History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey




Christianity in Ireland and Britain



First Christian Communities in Ireland


Owing mainly to the fact that Ireland stood outside the jurisdiction of the Roman Empire it was only at a comparatively late period that Christianity made any progress in the country. But though Ireland was never reduced to the position of a province, it maintained very close relations with some of the provinces of the empire and more especially with Britain and Gaul. A brisk trade was carried on between the ports of Ireland and the ports of south-western Europe. Irish princes conducted their forces into Britain and penetrated even as far as Gaul. Irishmen fled from Ireland and took service in the armies of Rome, while on the other hand Britons left their own country and settled here and there along the eastern sea-board of Ireland. On account of this close intercourse with countries that were themselves to a great extent Christian the true religion was first introduced into Ireland. When St. Germanus returned to Rome after his mission against Pelagianism in Britain he probably announced to the Pope the existence of scattered Christian communities in Ireland. At any rate in this year, 431, Palladius, a deacon of the Roman Church, was despatched by Pope Celestine to be the first bishop of the Scots (Irish) believing in Christ. He landed in Wicklow where he founded three churches, but his mission not proving so successful as he expected, he left the country and returned to Britain,



Labours of St. Patrick


It was not Palladius, however, but St. Patrick who had been chosen by God to be the apostle of the Irish race. St. Patrick was born probably at Dunbarton on the Clyde about the year 372, and in one of the descents made upon the coast of Britain by the Irish he was carried off to Ireland as a captive. He was brought to Antrim where, for six years, he served as herd on the bare slopes of Sliabh Mish. During these years, mindful of the lessons of his youth, he turned to God for light and consolation and God listened to his appeal. He was warned in a vision that the hour of his escape had come and that if he sought a certain port he should find a passage on a vessel that stood ready to sail. He obeyed the instructions given him, and after many wanderings he found himself at last in his native place among his relatives in Britain.

But he did not remain long there. One night as he slept a man appeared to him with many letters, one of which was headed "the voice of the Irish," while at the same time he thought he heard the people who lived by the woods of Foclut on the western shore calling upon him to come back to Ireland. Guided by the Holy Ghost, he realised that the work of his life was to be the conversion of the people amongst whom he had spent his youth as a slave.

To prepare himself for this mission he went to the continent where he visited, as he himself tells us, Gaul, Italy and the islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea. He spent his years of preparation principally in the monastery of St. Honoratus at Lerins, in the school of St. Germanus at Auxerre, and possibly at the monastery founded by St. Martin at Tours. He was on his way to Rome when the news was brought to him that Palladius was dead: and immediately he himself was consecrated bishop and with the blessing of Germanus and Pope Celestine he set sail for Ireland. He landed first in the county Wicklow, near the place where Palladius had begun his mission, but he soon sailed northwards towards the territory where he spent his years of captivity. He landed at the head of Strangford Lough, converted Dichu, the ruler of the district, and founded his first church at the place now known as Saul. Here he spent the closing months of the year 432 and the early months of 433, and having realised the fact that, owing to the social and political organisation of the country, if he could only win over the princes to the faith the success of his mission was assured, he determined to set out for Tara, where a meeting of the kings and princes was to be held at the court of Laoghaire, the then reigning Ardri.

It was Easter Saturday when he found himself on the Hill of Slane in full view of the royal residence at Tara, and according to the practice of the Christians, he kindled the paschal fire. This was against certain regulations of the high king, and Laoghaire, warned by the druids that if this fire were not extinguished destruction was certain to follow, set out with his followers to arrest the invaders. St. Patrick was brought into the presence of the king, and so good an impression did he make on the princes that many of them were converted immediately to the faith. Laoghaire did not himself become a Christian, but he seems to have permitted the saint to preach his doctrine freely throughout Ireland.

For two years St. Patrick preached the gospel with great success in the central districts of Ireland, and then turning westward he overthrew the great pagan idol, Crom Cruach, in Leitrim, crossed the Shannon and began the evangelization of Connaught. While engaged in this work he withdrew to the summit of the mountain now known as Croagh Patrick to spend the Lent, and while there he received the approval of Pope Leo the Great to whom he had sent messengers when Leo was elected Pope in 440.

From Connaught he travelled northwards and crossed the Erne above the falls of Assaroe into Donegal. Here he turned aside to a lonely island in Lough Berg to spend some time in prayer and penance, and it is this spot which was afterwards so famous throughout Europe as St. Patrick's Purgatory. Having made a circle of the northern counties he returned to Meath, and went southwards through Leinster and Munster where he was well received.

St. Patrick was assisted in his work by Romans and Franks, by natives of Gaul and of Britain, and by Irishmen trained on the Continent, like Auxilius and Isserninus. Wherever he preached he set up bishoprics in the chief tribes, left behind him priests and deacons, and established monastic communities both of men and women. In this way the complete success of the work that he himself had begun was assured, and even before the death of Patrick though there were still many pagans in the country, Ireland might be called a Christian rather than a pagan nation. He selected Armagh to be his own church, and he ordained that his successor in the See of Armagh should be recognised as primate of the Irish church. He held two synods to establish a body of laws for the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs in Ireland. He died at Saul and his body was laid to rest at Downpatrick.



The Early Irish Church and Rome


Some people assert that St. Patrick founded his church and wished that it should remain independent of Rome, but, seeing that St. Patrick himself was a native of Britain, and that he studied in Gaul, both of which countries were in communion with the Holy See, and, seeing also that he was the disciple of St. Germanus who was the friend of Pope Celestine, it would be very difficult to believe such an assertion even were there no other evidence to disprove it. But, fortunately, reliable testimonies are not wanting to show that the bishop of Rome had no more devoted subject than the apostle of Ireland., The earliest lives of St. Patrick, written in the seventh century, bear witness to the fact that he came with the authority of Pope Celestine; the native annals recount the approbation and approval sent to him by Pope Leo; one of his own "Sayings" which has come down to us contains an exhortation to the Irish that as they were Christians so also they should be Romans, that is to say in communion with Rome; and one of the decrees drawn up by him for the guidance of the Irish church ordains that if any difficult questions arise, which cannot be settled by the authorities in Ireland, they should be carried for decision to the Apostolic See. All these things point to the close union which St. Patrick established between Ireland and Rome, a union which is attested at a later period by the letter of Cummian on the paschal question, by the attitude of the Irish missionaries on the continent towards the Pope, by the writings of St. Columbanus and by the frequent pilgrimages from Ireland to Rome.



St. Brigid


St. Patrick, as he himself tells us, found the sons and daughters of the Irish anxious to join the religious life. Amongst the most remarkable of the women who devoted themselves entirely to the service of God was St. Brigid, who was born at Faughart, near Dundalk about the year 451. Her parents wished to give her away in marriage, but she announced to them her intention of remaining a virgin, and accompanied by eight companions, she received the nun's veil and cloak from bishop MacCaille at Usnach in Westmeath. She became the superioress of a community, and settled for some time in the King's County. The fame of her sanctity having gone abroad numerous requests were made to her to visit different parts of the country and to establish new communities. For this purpose she went to Leinster and Connaught, but at last she founded her principal house at Kildare where she remained till her death. St. Brigid was held in the greatest veneration in the Irish church. She was the patroness, not merely of religious women but of Ireland, and at home and abroad she was spoken of as "the Mary of the Irish," "the second Mary."



Monastic Schools


During his own life St. Patrick had introduced monasticism into the country as we can see from his Confession. After his death the monastic spirit was quickly developed, owing to the great religious fervour of the Irish people, and owing also to the fact that many of their principal teachers were trained in monastic establishments in Wales, or on the Continent, or at Whithorn, founded by St. Ninian in southern Scotland. Nor were the monastic establishments in Ireland merely homes for prayer and meditation. They were also great centres of education and culture, and afforded a shelter and refuge to scholars, when England and the Continent were overrun by barbarian invaders and when the culture and civilisation of ancient Rome seemed destined to destruction.

Of these schools the most ancient is probably the school of Arran founded by St. Enda which became the spiritual training ground for many of the Irish saints of the sixth century. Clonard was founded about the year 520 by St. Finian, and so great was its fame that it is said that at times 3,000 students were in residence there; Moville, on Strangford Lough, had for its founder another St. Finian; Clonmacnois was founded by St. Ciaran, and Bangor, on the south-eastern shores of Belfast Lough, by St. Comgall.

That great attention should be paid to the sacred Scriptures in the monastic schools is what might be expected. St. Patrick himself had set an example in this direction that was not likely to be forgotten by his successors. Not only was the sacred text itself studied with care, but also the works of the great commentators of the early centuries were expounded in the schools. The interlined glosses on the scriptures—some of them the oldest specimens of written Irish in existence—preserved at Wurzburg, Milan, Vienna, Turin and elsewhere, the scriptural collections contained in such books as the book of Armagh, the book of Kells, the book of Durrow, &c., and the commentaries written by Irishmen either at home or on the Continent, only a few of which have been published, bear witness to the attention paid to Scriptural Studies in the Irish schools.

in theology, too, the Irish monks were particularly expert. They mastered the Old Testament as well as the New, and were also well versed in the writings of the Fathers, both Greek and Latin. Furthermore, the Irish teachers tried to reduce theology to a definite system by the application of the rules of logic to its exposition,, and in this sense the Irish theologians may be said to have been the founders of what was known in later ages as Scholasticism. Every distinctive Catholic doctrine taught at the present day, as for instance, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the necessity of Penance and Confession for the forgiveness of sins, the efficacy of the Sacraments, the duty of submission to authority, especially to the Pope, can all be traced in the Irish ecclesiastical literature that has come down to us. The work of Dungal, an Irishman, written against a certain bishop of Turin in defence of the reverence paid to images, relics and the Cross, and in support of the invocation of the saints and of pilgrimages, acquired a world-wide reputation. In Canon Law the Irish collection of Canons written about the year 700 and known as the Synodus Hibernensis, and the Irish Penitentials, setting forth the penances that should be imposed upon those guilty of certain crimes, exercised an enormous influence on many disciplinary questions throughout the entire Church.

But the Scriptures, Theology, and Canon Law were not the only subjects taught in the Irish schools. Great attention was paid also to the ancient classics, to the natural sciences, to the cultivation and production of a native Irish literature, and to the study and development of the civil law of Ireland. From a very early period most of the leading Latin authors were commented upon in the Irish schools, and the proficiency of Irishmen in Latin is attested by the many specimens of Latin prose and verse composed by Irishmen, as well as by their commentaries on the works of the well-known grammarians who had written before this time. Greek, too, was studied, and at least in the eighth and ninth centuries, with wonderful success. When John Scotus Erigena arrived in France in the ninth century people were astonished at the expedite knowledge of Greek which he displayed, and wondered how such a knowledge could have been acquired in a remote island situated in the western sea. In the natural sciences, especially in astronomy, the Irish schools were far ahead of the schools of their own time, as is proved by the treatise on astronomy written by an Irish monk, Dicuil, and by the fact that when Fergil, the Irish bishop of Salzburg, taught the sphericity of the earth and the existence of the antipodes he was entirely misunderstood, even by such a leading light as St. Boniface, the apostle of Germany. Nor did the love of the classics and of science prevent the Irish schools from devoting themselves to the cultivation of a native literature and the development of Irish legal institutions. Wherever it was possible they seemed determined to use the Irish language, even in their commentaries on the Scripture and in the rubrics of the Missal. Had we nothing else, the immense literature, both of prose and verse, that has been preserved, and the well-known code of Irish laws would be sufficient to establish the greatness of the Irish schools.

From all parts of the Continent, but more especially from Gaul and Britain, students flocked to Ireland, attracted by the fame of its sanctity and learning. Aldhelm, an English monk, tells that in his time people went from Britain in crowds to attend the Irish schools, and the Venerable Bede speaks in the highest terms of the hospitable welcome which awaited such visitors when they arrived in Ireland. Not merely was there no fee required of them for their education, but they received also lodgings, food and books free of cost. From the sixth to the ninth century the Irish schools flourished, and Ireland was the teacher of western Europe. For this statement we can cite the testimony of the English monk, Alcuin, who recalls the services rendered to the Christian religion by the learned Irish schools which did such work for the, Church in Britain, in Gaul and in Italy, as well as that of the German monk, Ermenric, who praises Ireland because "from it have come those great lights who have diffused throughout the Church the learning and the teaching of their native home."



Work of Irish Missionaries


In their zeal for religion hundreds of Irish monks left the ports of Ireland to carry the gospel to the heathen. Amongst the first to do so was St. Columba, who was born at Gartan in Donegal about the year 521, and having studied at the schools of Clonard and Moville he returned to his native district and founded the great monastery of Derry. It was, as some say, owing to his responsibility for the battle of Cuidreimhne, or, as others say, owing to his zeal for the spread of the gospel, that he went to Scotland to preach to the Picts. His mission was crowned with success. A grant having been made to him of the island of Iona by the Irish king who had conquered south-western Scotland, he established a great monastery there; and Iona became the centre from which the monks of St. Columba evangelised Scotland and the northern districts of England. St. Columba returned to Ireland about the year 590 to attend the great meeting at Druimceat where he was successful in settling the dispute that had broken out between the Ardri and the king of the Irish colony in Scotland, and also in preventing the suppression of the Irish bards. He died in 597, but his work in Scotland was continued by the abbots and monks of Iona and in England by the monks of Lindisfarne.

St. Columbanus was one of the first of the Irish monks to go to the Continent. Accompanied by St. Gall and some other disciples, he set out from his monastery in Bangor and made his way through Gaul to Burgundy. Here he founded the monastery of Luxeuil, and drew up a special monastic rule for the use of his communities. This rule was characterised by its great strictness and austerity, and for this reason it was obliged to give way in later times to the milder rule of St. Benedict. He was driven from this retreat by Theodric, King of Burgundy, and after many wanderings he made his way to Bregenz, a lovely spot on the shores of the Lake of Constance, where he founded a new house. Finally, leaving Bregenz to preach to the Lombards of northern Italy, he crossed the Alps and established a monastery at Bobbio in a valley of the Appenines, where he died in the year 615. For centuries the fame of Bobbio was known in every part of Europe, and exercised an influence hardly less than that exercised by the great Benedictine centre of Monte Cassino.

St. Gall and his companions went eastwards from Bregenz to spread the faith amongst the inhabitants of modern Switzerland, and founded a monastery from which the present Swiss canton of St. Gall takes its name. St. Fursey evangelised the region along the banks of the Marne, in France; and after he died his remains were brought to Peronne where a monastery was built for the exclusive use of the Irish, known in after years as "Peronne of the Irish."

In Germany, too, and in Belgium, Irish saints helped to spread the gospel. St. Killian, who left Ireland to become the apostle of Franconia, was martyred at Wurzburg, where a great Irish monastery stood for centuries and where the memory of St. Killian is honoured till the present day. St. Fergil helped to evangelize south Germany and was appointed by the Pope bishop of Salzburg. Though he was inferior to St. Boniface in his powers of organisation he was much his superior in theology and science, as the controversies between them about baptism and the existence of the antipodes clearly prove. St. Rumold, venerated as patron of Mechlin, and St. Livinus are largely responsible for the introduction of Christianity into Belgium. It should be remembered that these are only a few of the Irishmen who preached the gospel on the Continent, for hundreds of their countrymen imitated their example, and large numbers of Irish monasteries were established all over Europe.

In the revival which took place in the days of Charlemagne, Ireland, as might be expected, took a leading part. Charlemagne, wishing to put an end to the ignorance which reigned throughout his dominions, summoned scholars from all parts of the world to assist him. Amongst those who responded to his appeal or the appeal of his successors were Clement and Joseph, both Irishmen, the former of whom taught at Paris and the other at Pavia; Dungal, John Scotus Erigena, whose knowledge of Greek was unequalled in his own time and whose influence in philosophy made itself felt for centuries; Sedulius, the poet, and Dicuil, the astronomer. Wherever the Irish monks and scholars went they were kindly received, and grants of land were made to them by kings and princes for the establishment of Irish houses. The great Irish monasteries that studded western Europe from Iceland to Sicily, and from the Atlantic to the Danube, and the thousands of manuscripts lying in the libraries of Italy, France and Germany composed or copied by Irishmen bear witness to the success and the influence of the Irish schools on the Continent. Iona, Lindisfarne, Pobbio, St. Gall, Peronne, Wurzburg, Ratisbon and Cologne are places which cannot be forgotten by the historians of Europe.



Christianity in Celtic Britain


Britain received its name from a Celtic race, the Britons, who conquered the country about two centuries before the coming of Christ. These in turn were themselves reduced to subjection by various generals of the Roman army who effected a landing in the country in the years 54 and 55 B.C. Claudius continued the work that had been begun by Caesar, and Agricola nearly finished it when he subjugated the whole of the country south of the Grampian Hills. The northern portion of the country was occupied by the Picts, another Celtic race. To defend Britain against these, as well as against the Irish invaders who not unfrequently made common cause with the Picts, walls were built by Hadrian (122), Antoninus (142), and by Septimius Severus (202).

Christianity was introduced at a very early period into Britain, as is shown by the fact that the church of Britain was well known on the continent towards the end of the second century. At first the Christian religion was confined probably to the Roman colonists, but gradually many of the Britons were converted, and it is safe to say that in the fourth century a flourishing church existed in the country. The presence of bishops from Britain at many of the great councils celebrated in the fourth century, and the praise bestowed on the Christians of Britain by such champions of orthodoxy as St. Hilary and St. Athanasius establish beyond doubt that the Christians of Britain were at one with the Christians throughout the world in matters of doctrine. With the Arian heresy the Britons as a body had no sympathy.

But though Arianism failed to gain a foothold, the same unfortunately cannot be said about Pelagianism. Pelagius the author of this heresy was himself born in Britain, though his parents probably belonged to one of the Irish settlements established on the west coast of Britain. He was educated at Bangor, in Wales, which must have been even at that time a flourishing seat of learning, and went to Rome where he began first to make public his heretical teaching. There is no evidence to prove that after this time Pelagius returned to his native country, but some Britons, notably Faustus and Agricola, embraced his errors on the continent, and the latter helped to spread Pelagianism in Britain. The bishops finding themselves unable to combat the preachers of heresy turned to St. Germanus of Auxerre, then one of the best known men in the western world, for advice and assistance. St. Germanus was commissioned by Pope Celestine to undertake a campaign against Pelagianism in Britain, and assisted by St. Lupus of Troyes, he arrived in the country about the year 429. His efforts were completely successful, and before his return to the continent about the year 431 Pelagianism was practically extinguished in Britain. Some years later, however, the trouble began again, and he was obliged once more to undertake a journey to Britain about the year 447. From this time forward the Pelagian heresy seems to have had but little if any support in Celtic Britain.



The Anglo-Saxon Church


But hardly had this danger passed away than a new and more serious danger appeared from an entirely unexpected quarter. Even in the days when the Roman Empire was strong, it required the presence of its best trained legions and the skill of its ablest generals to prevent the Picts and the Irish from becoming masters of the country; but when the power of the empire began to go down, and when it was assailed on all sides by barbarian hordes, it became necessary to recall the garrisons from the outlying provinces for the defence of the capital, and the British princes were informed that they might be prepared to defend themselves. Bands of Saxons from the districts lying along the north east of the Rhine began to invade the country as early as the year 429, and these were followed by other Germanic tribes, notably the Angles; so that before the end of the sixth century the greater part of Britain was in the hands of the barbarians, and it was only in Wales, Cornwall and in the northern kingdom of Strathclyde that the Britons were able to maintain their independence. The new conquerors split up the country among themselves, and England was divided into seven or eight practically independent kingdoms. This invasion destroyed Christianity in the greater part of the country, and it became necessary to do again for the new conquerors what had been done in the early centuries for the Celtic inhabitants of Britain.

Towards the end of the sixth century St. Gregory, then a Benedictine monk, and afterwards the illustrious Pope Gregory the Great, passing one day through the Roman forum, and seeing some youths from England exposed for sale as slaves, inquired who they were and whence they came. When he learned that they were Angles and that they came from a country still pagan he determined to devote his life to the conversion of England, but the Romans were so attached to him that they would not allow him to undertake the mission. After his election as Pope he did not lose sight of the subject, and about the year 595 he despatched a number of monks to England headed by St. Augustine, who is known in later ages as the apostle of the country. Armed with letters of introduction to various persons of influence in Gaul, St. Augustine set out for England and landed in the kingdom of Kent.

Ethelbert, who was king at the time, was not entirely unacquainted with the Christian religion, and was not unfavourable to its introduction into his kingdom. He offered St. Augustine a site for a church at Canterbury, which offer was accepted, and at Canterbury the saint established his primatial see. Meanwhile, other missionaries had been sent from Rome, notably Mellitus, the first bishop of London, Justus, the first bishop of Rochester, and Paulinus, the apostle of Northumbria. In a short time the greater portion of the inhabitants of Kent were converted to the faith, and before the death of Augustine in 605, Christianity had secured a firm foothold in Britain.

In the work of converting the Saxon conquerors of England St. Augustine had sought for assistance from the Celtic bishops in Wales; but these men, mindful of the destruction and of the cruelties inflicted on their race and country by the Saxons, and regarding Augustine in some way as an ally and a friend of the Saxons, refused to assent to his request. Such a refusal was, indeed, wrong, but in the circumstances of the country) was not unintelligible, nor was it dictated by opposition to Rome as has been so often asserted. Owing to its insular position the Celtic church of Britain, like that of Ireland, preserved its own peculiar customs and discipline which differed slightly from those introduced by the new missionaries, but there is no evidence that the Britons wished to cut themselves off from the rest of the Church by refusing obedience to the apostolic See. The strongest document brought forward to prove the independence of the British church is the letter asserted to have been addressed by Dinoot, abbot of the great monastery of Bangor, to St. Augustine, but it has been admitted long since by scholars that this letter was not the work of the abbot of Bangor but of a Protestant forger of the seventeenth century.

Meanwhile, how fared it with the northern inhabitants of Britain? In the early years of the fifth century St. Ninian, himself a Briton, went to Rome and having studied there and probably also at the monastery of St. Martin at Tours, returned to his native country and set himself to evangelize the southern Picts. He built his first monastery in Galloway, on the northern shores of the Solway Firth. This house was known as Candida Casa, or Whithorn, and here a great many of the founders of the Irish schools went for their early training. In his own life St. Ninian's efforts among the Picts and the inhabitants of Strathclyde were attended with great success, but after his death about the year 412 many of them must have been lost to the faith, as we learn from the letter of St. Patrick to Coroticus in which he speaks of the "apostate Picts."

It was St. Columba, however, who had been chosen to be the apostle of Scotland. His countrymen had already established a strong Irish community in the district now known as Argyle, and after the battle of Culdreimhne, either on account of the penance imposed upon him for the part which he had taken in bringing about this battle, or, as is more likely, urged on by his zeal for the spread of the faith, he determined to devote his life to the conversion of the Picts. The little island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland, was placed at his disposal, and there he founded the monastery which for centuries was the most famous of western Europe. From Iona St. Columba and his monks went forth to preach the gospel throughout Scotland and the isles, and the inhabitants responded to their appeal. Brude, king of the Picts, astonished at the miracles which were wrought at his very gates by St. Columba, himself received the faith, and most of his countrymen followed his example, so that before the death of St. Columba in 597 a great portion of Scotland had embraced the Christian religion.

The missionaries from Rome were very successful in Kent, Essex, East Anglia, and Northumbria. Paulinus had succeeded in winning over Edwin, king of Northumbria, and had set up his see at York, but the victory of the pagan king, Penda, at the battle of Hatfield in the year 633, destroyed for a time the prospects of Christianity in Northumbria. Oswald, however, who had fled to Ireland or to the Irish colonies in Scotland, returned to establish himself as king of Northumbria. He was a devoted Christian himself, and being acquainted with the Irish monks naturally turned to Iona for assistance in the work of converting his countrymen. The monk Aidan and his companions responded to this request, and the king made a grant to them of the island of Lindisfarne, where Aidan established his monastery and bishopric. St. Aidan and his companions were so successful in the work that some writers have not hesitated to assert that it is St. Aidan and not St. Augustine who should be called the apostle of England. From Lindisfarne the faith was preached through Northumbria and Middle Anglia. To Aidan in the See of Lindisfarne succeeded St. Finian, and to St. Finian, Colman. It was during the episcopate of the latter that the dispute between the Roman missionaries and the Irish broke out regarding the date for the celebration of Easter. Colman not wishing to abandon the practice that had been observed by his countrymen left Lindisfarne, but his work was done. The missionaries from Rome and those from Iona had given the faith to the new conquerors of England, and English monks in turn were preparing to spread the gospel amongst the pagan nations on the Continent,

It was Theodore, however, who completed the organisation of the Church in England, and who helped to give the monastic schools in that country the high place which they held for Centuries in western Europe. Theodore was himself a Greek, a native of Tarsus, and was appointed archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Vitalian about the year 668. He came to England, and realising that the work of conversion was well nigh accomplished, he set himself to establish regular dioceses and to draw up rules for the guidance of the clergy and the government of the Church. In carrying out this work he came into conflict with the saintly Wilfrid, who had been appointed bishop of York and whose diocese Theodore determined to split up. Wilfrid appealed to Rome and the division that had been made was set aside. Both men were zealous for religion, and each lived long enough to appreciate the aims and policy of the other. Wilfrid shares with Theodore the honour of putting the finishing touches upon the work of Christianizing England.

The great progress of religion and learning in the country during the eighth century is clearly proved by the flourishing state of the schools, and by the large number of saints and scholars who went from England to spread religion and learning throughout western Europe. The most remarkable of the English scholars was undoubtedly the Venerable Bede (672–735). In the extent and thoroughness of his knowledge he stood alone amongst his contemporaries, and in ages after his death the authority of the monk of Jarrow was sufficient to put an end to nearly every discussion. Many works from his pen have been preserved, but the best known and probably the most valuable is his Ecclesiastical History of England. Amongst those who made the name of the English church famous throughout Europe were St. Wilfrid, St. Willibrord, the apostle of the Frisians, Alcuin who did so mach for the revival of learning in the days of Charlemagne, and, above all, St. Boniface the apostle of Germany.



Controversies in the Celtic Churches of Ireland and Britain


The Celtic church in Ireland and Britain was, as we have seen, closely united to Rome and to the other parts of the Christian world in faith and government, but in matters of discipline and ritual the Celtic Christians of Ireland and Britain had many customs and practices peculiar to themselves. This is what might be expected if it be borne in mind that ritual and discipline were likely to change with the lapse of centuries, and that Ireland and Britain being cut off to a great extent from the other countries were not likely to take notice of these changes. The Irish church guarded jealously the rites and customs which she had received from her earliest missionaries, and so devoted were the Irish of the seventh century to St. Patrick and St. Columba and to the other great saints who had instructed them in the truths of the gospel, that they were unwilling to change even an iota of what these saints had introduced or approved.

The subject which gave rise to the sharpest controversy between the Celtic church and the rest of Christendom was the date on which Easter should be celebrated. The council of Nice had determined that Easter should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the vernal equinox, but it did not fix any method for determining the exact date on which this Sunday should fall. Many systems were adopted and set aside in Rome during the fourth and fifth centuries till at last Dionysius, in the sixth century, devised the method of calculation which remains in use till the present time.

One of the older systems followed in Rome had been introduced by the early Christian missionaries into Britain, and was known to St. Patrick who brought with him Easter tables calculated according to the method in vogue in the British church. All went well until the arrival of St. Augustine and his companions in England about the beginning of the seventh century. They discovered in a short time that though the Celtic church in Britain always celebrated Easter on a Sunday, the date of Easter did not always correspond with the date on which the festival was celebrated at Rome; and they were still more astonished when they learned that on this particular point the church of Ireland was at one with the church in Britain. St. Columbanus on his arrival in Gaul was attacked on this matter by the bishops of Gaul, and he turned instinctively to Rome to secure the approval, or at least the toleration, of the Pope for his custom and the custom of his countrymen.

Laurence, the successor of St. Augustine in the See of Canterbury, addressed a letter of remonstrance to the Irish bishops and abbots. Little attention, if any, seems to have been paid to this document, but shortly afterwards some of the Irish ecclesiastics themselves began to maintain that Ireland should give up a custom that was against the practice of the rest of the Church. Cummian was the leader of this movement, and by his exertions a synod representative of southern Ireland was held at Magh Lene about the year 629. The conference seems to have agreed to abandon the Irish custom in favour of the Roman one, but opposition having arisen later on it was determined to send an Irish embassy to Rome. Owing to the report of the ambassadors who had been sent to Rome and to the letter of Pope Honorius I., the southern half of Ireland adopted the Roman practice before the middle of the seventh century.

In the north, on account of the influence of the monks of St. Columba who were jealous of the slightest interference with the custom approved by their founder, the old practice still continued. The bishops and abbots of this district sent a letter to Rome to explain their position but the reply was unfavourable. The Irish Easter had been introduced into England by the monks of Lindisfarne, and as the Roman Easter was followed in the parts of England evangelised by the Roman missionaries, the observance of Easter on different dates gave rise to grave inconvenience. At last a great conference was held at Whitby (664) between the supporters of the rival systems at which king Oswy presided, Colman, abbot and bishop of Lindisfarne, was present to defend the custom of his countrymen, and Wilfrid, a student of the Irish monks of Lindisfarne, was the champion of the custom of Rome. Colman alleged in favour of his own view the authority of St. Columba, and made an impassioned appeal to the assembly not to abandon what had been inculcated by such a great servant of God. Wilfrid, however, diminished the effect of this appeal by opposing to the authority of St. Columba the authority of St. Peter, to whom Christ had said, "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My church, and I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven." Oswy demanded of Colman whether these words were really spoken to St. Peter and if they were, could he point to a similar promise made by Christ to St. Columba. Colman was obliged to admit that to Peter alone was this promise given, whereupon Oswy promptly closed the discussion by deciding in favour of Rome, Colman and his friends, rather than abandon the practice of their founder, returned to Lindisfarne, raised up the bones of their saintly dead, bade adieu to the monastery that they loved and set sail for Ireland. In a short time, however, the Roman custom was followed in the north of England, in Ireland and even in Iona. The Celtic Christians of Strathclyde followed the example of Iona and Lindisfarne by adopting the Roman custom, the Christians of Cornwall abandoned their own method of reckoning Easter, in the beginning of the eighth century, as did also Wales towards the end of the same century.