laudabiliter by Pope Adrian IV in 1152, during the reign of King Henry II, the Roman Church’s “Celtic problem” was well on the way to be resolved.

Note: After the Norman invasion of 1169, “Laudabiliter” was used to confer dubious Church and Papal sanction and legitimacy on the claim to Ireland by the Angevin King. (It was always Politics, stupid!).

The Cistercians in Ireland – Agents of change

Bectve Abbey, near Navan, Co Meath, Ireland.
These Synods, along with the influence of the Cistercian Order, who had established themselves in Mellifont, and later in Bective in the Kingdom of Meath can be credited with making a significant contribution in bringing the two church traditions together. In 1139, Bishop Malachy Ó’Morgair from Armagh visited St Bernard in Clairvaux, France, on his way to visit Pope Innocent II, and was so impressed by the life of the Cistercians that he asked the Pope’s permission to join that community. 

The Pope regarded Malachy’s reforming work of the Irish Church to be of much higher importance and would not allow him to do this. On his way back from Rome, Malachy left some of his travelling companion clerics to be trained as Cistercians and sent more to join them after he arrived home. After a period of training, Bernard sent a mixed group of French and Irish Cistercians from Clairvaux to Ireland in 1142 under the leadership of a monk called Gillacríst O’Conarchy, who was duly appointed the first Irish Cistercian abbot.

Years later, Malachy died in Clairvaux, while travelling from Rome and was buried with his friend Bernard in the French mother-house where their bones are still venerated, after both men were canonised as saints by the Pope.  

Many Gaelic chieftains were happy to invite the Order to establish houses in their territories and generously endowed them with lands and houses. So by the time the Normans invaded Ireland in 1169, there were 10 Cistercian houses scattered all over the island. More Cistercian houses would continue to be established in both Gaelic and Norman controlled territory during the second half of the 13th century, with the support of whoever ruled in each area.

Bective Abbey

The first Cistercian foundation in Ireland was built at Mellifont in 1142. The first daughter house was established in 1147 with the support of the King of Meath, Murchad MacLochlainn. This impressive foundation was located on the banks of the River Boyne, close to the ancient Hill of Tara, the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland. 

Carving in the Cloister at Bective 
After Meath was conquered and occupied by the Norman invaders, both Mellifont and Bective were firmly in the Norman sphere of influence and became recipient of support and funds from the new power in Meath, Sir Hugh deLacy. After deLacy was killed by an Irish workman at Durrow in 1186, there was an unseemly dispute between the Cistercian monasteries of Durrow and Bective, about where his mortal remains should be buried. 

After 9 years disputation, Bective temporarily won the privilege to have Hugh’s body buried in its grounds in 1195, while his head was buried in the Abbey of St Thomas in Dublin, another Cistercian abbey that was also recipient of deLacy patronage. Subsequently and finally, the body was reunited with the head in St Thomas’.

In subsequent centuries, the Abbot of Bective came to have considerable status at both political and ecclesiastical level and was an ex officio spiritual lord of Parliament.

Bective continued as a Cistercian house until King Henry VIII suppressed all monasteries in the early 16th century. After this it was turned into a fortified mansion by Thomas Agard, the civil servant who took over its lease. The possessions of the abbey at this time included 1600 acres of land, a water mill and a fishing weir on the nearby River Boyne.


Arthur Russell has published ‘Morgallion’; a novel set in the early 14th century during Edward Bruce’s invasion of the Ireland, which targeted the establishment of a Bruce dynasty to take over the ancient High Kingship of Ireland, which had been abandoned in the aftermath of the Norman invasion of 1169.  

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