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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

This is sometimes called St. Patrick’s First Synod. It was most probably held at Armagh. We find no reference to Secundinus, who was, doubtless, dead at the time, nor to Benignus, although he lived until 468. Iserninus, of old Kilcullen, takes their place; he died in 469. Auxilius of Killossy (now Killashee) died, it is said, in 460. So we may fairly infer that this Synod was held in Armagh about the year 459, when the Irish Church was regularly constituted, and the primacy of Patrick in Armagh was universally recognised.

This Synod issued thirty-four Canons, the authenticity of which is generally recognised. They are found in the Irish Collection of Canons, published so early as the opening of the eighth century. Moreover, the decrees themselves furnish unmistakable proofs of their own authenticity. It may be that minor changes took place in the text when all the Irish Canons were collected together, but that does not interfere with the substantial authenticity of the decrees themselves. Patrick would certainly convene a Synod at the earliest suitable opportunity, and we may take it that we have the results of his work in this Synod, which bears his own name and that of his colleagues, Auxilius and Iserninus. We may assume, too, that it was held at Armagh in the year 458 or 459. It is not likely, indeed, that Patrick would attempt to frame any set of Canons before he had completed his missionary circuit through the five provinces and established his primatial See. It was only then he could know the wants of the whole country, and the practical difficulties that would arise in the infant Church of Ireland. Secundinus was dead; but Patrick called to his counsels many other bishops, and particularly those two prelates, Auxilius and Iserninus, who, like himself, had been trained in the canon law in Gaul and Italy, and had received a formal commission to help him in preaching the Gospel in Ireland.

This appears to us to be the real reason why these two prelates are specially named in the Acts of the Synod. Patrick represented himself and all the bishops whom he had consecrated, whether British or Irish; but Auxilius and Iserninus were ordained priests at the time that Patrick was consecrated Bishop for the Irish mission. This does not imply that many other Irish prelates were not present at the Synod, but it was considered unnecessary to mention their names, as Patrick spoke in the name of them all.

On the other hand, Auxilius and Iserninus had a kind of independent mission in Ireland, though subordinate to Patrick. We are told that they were invited by Germanus to accompany him to Ireland, but they declined to go at that time. Afterwards, however, hearing of his success, they accepted the mission, and were sent to aid Patrick in Ireland. They had, therefore, both superior knowledge of the canon law, and also an extrinsic authority from the Holy See, as far as we can judge, which lent special weight to their decisions in reference to the Irish Church.

The Synod contains thirty-four decrees, which are commonly admitted as authentic by the best critics. Todd, indeed, and some other writers following him, hold that the sixth decree, which directs clerics to cut their hair more Romano; and the twenty-third decree, which speaks of offerings made to the Bishops on the occasion of their visitation as a mos antiquus, point to a much later period of the Irish Church, when the dispute about the tonsure had arisen, and there was time for a custom to have become ‘antiquus’ in Ireland. But this reasoning has no foundation. The sixth decree merely directs the clerics to cut their hair after the clerical fashion practised in Rome, and not let it grow long in the way referred to in the tenth decree of the Synod. The mos antiquus, too, as to the offerings does not imply an ancient custom in the Irish Church, but in the universal Church, which is a very different thing. There is not a word to show that the reference is to the Irish Church; in fact, if the custom existed, the decree would be needless. Its object is to bring the Irish Church into harmony with the custom of the Universal Church in making offerings to the bishop on the occasion of his visitation, of which he alone had the right to dispose, either for the necessary uses of the Church or the benefit of the poor, as he might judge proper.

The decrees of this Synod throw great light on the condition of the young Church of Ireland, and, at the same time, furnish intrinsic evidence of their own authenticity. Slavery, with all its attendant evils, was still quite common at the time. St. Patrick and his sister were sold as slaves into Ireland. St. Brigid was the daughter of a captive; and she herself had in her youth to bear the hard lot of a captive maiden, as we know from her Life. The value of a female captive in cattle, was in fact the chief standard of exchange in the country, and is called a cumal in the Brehon Laws.

Now, Christianity did not abolish slavery at once without regard to the rights of others; and hence we find that the very first Canon of Patrick’s Synod declares that if any one seeks the redemption of a slave, without lawful authority, he deserves to be excommunicated. But if he had the sanction of the master, he might collect the price of the captive, and thus redeem him, giving the balance, however, to be disposed of as the Bishop thought proper. From this we infer that systematic efforts were made to procure the liberation of the Christian captives, by collecting amongst the faithful the price of the slave, and if any balance remained it was ‘to be placed on the altar of the bishop.’ Gold and silver must have been in circulation at the time, probably by weight, for although cattle was the general medium of exchange, they could not be placed on ‘the altar of the bishop.’

Measures were taken, too, to keep clerics of all grades to their own churches and their own dioceses. The clerics were, for the most part, recruited from the professional classes—from the Bards, Brehons and Poets, and these privileged classes were in the habit of ranging freely through the whole country, their professional character not only securing them against insult or injury, but also procuring them hospitality. The canon law, however, could not allow vagrancy of this kind, and hence the second Canon directs every lector ‘to know the church in which he is to sing the holy office;’ and the third Canon directs in general terms that there must be no vagrant clerics amongst the people. ‘Clericus vagus non sit in plebe.’ Rambling clerics were never tolerated in the Church at any period of her history.

Following out this principle, the twenty-seventh Canon ordains that no strange cleric shall presume to baptise or make offering—that is, say Mass—or do anything else amongst the flock of another bishop (without his leave) under penalty of excommunication. The twenty-fourth Canon is to the same effect, that he must not do these things—nor consecrate, nor build a church without the permission of the bishop, ‘for he who gets permission from the gentiles or pagans is an alien from the church.’ This shows that some intruding clerics, perhaps themselves bishops, came into another prelate’s diocese, relying on the authority of the pagan chief—the Christian chief would not give it—and presumed not only to baptise and ‘offer sacrifice,’ but also to consecrate and build churches. This Canon also goes to show that the bishops of the time had each his own diocese, and that it was unlawful to trespass on his territorial jurisdiction—a very important point to bear in mind.

We have already referred to the sixth Canon, which forbids any cleric, from ‘the porter to the priest,’ to be seen without his tunic, like laymen, at the risk of unveiling his nakedness, and commands him to have his hair shorn more Romano; and a married woman must not walk unveiled—otherwise let both the cleric and the married woman be alike despised by the people, and separated from the Church. The text is given below. The reference in the first part of this Canon is certainly not to the Roman, as distinguished from the Irish or British tonsure, but to the wearing of the hair long after the manner of laics, as it is expressed in the tenth Canon, where he is forbidden comam nutrire—to wear long hair. By the ‘uxor’ or married woman, according to some critics, must be understood the wife of the ‘cleric,’ and we find ‘ejus’ inserted after ‘uxor’ in some of the printed copies of the Synod. In others it is certainly omitted, for Martene does not give it. But it really makes little difference. The clerics in the lower grades might marry then as now, if they were content to remain in the lower grades of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but not if they ascended to what are now called ‘Holy Orders,’ that is deaconship and priesthood.

And in these higher grades it must have frequently happened that married men were ordained priests and even bishops, and ministered as such, on condition of living apart from their wives. The wife in that case took the veil like a nun, which was the sign of her continence. So the decree would simply mean that if the cleric went clothed as a laic, and his (former) wife put aside her veil, then they were to be despised by the people, and separated from the church, as both had broken their vows. That, in our opinion, is the clear meaning of the Canon, which must have have been a necessary one in the infant Church of Ireland.

Another wise regulation for the young Church forbids a monk and nun to remain even in different parts of the same hospice, or to travel in the same car, or to hold prolonged conversations together—and such has always been the rule and spirit of the Church.

Some of the Canons show that many of the people were still pagan. If a cleric became security for such a pagan, he is still bound to pay the debt if the pagan fails to do so, rather than resist by force of arms. But it was not permitted ‘to receive offerings from pagans or excommunicated persons.’ It was also strictly forbidden to have recourse to soothsayers, like the pagans, or to believe in witches, as they did.

No woman, who had once vowed her virginity to God, was allowed afterwards to marry; and Christian women, with lawful husbands, might not separate from them on the pretence that they were not Christian—that is, so long as the husband did not seek to pervert or corrupt his wife. It is, in fact, the celebrated case made by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Corinthians. Neither was it lawful to defraud a pagan of any just debt on the ground that he was a pagan. So we see how St. Patrick gave no license to Christians to repudiate their obligations towards the pagans, either in marriage, or in contracts, or as sureties. But if Christians had controversies amongst themselves, they are directed to have them settled in the Church, that is, by the priest or bishop, rather than go before non-Christian Brehons, for we must assume that some of them still remained in the land.

The 30th Canon is very important, because of itself it completely refutes the idea that the early bishops in Ireland had not dioceses strictly circumscribed according to the general law and practice of the Church. It declares that ‘no bishop who goes from his own parochia or diocese into another diocese shall presume to ordain there, except he have received the permission of him who is within his own principality; nor can he on Sunday, without the same permission, offer the Holy Sacrifice except by receiving it. Let him be content to obey.’ This Canon of itself clearly shows, first, that each bishop had his own diocese—his parochia or principatus—in which no other bishop could officiate without his sanction. It was the law from the beginning, as it is the law still, and it disposes effectually of all the foolish talk of there being no strict diocesan jurisdiction and circumscription in ancient Erin.

Clerics coming from Britain to Ireland might live amongst the people, but were forbidden to minister except they had commendatory letters from their own prelates at home.

There is a Second Synod attributed to St. Patrick, containing 34 Canons, the authenticity of which, however, is more than doubtful. In their present shape they certainly cannot be regarded as the work of any synod held by St. Patrick. Some of the Canons are found in the Irish Collection, but are not there attributed to St. Patrick, but rather to Roman Synods, the decrees of which were adopted in a later Irish Synod. There is, in fact, nothing specially Irish about those Canons, nor anything that would indicate their Irish origin. The only reason for attributing them to St. Patrick is the closing sentence—‘Patrick’s Synod ends (here).’

The Canons appear to be of French origin; at least they were found in a French library at Angers in France and sent by Sirmonde to David Rothe, Bishop of Ossory, who sent them to Usher, from whom Spelman received them for insertion in his own great collection.

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