The Irish Penitentials and Their Significance for the Sacrament of Penance Today

By Payer, Pierre J. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 1996 | Go to article overview

The Irish Penitentials and Their Significance for the Sacrament of Penance Today


Payer, Pierre J., The Catholic Historical Review


The Irish Penitentials and Their Significance for the Sacrament of Penance Today. By Hugh Connolly. (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Four Courts Press. Distributed by International Specialized Book Services, Inc., 5804 N.E. Hassalo Street, Portland, OR 97213-3644. 1995. Pp. xii, 256. $45.00.)

In five chapters Father Connolly makes his case for the contemporary relevance and significance of the ancient Irish handbooks of penance. After placing the penitentials in their cultural and historical context he undertakes a lengthy textual analysis of the works from the point of view of one of their central organizing principles-the eight capital sins that were inherited from John Cassian (gluttony, avarice, anger, dejection, lust, languor, vainglory, and pride). The fourth chapter reads the penitentials through the perspective and within the framework afforded by the Ordo paenitentiae of the modern Irish Church. He puts it somewhat differently, "an analysis of the sacrament of penance and its parts passed through the filter, as it were, of Celtic penitential theology" (p. 124). Here he shows that the conception and spirit of penance and confession evidenced in the traditional elements of contrition (of heart), confession (by mouth), and satisfaction (through works) are reflected in the penitentials. In the final chapter Connolly takes a broad, interpretative approach to the symbolism of the penitentials through a discussion of three models of penance that run through the texts-the judicial model, the medical model of disease and healing, and the pilgrimage model.

The penitentials appeared in Western Europe when the harsh system of nonrepeatable public penance was waning, to be replaced with repeatable, private penance or confession. …

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