Celtic Christians, brief history and a new community
A contemplative community in the Independent catholic tradition
by Father Vincent Pizzuto
Priest of the Celtic Christian Church.
New Skellig takes its name from the ancient monastic settlement, “Skellig Rock,” located twelve kilometers off the South West Coast of County Kerry, Ireland. The island, more formally known as “Skellig Michael,” served as a monastic outpost for Celtic Christian monks who built their monastery there in 588AD and remained until they were forced to abandon it – largely due to Viking raids – at the turn of the twelfth century. The island was chosen for its isolation, much as that sought after by the Egyptian monks (by whom the Celts were deeply influenced) who fled to thedesert in the fourth century AD in search of contemplative solitude. As best as can be known, the community of Skellig was rarely larger than twelve to fifteen monks at any given time – and often smaller.
The Celts, whose origins are obscure, are recognized as the natives of the European continent, traces of whose culture can be found throughout much of Europe as far south as Italy, prior to having been driven out or assimilated by more powerful empires such as Rome. As the Roman Empire spread throughout Europe the Roman Church spread with it, organizing itself like the empire, around a system of dioceses where
bishops served as overseers and administrators. The pagan Celts, however, were gradually pushed back into Ireland where their culture continued to flourish beyond the reach of the Empire, which itself never extended past England. Nevertheless, relatively porous boarders between England and Ireland allowed for Roman missionaries to begin Christianizing the Celts as early as 400AD; a process which is known to
have been remarkably peaceful, largely because pagan elements particular to Celtic culture allowed them to readily appreciate, adapt and assimilate the Christian faith.
Among the most notable of these cultural characteristics are the
The strong sense of connectedness the Celts had to their ancestors lent itself to a deep appreciation for the communion of saints, while their penchant for heroes and heroines was projected par excellence onto Christ and the many saints of Celtic lore; the propensity for pagan Celts to think in “threes” was transfigured into a profound
appreciation for the Triune God so central to Celtic Christian theology and liturgy;
the passion for music and poetry exemplified by the bards evolved into a rich treasure of prayers and songs with enchanting
rhythmic lilts; skillful Celtic craftsmanship likewise gave rise to now-famous artifacts like the Book of Kells – a work which betrays at once their great love of Scripture and their artistic competence.
Even the warrior spirit of the pagan Celts was transformed by the Gospel into a passionate life of spiritual asceticism which now battled fiercely against one’s inner darkness through acts of self-surrender,
penance, and the fostering of a deep contemplative life. Indeed, the mystical core of Celtic Christianity was and is deeply Incarnational, having emerged from the Celtic reverence for nature and all of Creation in which God was realized to be manifestly Present.
Because of its unique geographical position outside the Empire, the Celtic Christian Church developed its own distinctive character out of which emerged customs, liturgies and traditions largely independent of Rome yet undivided from the universal church. Thus, for example, the Celts developed a monastic structure to the church—around which entire villages were gathered—rather than organizing hierarchically as did the Roman diocese.
And contrary to Roman culture, Celtic women enjoyed positions of authority, leadership and equal rights, as is attested to, for example, by the Conhospitae (“deaconesses”) who served in a liturgical role in the Celtic Christian Eucharist. Dual monasteries housing men and women together were prevalent and both abbots and abbesses thus emerged not as administrators but rather in the Celtic tradition of the anam cara (“soul friend”), and thus served as models
of spiritual friendship, confidants and guides.
This independence enjoyed by the Celtic Christian Church continued until its greater institutional assimilation with the Roman church at the synod of Cashel in 1101AD and that of Rath Bresail in 1110AD. It is a mistake to presume that this assimilation was a hostile take-over of the Celtic Church by the Roman. While the transition was certainly contested by some and led to a number of doctrinal and liturgical disputes, over the course of roughly a half-century—and after much negotiating—the Celtic Christian church had peacefully adopted a number of Roman structural attributes, though other aspects of the Celtic church remained distinct for much longer. Future developments between rivaling Catholics and Reformers would not be so peaceable, and would do much to bring the spirit of ancient Celtic Christianity to near extinction.
This history of the development from the “Celtic Christian church” to the “Irish Catholic church” is a long and dark one indeed, throughout which the Celtic Christians were gradually severed from their historical memory, culture and language. Many of the distinctive Celtic Christian traits that were in tension with Rome were sublimated or suppressed, yet ironically, as this ancient tradition is reemerging,
we are uncovering the fact that many rites and practices in the Roman church today are indebted to the Celtic church wherein they originated.
The contemporary Celtic Christian Church (of which New Skellig is a budding member) is an independent catholic church which understands itself as did its ancient predecessors; that is, as a local church in communion with all other local churches that comprise the universal Church, which Scripture calls the “Body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27) and the Nicene Creed defines as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” While
the petrine primacy is deeply respected, we acknowledge also the expression of catholic faith as it is known in the Orthodox, Anglican, Old Catholic and Independent Catholic communions because of their shared creedal, sacramental, historical, and scriptural traditions.
Nevertheless, the unique characteristics that typified the ancient Celtic church are embodied in a contemporary way in the Celtic Christian Church. As such, it is hoped that New Skellig will allow for the budding of a catholic contemplative community of lay-people in the Bay Area.
New Skellig is beginning to gather as a domestic church which will meet in small intimate settings in one another’s homes. All baptized Christians are welcome to join us, as well as those seeking to know more about catholic Christian faith. While for some, New Skellig may become their primary faith community, for others it will serve more as an extension of their regular worshipping community. Our mission is
simple: to foster a catholic Christian community whereby we may walk with Christ as anam caras, in lives given to contemplative prayer. “Always be joyful; pray constantly; and for all things give thanks; this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes 5:16-18). Our charism then, is not simply to adapt monastic life to that of the secular world, but more so to discern in the Spirit what gifts of the
contemplative life emerge naturally within the lives of the laity—much akin to the monastic villages of the ancient Celtic church. As such, our community, like that of ancient Skellig, may remain small, yet always be a member of the larger universal ecclesia—the Body of Christ.
As we begin to meet on a regular basis, monthly gatherings will typically include the celebration of the Eucharist, time for contemplative silence, group reflection, biblical or theological study, and a simple shared meal. Eventually, as a clearer sense of community emerges, we will better be able to inquire about some form of ministry or outreach, perhaps directed toward environmental concerns, working locally with individuals in need, or contributing ecumenically to other church ministries. All this, however, always with an emphasis on fostering a deep interior life within the spirit of the Celtic Christian tradition.
May God’s own peace, which is beyond all understanding,
stand guard over your hearts and minds,
in Christ Jesus.