The Penetentials

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The Penitentials


The Penitentials were handbooks devised within monasteries usually by abbots themselves which catalogued the various sins which confessors might hear in the confessional and provided suggested though not definitive punishments or penances for those sins. They were extensive because they took into account sins of thought as well as deed but did not necessarily reflect common sinful practice of the time.  They would be memorised by the confessor-priest who could act as soul-friend, advising and nurturing the sinner back to spiritual health.


1.Early Christian Practice: Within the continental church at this time penance could only be performed once in a lifetime and those who confessed would be by degrees allowed back into full participation at mass though with heavy penalties such as being forbidden to marry or continue sexual activity if already married.  They could not join the army or become involved in commerce.  As a result most delayed the sacrament until late in life.


2.Origins of Celtic Penitential Practice. Most scholars agree that the above system was never adopted by the Celtic Church.

Patrick mentions his own repentance and seems to envisage some form of public excommunication for Coroticus in his Letter.

Gougaud argues that such a practice was unknown both in Britain and Ireland.

Columbanus’ Rule suggests confession for monks was carried out before dinner and at night. The practice was then extended to the laity.

Thomas O’Loughlin argues that the Penitentials stemmed directly from Brehon Law based on a system of compensation and recompense. Brehon Law also took into account the status of offender and offended as well as other circumstances which became integral to the Penitentials themselves.

It is important also to note that at least one key aspect of the Penitentials is borrowed from the writings of the French monk John Cassian who in his “Colloquies” describes the philosophy of “curing contraries by their contraries” which was interpreted to mean, for example, punishing gluttony by fasting or promiscuity by abstinence. This medicinal aspect of Penance was further developed by the Irish monk Cummean who saw penance as “medicine for the soul”.


3.Penitential Texts: For an outline of the Penitentials of Finnian, Columbanus and Cummean see pages 128-130.


4. Features of Celtic Penitential Practice:

Private- Sins were confessed to a priest of the penitents own choice or “anam-chara” who was forbidden to reveal it and for which there was no forgiveness if so revealed.  Penances could also be carried out in private (where possible) and there was no public ceremony of reconciliation.


Repeatable- essentially the more frequent the better.


Types of Penance- ranging from prayer. Fasting and alms-giving to exile for more serious sins.


Graded- the seriousness of the sin and the age and status of the sinner could be taken into account. (Cummean specifically addresses the sins of boys.)


Compensation- Good from evil by compensating


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