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Celtic Christian Distinctives

By +Taoiseach Thomas J. Faulkenbury, OSJ 


There are many things which distinguish Celtic Christianity from the rest of the Western Church. The most obvious is a fondness for community over institutional religion. While the churches of the West adopted the hierarchical organizational structure of the Roman Empire with its militaristic chain of command and obedience to authority, the Celtic Church stressed community and intimacy. While the rest of the Western churches were building large basilicas and organizing large urban geographical areas (dioceses) under the jurisdictions of monarchial bishops, the Celtic Church concentrated on small fellowships of Christians. And, Celtic Church buildings were modest structures in rural settings designed for small communities in which the worshiper knew those with whom he or she worshiped.



These small communities were also distinctive in their attitudes toward the roles of clergy and laity. Unlike the rest of Christendom, there was no gulf between the clergy and laity. It was in the monasteries (the ideal size being 13 members) where the strength of the Celtic Church was found rather than in the power of bishops. And these monasteries were led by abbots and abbesses who were often lay people who had taken on the yoke of religious vows.

The clergy (the bishops, presbyters, and deacons) perceived their roles as that of identifying with the people. They concerned themselves with missionary outreach and pastoral ministry rather than organization and administration of a religious institution. And, unlike many of their European counterparts, they renounced elaborate vestments, preferring the simple dress of a monk.



Other churches isolated women from positions of authority and relationships of friendship with men. The Celtic Church believed women were equal to men with similar legal rights. St. Morgan of Wales argued that women should be taught to read and interpret Scripture. The leadership of women was valued and encouraged, not ignored. Women had positions of ecclesial authority, even assisting in the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. The Church of Rome chastised the Celtic Church for the use of female "conhospitae" over a thousand years before the contemporary use of female "eucharistic ministers." Popular legend holds that St. Brigid was consecrated a bishop by Bishop Mel in the 5th Century.



The core of Celtic theology is found in the thought and writings of two laymen: St. Morgan of Wales (5th Century AD) and St. John Scotus Eriugena (9th Century AD).  St. Morgan (more commonly known by his Latin name, Pelagius Britto) was a layman and monk and is the first known major Celtic writer and theologian. He taught the freedom of the human will as a God-given human right and the individual's responsibility for sin. He believed that a just and good God creates man and woman without virtue and without vice. Consequently, he rejected the Augustinian theological concept of original sin as equally unscriptural and inconsistent with the actions of a just and good God. St. Morgan said that every human is created with a soul, free will, and a conscience with which to make choices. And he rejected election and predestination as theological concepts which deny the individual the freedom to make choices and, in effect, make God a tyrant.


It was the belief of St. Morgan that salvation is a matter of the individual accepting the grace which God freely offers to all people and, with the help of God's grace, choosing to live a life in conformity with the Gospel of Christ. His teachings are a Celtic expression of the Orthodox idea of theosis ~ uniting our lives with that of God ~ and is a cornerstone of the Celtic concept of sacramental living.


Unfortunately, the thought of St. Morgan has been confused with that of some later followers who distorted his teachings and were condemned as heretics under the name "Pelagians." However, no Ecumenical Council of the undivided Church ever condemned St. Morgan as a heretic. Nontheless, St. Morgan's chastisement of the rich and powerful for their abuses of wealth and power brought a civil condemnation upon him by the Roman Emperor. In effect, St. Morgan was an intellectual martyr for Celtic theology.


Eriugena was neither a priest nor a monk, but a layman of great Christian devotion and theological insight. He taught that human nature is a product of the creative activity of God and that every nature is in its essence incarnational, divine and part of God. Sin arises from human will; it is not inherited at birth. He rejected predestination as a theological concept which makes a person's responsibility for individual actions null and void; when, in fact, each individual is solely responsible for his or her sin. Drawing upon the Gospel of St. John and the writings of St. Paul, he also taught that since all things proceed from God, in God they must end. He did not deny that sinners would be punished for their actions, but he rejected the idea of eternal punishment, believing eternal damnation was inconsistent with Christ's loving sacrifice on the Cross, and that through Christ all things would be reconciled to God the Father.


The feast of St. Morgan of Wales is celebrated on June 23rd. The feast of St. John Scotus Eriugena on April 3rd.



It has been said that "a sacrament is the outward sign of an inward grace." The Celtic Church took this to mean that our lives, which have received the spiritual grace of God, should outwardly reflect that inward grace. Celtic Christians observed the major Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion and the lesser Sacraments of Confirmation, Penance, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Extreme Unction.

They also believed that all of life is potentially sacramental. The whole of our lives should be a sacramental act of love.  The life of Celtic Christian faith entailed finding a worthy mentor or mentors (lay or clergy) from whom wisdom could be learned and establishing a network of spiritual friendships. The goal for each Celtic Christian was to become a spiritual mentor and friend for others. Such a "soul-friend" was called an "anamchara."


The epitome of sacramental living was uniting one's life to God's life and beginning a spiritual pilgrimage for Christ through prayer, learning, and the everyday practice of His teachings.


The art of sacramental living began by "listening with the heart." Modern people "listen" with their minds ~ hearing what is rational and readily explainable. In so doing, they are deaf in one ear, hearing only half of what God is saying.

Listening with the heart means approaching Holy Scriptures, the lives of the Saints, the teachings of the faith, and the rituals of worship with less of a critical eye to what is historically accurate or verifiable and with more openness to what they can teach us about God, holiness, and our own mysteries. A willingness to listen with the heart, quietly meditating on God's voice, allows us to fully grasp and integrate spiritual wisdom into a way of life lived in kinship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

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