Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Part 2 History

Chapter r23 The Early Medieval Period [800-1199]

History Grid

Celtic Penance

To Think About

History Grid

History of the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Name(Jesus and Sub-apostolic Church)Canonical Penance (Order of Penitents)Celtic Penance (Tariff Penance)Scholastic ConfessionReconciliation
Dates30-300300-600600-900 1974-present
Paradigm (Think...)Jesus in the GospelsBaptismDoctor visit  
Process (Stages)Former life
LiturgyBaptism-confirmation-eucharistOrder of Penitents:
MinistriesCommunity and its ministers and its overseerCommunity and its ministers and its overseerHoly person (who can read a tariff from the book)  
Positive AspectsPart of the ongoing journey of the holy ChurchA liturgical process involving the whole communityHealing; quicker; repeatable 
Negative AspectsNo provision for exceptional tragic situationsOnce only; long and very hard; punishmentPrivate; no liturgy; (danger of money abuses) 

Celtic Penance

Because, no doubt, of its separation and distance, the church in the Celtic Isles developed somewhat differently and independently of the church on the continent.  Where as the Roman Church was built around local communities of the faithful led by an overseer (who we would now call a Bishop) assisted by a parish Council of Elders (who we would now call presbyters, or more commonly priests) and various ministers for education, finance, ministry to the sick, social outreach, (who we would now call deacons) the church in Ireland developed around the monasteries.  The community was ruled over by an Abbott who assigned monks to various tasks, working in the fields, caring for the animals, working in the kitchen, presiding at liturgy (Bishop), etc.

It was common practice in these Celtic communities that the monks would seek out one of their holy brothers to be their spiritual director, a soul friend.  They would reveal their soul to him and he would help them on the road to holiness.  -- It is similar today to how we might see the role of the medical profession.  We go to a doctor and reveal the state of our physical health and he prescribes diet or exercise or medicine to keep us healthy or, if we are sick, to restore us to health.  Some years ago when I was in a mission country and doctors were scarce, many poor people came to the convent of nuns where I was living and confessed their illness to one of the sisters who had some medical training.  She had a large book that described various symptoms and indicated which medicines would be remedy for those symptoms.

Similarly with the soul friend.  Some monks were very skilled in curing illnesses of soul and body, others, not so skilled relied on books written by the more skilled.  In these books they can look up the symptoms, and find a remedy.  These books were called penitentiaries.  There are many famous examples extant today -- it is worth a visit to explore some of them in the St. Meinrad library.

Gradually, laypersons began to avail themselves of this practice to grow in holiness.  And we begin to have examples, about the seventh century, of the laity confessing the state of their soul to a soul friend.  Note that the emphasis is not on the confession, any more than when you go to the doctor the emphasis is not on confessing your illness; the emphasis is on getting well, taking the medicine, performing the penance. 

This was a private devotional practice.  As it developed in the Celtic Isles it came to be known as Celtic Penance.  As each of sin came to have a prescribed remedy or tariff, it came to be known as Tariff Penance.  it could be repeated as often as necessary just as today one can make repeated trips to the doctor.

In the years that follow,  the Irish monks carried this devotional practice with them when they arrive to re-evangelize Europe.  

Celtic Penance comes into contact with Canonical Penance and trouble develops.

Celtic penance was quickly condemned by the bishops because they associated penance with baptism and baptism can be received only once -- as could penance.  It was obviously impossible to repeat penance as the Irish were doing. But as it was repeatable -- and a lot easier than canonical penance which often lasted until your death bed -- Celtic pendants survived its condemnations.

At this time on the continent,  systems of church governance were shifting and solidifying.  Due to the shortage the bishops, presbyters began to celebrate the Eucharist and to assume certain other functions that formerly only bishops performed.  The clergy-laity distinction developed, and various theologies of priesthood developed.  Gradually the model of Celtic penance morphed from doctor visit to trial before the judge.  In order for the judge to function well he needed first of all to have power and authority -- the power of orders, in addition to the power of jurisdiction (the two are distinct).  In order for the judge to pronounce sentence the case must be clearly presented before the court -- the sinner must confess accurately, naming each sin number and kind.

To Think About

Was this a sacrament or a devotional practice?

Go to the previous period of this history Go to the next period of this history

Return to   Top of This Page   Reconciliation Index   Home Page

Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 02/09/14 .  Your comments on this site are welcome at