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Jansenism, the Liturgy and Ireland | Rev. Brian Van Hove, S.J. | Ignatius Insight
Too often writers will say that classic Irish
religious culture was "Jansenistic." This erroneous claim can be examined and
dismantled. Newer scholarship readily depicts a more accurate picture.
Medieval European Catholicism was "abbey
centered." Early monastic life had evolved into the great abbatial sees. The
monastic ideal was the only ideal for the Christian, and the laity absorbed
"the culture of the monastery" into their morals and piety. For the Christian
West the thought of St. Augustine overshadowed the other Church Fathers, and
this dominance shaped monastic spirituality as well as popular Catholicism.
Augustinianism was "rigorist" by its nature, and this should surprise no one.
Eamon Duffy says the pre-Counter-Reformation church in Ireland was "profoundly
When St. Columban (+ 615) traveled from Ireland
to France as a missionary, he brought monastic "rigorism" or "Celtic
austerities" with him. He was exiled from France to Italy for criticizing the immorality
of the Frankish court and the laxity of the bishops.  The
Irish were not to be accused of laxity since popularized rigorism was
ingrained. It became cultural. Rigorism was an attitude and an orientation, a
discipline but not a doctrine. For examples of northern European countries
finding somber religion congenial, take note of Scandinavia and The Low
Now a question arises. The Jansenists were the
"Disciples of Saint Augustine," so therefore was this identification congruent
with existing Irish tradition? The question is answered by specifying the
source and quality of the Augustinianism under discussion. Popular rigorism
derived from tradition and monastic heritage ‒ the remote past ‒ was quite different from the "university,
elitist" reform movement of the Early Modern period (1615-1789) on the European
Continent. We have here two different sources, one in place in Ireland and the
other a foreign phenomenon. Jansenism fit the conditions of French politics and
the logistics of academic Louvain, not the unique situation of Ireland.
Native Irish religion in the Early Modern period
was resistant to change. Foreign invaders might bring a new religion, but the
indigenous Irish held on to what they had as integral to their identity. Even
if the bishops capitulated to the English Reformation, the simple folk did not.
In 1540 King Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland, and in 1560 the
Established Church was erected by law.
In 1542 Saint Ignatius Loyola on the pope's behalf sent
a delegation to Ireland to assess the religious situation, and the report by
his two trusted companions was negative. The local chieftains quarreled among
themselves and some of the bishops were personally corrupt, which meant the
clergy were likely the same.  The report given to the pope in Rome
by legates Alfonso Salmeron and Paschase Brouet saw no hope. Even so, Felicity
Heal asserts that the Protestant Reformation in Ireland failed in the sixteenth
century.  The ordinary people resisted. Robert
Trisco wrote, "This was the time when close connections were forged between the
Catholic religion and Irishness." 
Evidence about the work of Jesuit and other
missionaries indicates that the Irish adopted the "Tridentine reform" rather
late. Trisco refers to the historical work of Michael Mullet and says that only
slowly and after mid-eighteenth century did "the Irish Catholics embrace 'the
Tridentine agenda of the Counter-Reformation'" and "eventually came to equate
this Catholicism with their post-Gaelic national identity and to form the most
convincingly Catholic people in Western Europe." 
The Jesuits, of course, were the implacable
enemies of the Jansenists, but there is no history of a "Jesuit ‒ Jansenist" conflict
taking place in Catholic, post-Reformation Ireland. In France the reform
movement known as Jansenism lasted one hundred and fifty years, approximately
1640-1790. By mid-eighteenth century Jansenism had waned in France. The
"patriarch of the Jansenists" and their last serious spokesman, Paul-Ernest
Ruth d'Ans, died in 1728.  There is no
reason to believe Ireland was an outpost for Jansenism as we understand it.
In the Early Modern period there were no formal
seminaries in Ireland for the training of the clergy. Irish students went
abroad to France, Rome or Louvain. They may have been conversant with the
Jansenist politics of the day, but they would have been hard pressed to import
such matters into a land where the Catholic Church struggled to survive. There
may have been some scattered Irish Jansenists, but there was no Irish
Jansenism. Common people would have been uninterested. Their church did not
need reform along French lines. Importantly, Jansenism was a non-Tridentine
model of church reform. This description simply does not fit the Ireland of the
Early Modern period.
In fact, survivals of pre-Christian Celtic
religiosity might have been abundant, and even if they displayed "cultural
rigorism" one may hardly call that "Jansenism" which was a creature of
Continental intellectuals. If the Irish clergy educated abroad returned home
with moral "rigorism," it was surely no more rigorous than the older
"rigorism." Rigorism and Jansenism are not identical.  At the peak of the Jansenists' strength,
Ireland was either isolated or resistant to such a movement. Raymond Gillespie
writes that the Irish forged a genuine lay spirituality instead of a passive
receptivity to theological ideas. 
There is also the likelihood that ancient Celtic
liturgical rites survived a long while in Ireland before the legislated Roman
liturgical reform supplanted them.  Liturgy develops when the
Church is free. Irish liturgy tended not to develop in the same way as German
liturgy because of the lack of political freedom—clandestine Masses will
always be understated and hasty. The very existence of "Mass-Rock" traditions
excludes any lavish liturgical growth.
Resistance to change became a defense against
annihilation. Adopting either theological or moral or political "Jansenism"
would have meant change, and the stubborn Irish mentality was antithetical to
religious change in a climate of oppression. Both Jansenism and Tridentism
assumed and required change.
The Jansenist ideal was the imago primitivae
To many this resembled Protestantism. The notion of the primitive apostolic
church and its virtues explains the Jansenist penchant for liturgical cleansing
and the simplification of rites.
Elsewhere I have quoted scholars who researched
Jansenist liturgical reform.  Here is the essence:
"An American scholar, F. Ellen Weaver, has analyzed the relevant documents, especially the ceremonial
books and ritual books with their own notes, which pertain to this Jansenist
interest in the reform of the liturgy. Nearly all the
themes familiar in our own day after Sacrosanctum concilium were pursued by the
Jansenist reformers – introduction of the vernacular, a greater role for
the laity in worship, active participation by all, recovery of the notion of
the eucharistic meal and the community, communion under both kinds, emphasis on
biblical and also patristic formation, clearer preaching and teaching, less
cluttered calendars and fewer devotions which might distract from the
centrality of the Eucharist. Even the "kiss of peace" was practiced at
Port-Royal, and a sort of offertory procession was found there and elsewhere
among Jansenist liturgical reformers.
The conclusion is that their program was a ...
thoroughgoing and more systematic Catholic
reform envisioned by the Jansenists which Weaver calls their 'lex docendi, lex
orandi'. The whole of their reform program was to seek its expression
Irish liturgical minimalism, for lack of a
better way to describe the situation, was due to circumstances, not a reforming
impetus such as the Jansenists and others proposed.
Even the [eighteenth century] Italian Jansenists
of Tuscany and Pistoia centered their reform on liturgy:
Inside the parish church
the service must be made congregational. And here
doctrine entered. The liturgy was not an act done by
priest for the people, it was 'a common act of priest
and people'. Therefore all the liturgy, even the
prayer of consecration which was said secretly, should be
said in a loud voice, and the congregation was to be
encouraged to share. The reformers asked themselves whether
logic must not demand liturgy in the vernacular instead of
Latin, and plainly believed that in principle this would be right; but
knew that in practice neither their people nor the
Church at large would tolerate such radical departure
from hallowed tradition. Nevertheless the people
should be helped to understand by being provided with
vernacular translations and by readings of the gospel in the
vernacular after the Latin reading.
obvious reason why the Jansenists got opposition to their liturgical ideas, of
course, is that such were understood to be Protestant.  Even today the same ideas are still rejected in some circles on these grounds.
Despite Paul VI's deliberate insertion of #6 - #9 into the General Instruction
on the Roman Missal of 1969, an assortment of ... (critics) continue to claim the
reform was a Protestant conspiracy. They think the missal of 1570 is an
immutable bulwark against Protestant influence, even though J.D. Crichton has
rightly pointed out that this edition is nearly identical to the first printed
one of 1474, several years before the birth of Luther.
Weaver tells us that Dom Guéranger had a
personal antipathy toward the Jansenist reform. In speaking of the innovations
of Jacques Jubé of Asnières, she cites Guéranger as saying "it was an example
of the deviations to which liturgy was liable when the Roman Mass books were
Neither Pope John Paul II, nor Archbishop
Bugnini, nor Dom Botte, nor the Second Vatican Council, nor Dom Prosper
Guéranger give the Jansenist liturgical reform movement any notice at all for
being ahead of its time ‒ it is never mentioned
either for its catholicity or its importance as an orthodox, or mostly
orthodox, alternative to the mandated liturgical reforms of Trent. Since the
canons of Trent were introduced very late in France, it had been up to
individuals and small groups to conduct the Counter-Reformation by themselves
in what now looks to us to have been an often unsystematic way. Were it not for
unfortunate political entanglements which are notorious, Jansenism might have
been integrated into the mainstream of the church, not expelled from it altogether.
Though their liturgical ideas did not die, but resurfaced in Europe in
different contexts, they were always tainted until well into the twentieth
century. Jansenists have often been misunderstood or
falsely blamed. Currently, though, church historians are re-evaluating the
sources and are able to show that specific liturgical ideas ... were flourishing
in France and Italy during the early modern period when the Jansenists tried,
but failed, to introduce them as reforms into the actual life of the Catholic
We know more about historical Jansenism now than
ever in the past.  Research
has uncovered the real face of this complex phenomenon. For too long, it was
distorted by the victory of its foes. But whatever Jansenism was, it was not
Irish. An Irish exile might have been involved with it, but in Ireland itself
"Jansenism" would not have made sense. Some say without proof that "Jansenistic
priests" took refuge in Ireland and spread their ideas to the people. But this
hearsay remains hearsay. A pastor will tell you how people have a way of doing
what they want to do despite admonitions. The Irish clergy who were educated
abroad may have been aware of Continental controversies, but importing these
battles would have bewildered the Catholic Irish.
Finally, while Jansenism was known for its
"resistance to authority," an Irish "resistance to authority" was not the same
thing because the Irish resisted quite a different authority. 
In the penal era the threat was from outside.
Today the threat to the Church is from internal decline stimulated by
secularism and the loss of faith. Defiance of secularism may still have a
resource in the liturgy. A bit of neo-rigorism might even help both in and
 See Faith of Our
Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition by Eamon Duffy (New York: Continuum,
2004). Review by Jason Byassee in The Christian Century (19 April 2005).
 See Western Monasticism:
A History of the Monastic Movement in the Latin Church by Peter King
(Cistercian Publications, 1999).
 The Society of Jesus in Ireland, Scotland,
and England 1541-1588: "Our Way of Proceeding?" by Thomas M. McCoog, S.J. in Studies in Medieval and
Reformation Thought, Volume IX (Leiden: E.
J. Brill, 1996). Review by Michael L. Carrafiello in The Catholic
Historical Review (1 October 1997).
 See Reformation in Britain and
Ireland by Felicity Heal in the Oxford History of the Christian Church (New York: The
Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 2003). Review by Rosamund Oates in Albion (22 September 2004).
Also A Guide to the Irish Jesuit Province Archives by Stephen Redmond in Archivum
Hibernicum, vol. 50 (1996): 127-131.
 See Catholics in Britain
and Ireland, 1558-1829 by Michael A. Mullett in the Social History in
Perspective (New York: St. Martin's, 1998). Trisco adds: "... this book can be recommended only
to those who are already familiar with the general history of the Catholic
Church in the islands from the time of the accession of Elizabeth I to the end
of the penal age." Review by Robert Trisco in Church History (1 December 2000).
 Op. cit.
 See Ernest Ruth d'Ans: "Patriarche des Jansénistes" (1653-1728): Une Biographie by Michel Van Meerbeeck
in Bibliothèque de la Revue d'Histoire Ecclésiastique , fascicule 87
(Brussels: Éditions Nauwelaerts, 2006).
 See "Jansenism" by Thomas O'Connor in The Oxford Companion to Irish History . O'Connor says: "The
frequent claim that Irish Catholicism was Jansenist-influenced springs from the
tendency to confuse Jansenism with mere moral rigorism."
 See Devoted People: Belief and Religion in Early Modern Ireland by Raymond Gillespie in
Social and Cultural Studies in Early Modern Europe (New York: St. Martin's
Press, New York. 1997). Review by Fergus O'Donoghue, S. J. in The Catholic
Historical Review (1 July 1998).
 + Attila
Miklósházy, S.J., says that in Scotland the Celtic rites may have held out until the
eleventh century. The implication is that in Ireland they were absorbed into
the Franco-Roman rites earlier than in Scotland. See Attila Miklósházy, The
Origin and Development of the Christian Liturgy According to Cultural Epochs (Lewiston, New York:
The Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), Vol. II, 403-405.
 See "Jansenism and Liturgical Reform" by Brian Van Hove, S.J. in the American
Benedictine Review ,
vol. 44:4 (1993): 337-351.
 Op. cit.
 See Jansenism: Catholic Resistance to Authority from the Reformation to the French Revolution by William Doyle in Studies in European History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001). The
review by Jacques M. Gres-Gayer in The Catholic Historical Review (1 October 2001) is of high quality and must be read with care for a proper understanding of Jansenism. This book review is
by itself a treatise on Jansenism.
 Op. cit. Doyle quotes Weaver, Chadwick, Crichton and others.
This essay was originally published in Christus Regnat
(Journal of St. Conleth's Catholic Heritage Association), vol. 3, no. 1 (Christmas
2009): 15-18. It is reproduced here with kind permission of the author, who is Chaplain to the Religious
Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan.
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Father Brian Van Hove, S.J., is the Chaplain to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan.
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