There is a class of works from the 19th century and before that reveals much interesting work on the ancient Irish (and other Celtic) Churches in Britain. However, one of the problems is that they are generally written by Roman Catholics or Protestants. Now, this is natural, as there were few, if any, Orthodox Christians living in areas most concerned with the question as to the doctrines of the ancient Celtic Churches. However, by far, the most unbelievable are the works composed by Protestants, particularly Irish Episcopalians [which from the Reformation on up to the 20th century represented the Anglican Church that was established in Ireland and supported by few converts and immigrants], Scottish Presbyterians who immigrated to Ireland at the instigation of the English Protestant monarchs, and, worst of all, Baptists, who claim St. Patrick was a Baptist, or some form of Protestant (I heard this myself in person from two Baptist ministers when I was a teenager and was so shocked I could hardly respond).
In general, heterodox Papist writers seem to be more reasonable in these debates, because they simply quote lives of saints, Irish fathers, councils, liturgical books, etc. However, again, they do have many blind spots when it comes to questions of the papacy and the Irish Church; suffice it to say that Ireland and other Celtic Churches were no different than most of the other Churches in Orthodoxy at that period, i.e., they had a profound reverence for the Apostolic See of Rome, but, also for the Apostolic Sees of Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch. Indeed, the Holy Abbot St. Cummian, when writing to convince the Irish Church to accept the correct Paschal Cycle, appealed not simply to the Apostolic See of Rome, but, to other Apostolic Sees. He says:
“I find it was ordered that all those were to be excommunicated who dared to act against the statutes of the FOUR APOSTOLIC SEES of Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria.”
Further he said:
“Can anything be more absurd than to say our mother the Church—Rome errs, Jerusalem errs, Antioch errs, and the whole world errs, the Irish and the Britons alone are in the right?”
In his case, St. Cummian’s efforts were successful with Southern Ireland. St. Cummian, the great student of the ancient monastic school of Clonfert, with his piety and learning carried the day at the 630 AD Synod of Magh Lene. The Britons [i.e. original inhabitants of Great Britain prior to the 5th and 6th century Germanic invasions] in Wales acceded to the correct date, finally, around the year 770 by the influence of St. Elfod (though extracts from Hughe’s ‘Horae Britannicae’ indicate that some were still not satisfied, with Welsh envoys being sent to Constantinople, only to be informed by Patriarch St. Methodios for them to keep Pascha on the correct cycle instead of their obsolete 5th century tables).
For the Irish (and others), because Rome was where the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul were martyred and because it was the only Patriarchate in the West, a great deal of deference and respect was shown, based upon customary and traditional privileges. However, this was certainly not something on the level of the insanity of Hildebrand’s “Dictatus Papae” of 1072 (which can be considered a founding document of the heretical post-Schism Papacy).
As regards the belief of the Irish Church on holy icons, relics, intercession of the Saints, we can turn either to the Litanies of the Saints in their own ancient texts, the Irish Lives of the Saints, the liturgical books, or, if we wish, to the great exposition of St. Dungal (the great defender of Icons, Relics, and Intercession of the Saints in the 830’s against the more ‘moderated’ Iconoclasm then taking root in Turin and among Frankish bishops).
The Papist writers can successfully show that the Irish saints and fathers believed in prayer for the dead, the Bloodless Sacrifice, Apostolic and Hierarchical Priesthood, monasticism, and the other Sacraments. Much was expended by many of these writers on prayer for the dead; however, they cannot show that the 12th and 13th Papal doctrine of Purgatory was held by them. They simply make the leap from prayer for the departed faithful and its aid for those who die without works of repentance (though having repented) all the way to Purgatorial Fire that is needed to fulfill temporal punishment to Divine Satisfaction and provide purification. Such a later doctrine was foreign to them and to the Fathers and the vast majority of writers until Purgatory’s invention in the 12th century. Prior to this invention of Purgatory (with its temporal punishment and satisfaction) the teachings of the ancient Irish and was the same the more modern Orthodox. For example, we need only look to see what we find in the Russian Orthodox theological works of the 19th century (such as Met. Macarius), as well as in Decree 18 of the Synod of Jerusalem in the 17th century, the corrected Confession of Peter Moghila (corrected of errors by the Synod of Jassy, and which later became the basis of the Longer Catechism of the Russian Church), the teaching of St. Mark of Ephesus in his homilies against Purgatory, the decree of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the other Patriarchates and Synods in the 1720s, and many others. In reality, the Irish belief was essentially that which we find enunciated by Orthodox writers today and in the past (as the Irish at this period were part of the Orthodox Church). Of course, the reason for this deficiency in different areas by Protestant and RC historians is because they don’t realize that the ancient Irish Church was in fact an Orthodox Church.
At the end I will append a translation of the oldest “Irish Tract on the Mass” with a brief introduction.
Testimony of Ancient and Medieval Irish Orthodox On the Bloodless Sacrifice
Let us ask the question, “What did the ancient Irish Church believe about the Eucharist?”
First, we have the worthy testimony of the Irish monk and writer, Probus, who composed the 10th century Life of St. Patrick from previous manuscripts. Probus reposed around the year 950 AD. In it, St. Patrick is asked by some nobles to show them the True God. As John Lannigan relates the event in his “An Ecclesiastical History of Ireland” written in 1829, drawing from Probus:
“When advanced into the plain of Connaught he stopped with his clerical companions at a fountain near the royal residence Cruachan and at break of day began to chant the praises of the Lord. The ladies [Irish princesses], having come very early in the morning to the fountain for the purpose of washing themselves, were struck with the singular appearance of persons clothed in white garments, and holding books in their hands. On inquiring who they were and to what species of beings they belong, whether celestial, aerial, or terrestrial, St. Patrick seized the opportunity of announcing to them the true God, Author of all; and answering certain questions of theirs, such as, where his God dwelt, in heaven or on the earth, on mountains, in vallies, in the sea, or in rivers; was he rich, how to be revered, was he young or old, had he sons and daughters, were they handsome, etc, and he thus explained the Truths of the Christian Religion. Delighted with his discourse they expressed a wish to know how they could become acceptable in the sight of the Almighty, and declared themselves ready to go through whatever the saint would command them to do. Accordingly he instructed them; and, on their having professed their belief in the doctrines proposed by him, he also baptized them. In answer to their desire of seeing Christ face to face, he told them that Eucharistic Communion was one of the necessary requisites with regard to that object, upon which they said, ‘Give us the Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, that we may be freed from the corruption of the flesh, and see our spouse, Who is in Heaven.” And, St. Patrick, then celebrating Mass, they received the Holy Eucharist.” (Eccl. Hist. of Ireland, pg. 242, John Lanigan)
In the Martyrology of the Blessed and Holy Irish Bishop, St. Óengus mac Óengobann, better known as Saint Óengus of Tallaght or Óengus the Culdee, composed in the early 9th century (St. Oengus commemorated on March 11), it speaks on April 13th of the Holy Bishop Tassach, companion of St. Patrick, and says thus:
“The kingly Bishop Tassach, who administered on his arrival, the Body of Christ, the Truly Powerful King, and the Communion to St. Patrick.”
When the holy Bishop and disciple of St. Patrick, St. Benignus of Armagh (467 AD) reposed, we have the following related in his ancient “Vita”:
“When the man of God (Benignus) saw that the time of his dissolution was near at hand, he sent for St. Jarlath…and received most devoutly from his hand the earnest and pledge of eternal happiness–namely, the Body of Christ; and thus prepared himself for death and for his entrance into his country.”
We have also the ancient Life of St. Brigid, who was only 12 at the repose of St. Patrick. Her life was written by the Irish monk Cogitosus in the 7th century. He says in the Vita about the celebration of Mass in the monastic church of St. Brigid’s and how the Bishop and clergy came to visit to celebrate the Unbloody Sacrifice:
“And through the one door, placed on the right side (of the church of Kildare), the chief prelate entered the Sanctuary, accompanied by his regular school, and those who are deputed to the Sacred Ministry of Offering Sacred and Dominical Sacrifices. Through the other door…none enter but the abbes, with her virgins and widows, among the faithful, when going to participate in the Banquet of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.”
We need not go into detail about the Chancel Screen with holy images that adorned the monastic church and the holy curtains, and how this was reserved for clergy alone during Holy Services [though, there was a section wherein the nuns could go into to receive Holy Communion]. Certainly not a ‘Proto-Protestant’ Irish church!
Of course, the Vita states that at her death, St. Brigid, “previously received the Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
In the ancient life of St. Brendan of Clonfert, we learn that Holy Brendan was told by the sacristan that St. Gildas asked him to Offer Mass. The Sacristan says:
Our holy abbot commands thee to Offer the Body of Christ. Here is the Altar, and the Missal written in Greek characters–chant in it as our abbot does.
And another miracle was worked, St. Brendan, who could only read Latin in Roman letters, read Latin in Greek letters; it should be noted that Greek learning still flourished in Irish monasteries, and some even wrote missals in Latin in Greek letters, and, as we know from St. Dionysius Monastery in Gaul, some celebrated their own liturgy in the Greek language; according to the rubrics of the old English liturgical books the “Gloria in Excelsis” was chanted in Greek and Latin on Pentecost .
In the Life of the Irish St. Columba, written by St. Adamnan of Iona, we find the following concerning St. Columba in regards to St. Cronan, Bishop of Munster:
“Upon Sunday he was ordered by St. Columba to MAKE THE BODY OF CHRIST according to the usual practice.”
Let us not forget the Irish Bangor Antiphonary (7th century) which has the following hymn for Communion:
Come, ye people to the Holy and Immortal Mystery, the Offering we must make. With fear and faith, let us draw near, with hearts made clean by repentance let us communicate the Gifts! For the Lamb of God is SET FORTH to the Father a SACRIFICE FOR US. Let us worship only Him, let us give Glory to Him, crying with the Angel: alleluia.
The ancient hymn ascribed to St. Secundinus (Sechnall), the disciple and nephew of St. Patrick is explicit. This places the hymn as early as the 450s. Even at the latest dating, the communion hymn is place in the 600s. The whole hymn breathes of the Biblical-Patristic teaching on the Real Presence and Bloodless Sacrifice. The whole hymn stands to be quoted in full:
Draw night, and take the Body of the Lord,
And drink the Holy Blood for you outpoured.
Saved by That Body, Hallowed by That Blood,
Whereby refreshed, we render thanks to God.
[By the Sacrament of the Body and the Blood,
All are delivered from the infernal chasm.]
Salvation’s Giver, Christ the Only Son,
By that His Cross and Blood the Victory Won.
Offered was He for greatest and for least,
Himself the Victim, and Himself the Priest.
Victims were offered by the law of old,
That, in a type, Celestial Mysteries told.
He, Ransomer from death, and Light from shade,
Giveth His Holy Grace His Saints to aid.
Approach ye, then, with faithful hearts sincere,
And take the safeguard of salvation here.
He that in this world rules His saints, and shields,
To all believers Life Eternal yeids.
With Heavenly Bread makes them hunger whole,
Gives Living Waters to the thirsty soul.
Alpha and Omega, to Whom shall bow,
All nations at the Doom, is with us now.
The text in brackets was not rendered by the existing translation this author had access to, and was rendered by this author into English. Thus, it does not follow any specific metrical or rhyming scheme as found in many Patristic Latin hymn text.
The ancient “Irish Tracts on the Mass” which were commentaries in Latin and Gaelic on the Old Irish liturgical ritual (which was in Latin) contains exposition of the ancient Irish belief. Dr. Matthew Kelley dates the following one to be the earliest composition, possibly dating from around the year 500 AD. James Gaffney, in his work “The Ancient Irish Church” quotes the translation of Professor O’Curry upon one section, translated as follows:
Another division of that pledge, which which has been left to the Church to comfort her, is the Body of Christ and His Blood, which are Offered upon the Altars of the Christians. The BODY, EVEN WHICH WAS BORN OF MARY, IMMACULATE VIRGIN, without destruction of her Virginity, without opening the the Womb, without presence of man; and which was Crucified by the unbelieving Jews, out of spite and envy, and which arose after three days from death, and sits upon the Right Hand of God the Father in Heaven, in Glory and in Dignity before the Angels of Heaven;–it is that Body, the same as it is in this Great Glory, which the righteous consume off God’s Table, that is, the Holy Altar. For this Body is the Rich Viaticum of the faithful, who journey through the paths of pilgrimage and penitence of this world to the heavenly fatherland. This is the Seed of the Resurrection in the Life Eternal to the righteous. It is, however, the origin and cause of falling to the impenitent, who believe not, and to the sensual, who distinguish it not, though they believe. Woe then to the Christian who distinguishes not This Holy Body of the Lord by pure morals, charity, and by mercy. For it is in this Body that will be found the example of the charity which excels all charity, viz., to Sacrifice Himself, without guilt, in satisfaction for the guilt of the whole race of Adam. This, then, is the perfection of the Catholic Faith, as it is taught in the Holy Scriptures.
The above extract is derived, as Dr. Kelly states, from the most ancient Old Gaehlic commentary section. Dr. Kelly observes, based upon observations on the manuscript and the style that “Gaehlic part of the tract is of the purest and most ancient Christian character”. Thus, we have a text that represents ideas that date back to the earliest period of the Old Irish Church.
A Translation of the Oldest Irish Tract on the Mass
From “An Ancient Irish Tract on the Mass” dated by Professor Matthew O’Kelly to circa 500 AD; thus, describing the Mass of St. Patrick, being a spiritual and allegorical, though sometimes literal, description. Being a devotional Tract of extreme antiquity in the Irish Church, it seems, in some places to be very extraordinary in its allegorical interpretation of actions of the Mass, but, as long as we take and press these not too far, we will be safe, but, such is the same with all allegorical interpretation. Important also is the testimony that this Tract, the earliest of many, gives to ritual actions of the Liturgy of the Irish Church at such an early date. It contains mundane actions combined with profound veneration for the Holy and Worship of God with meditations upon the the very nature of Charity, found fully for the Christian in the Holy Sacrifice, wherein God Himself gives Himself to men, and for which the righteous take reward and the wicked harm.
The following was extracted from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record Volume 2, and is from O’Curry and O’Looney’s composite translation. As noted, the learned Dr. Matthew Kelly (19th century), the great Irish antiquarian and historian, said that he “believed it to be the Mass brought into Erinn by St. Patrick, differing as it does in some places, as to the order of the ceremonies, from any other Mass that he had ever seen.”
Concerning the Shapes and Spiritual Sentiments of the Order of the Oblation of the Sacrifice
The figure of the Incarnation of Christ from His Conception to His Passion, and to His Ascension, is what is taught in the Order of the Mass.
The Church which shelters the congregation, and the Altar, is the figure of that human divine shelter, of which is said, “Protect me under the shadow of Thy Wings.” (Ps. 16:8)
The Altar in the Church is a figure of the persecution of the Christians, under which they suffered long tribulations, in Communion with the Body of Christ. Just as the Holy Ghost saith of saints, “I have trodden the winepress alone,” that is, He with His Members.
The Chalice of the Mass is a figure of the Church, which was planted and founded upon the persecutions of the prophets, and on the wisdom of God also. As Christ said, “Upon this Rock will I build My Church”; that is, upon the strength of the Faith of the First Martyrs who suffered for the foundations of the edifice, and of the Martyrs of the Latter Times even unto Elias and Enoch.
When water is being served in the beginning into the Chalice by the server, it is what is then meet: and he saith, “I ask Thee, O Father,” a drop then; “I beseech Thee, O Son,” a drop with that, “I beg Thee, O Holy Ghost”, the third drop with that; this is the figure of the congregation having advanced to the knowledge of the New Law, through the consent of the Will of the [Blessed] Trinity, and through the operation of the Holy Ghost, and that it was said, “I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh and they shall prophecy” and the rest, and that was said: “They shall come from the east and from the west and from the north, and recline with Abraham, and Isaach, and Jacob in the Kingdom of God,” that is, in the eternal Church the first are last in the heavenly Kingdom.
After this wine is put into the chalice upon the water, that is [a figure] of the Divinity of Christ coming upon humanity among men at the time of His Incarnation and when the people were begotten, as it is said, “The Angel uttered the word; the Virgin conceived Christ, that is, it was then that the Godhead came into conjunction with the Manhood. Of the people, however, He said, “Have I conceived all this people?” Again: “In sorrow and pain shalt thou receive thy children.” It was the Church that said that: “As the Apostle says: My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you.”
This is what is said at putting wine into the chalice of the Mass: “May the Father forgive;” then a drop: ” May the Son pardon;” then another drop: “May the Holy Ghost have mercy;” then the third drop.
A hymn is chanted at the Mass after that, both the Introit and prayers and additions, until he reaches the lections [Epistle] of the Apostles and the Psalm of the digraid [the Gradual]. This is a figure of the dispensation of the Patriarchs by which the nature of Christ was made known through mysteries, and deeds, and consummations of nature, that it was said: “Abraham saw My Day and was glad”; because it was through the law of nature that Abraham saw the teachings of the Gospel. And the two psalm of the Gradual are said from that to the twice uncovering of the Chalice of the Mass: this is the figure of the written delivered Law in which Christ is figured [i.e., Law of Moses], and it was not comprehended, but that He was figured in it, and the even had not come, and nothing was perfected through it, for Law [of Moses] leads no one to perfection.
The two and and an half strippings of the Chalice of the Offertory and of the Oblation, and all that is sung at them, both of the Gospel and Alleluia, is the figure of the written law [the prophecies], in which Christ was manifestly foretold, but that He was not seen until He was Born.
At the elevation of the Chalice of the Mass and the Paten after having completely stripped them, then this verse is sung, i.e., Sacrifice to God the Sacrifice of Praise [i.e. Offertory rite–Fr Enoch]: [This is] the figure of the birth of Christ, and of His elevation through wonders and miracles. This is the beginning of the New Testament.
At the time when they sing, “Jesus took bread standing in the midst of His Disciples all the way unto the end”, the priests bow three times in repentance of the sins which they may have committed, and they Sacrifice to God, and thy sing this Psalm in full, “Have mercy on me, O God…” [Ps. 50]. And a voice is not sent into the sound by them [i.e., a voice is not audible from among the congregation], that the priest should not be interrupted, because it is then meet that his mind should not be diverted from God, even in one word [by one word], for it [disturbance] is antagonistic to the spiritual order, and the prayer is not acceptable by God if it is not thus it is made; and hence the name of this prayer is “The Most Dangerous Prayer”.
The three steps which the man of orders makes backward, and advances again forward, these are the three steps by which man fall, viz., in thought, in word, and in deed; and they [the three returning steps] are the three steps by which man is renewed again to God.
The attack which the priests directs at the Chalice of the Mass, and at the Paten, and at the Oblation, and the attack which he makes on the Oblation to break It, are the figures of the abuse, and the buffeting, and the arresting, which Christ suffered, and that is its comprehensible resolution.
And the Oblation upon the Paten is the Body of Christ upon the Cross. The Fraction of its on the Paten is the mangling of the Body of Christ on the Tree of the Cross.
The contact by which the two parts are brought into contact after that breaking, is the figure of the perfectness of the Body of Christ after His Resurrection. The breaking by both parts are broke afterwards; that is the figure of the cutting of the Blood which the Jews shed from the Body of Christ; the part which is brought under the half which the priests hold in his left hand, is a figure of the deadly wound inflicted by the spear, from the hand of Longinus, in the armpit of the right side of Jesus. Because it was westward the Face of Christ was upon His Cross, that is towards the city of Jerusalem; and it was eastward the face of Longinus was and what was left to him was right to Christ, for it was towards us the Face of Christ was turned when coming unto us–as it was said: “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise in that day,” and “the Lord shall come from the East.” His back was therefore towards us when departing from us, and He was calling upon all the people to come unto Him after Him, saying, “Come ye all unto Me, after Me.”
The hold [adjusting or arranging] by which the priest’s hand holds [arranges or adjusts] the Paten and the Chalice of the Mass is the figure of the congregating of the people of heaven, and the people of earth into one fold; that is, the people of heaven through the Table, the people of earth through the Chalice.
And this is the foundation of the Faith which every Christian is bound to hold; and it is upon this foundation that every virtue which he practices, and ever good work which he performs, is erected.
For it is through this perfection of the Faith with tranquil charity, and with steadfast hope, that all faithful are saved. For it is this Faith, that is the Catholic Faith, that conducts the righteous to the sight; that is, to see God in the Glory and in the Dignity in which He Abides. It is this sight which is offered as a golden reward to the righteous after the Resurrection. The pledge for this sign, which has been left to the Church here for the present, is the Holy Ghost, which resides in, which comforts, and which strengthens her with all virtues.
It is this Spirit which distributes His Own peculiar Gifts to every faithful member in the Church, as He pleases, and as they require to receive it from Him. For it is by the Holy Ghost these noble Gifts following are bestowed upon the Church among men, viz.: Baptism, and Penitence, and the expectation of persecutions and afflictions.
One of the Noble Gifts of the Holy Ghost is the Holy Scriptures, by which all ignorance is enlightened and all worldly afflictions comforted; by which all spiritual light is kindled; ;by which all debility is mad strong. For it is through the Holy Scripture that heresy and schism are banished form the Church, and all contentions and divisions reconciled. It is in it well-tried counsel and appropriate instruction will be found for every degree in the Church. It is through it the snares of demons, and vices, are banished from every faithful member in the Church. For the Divine Scripture is the mother and the benign nurse of all the faithful who meditate and contemplate it, and who are nurtured by it, until they are chosen children of God by its advice. For the wisdom, that is the Church, bountifully distributes to her children the variety of her sweetest drink, and the choicest of her spiritual food, by which they are perpetually intoxicated and cheered.
Another division of that pledge, which has been left with the Church to comfort her, is the Body of Christ, and His Blood, which are Offered upon the Altars of the Christians.
The Body which was Born of Mary the Virgin, without any stain, without destruction of her Virginity, without opening of the womb, without presence of man, and which was Crucified by the unbelieving Jews out of spit and envy, and Which Arose after three days from death, and Sits upon the Right Hand of God the Father in Heaven, in Glory and in Dignity before the Angels in Heaven.
It is the Body the Same as It is in this Great Glory, which the righteous consume off God’s Table, that is, off the Holy Altar. For this Body is the Rich Viaticum of the faithful, who journey through the paths of pilgrimage and repentance of this world to the Heavenly Fatherland. This is the Seed of the Resurrection in the Life Eternal to the righteous. It is, however, the origin and cause of falling to the impenitent, who believe not, and to the sensual, who distinguish It not, though they believe. Woe then to the Christian who distinguishes not This Holy Body of the Lord, by pure morals, by charity, and by mercy. For it is in This Body that will be found the example of the charity which excels all charity, that is: To Sacrifice Himself without guilt in satisfaction for the guilt of the whole race of Adam.
This, then, is the perfection and fullness of the Catholic Faith, as it is taught in the Holy Scriptures, etc.