Jansenism, the Liturgy and Ireland | Rev. Brian Van Hove, S.J. | Ignatius InsightJansenism, 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 Augustinian." [1]

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. [2] 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 Countries.

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. [3] 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. [4] The ordinary people resisted. Robert Trisco wrote, "This was the time when close connections were forged between the Catholic religion and Irishness." [5]

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." [6]

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. [7] 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. [8] 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. [9]

There is also the likelihood that ancient Celtic liturgical rites survived a long while in Ireland before the legislated Roman liturgical reform supplanted them. [10] 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 ecclesiae . 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. [11] 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 liturgically.

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.
The most obvious reason why the Jansenists got opposition to their liturgical ideas, of course, is that such were understood to be Protestant. [16] 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 GuŽranger had a personal antipathy toward the Jansenist reform. In speaking of the innovations of Jacques JubŽ of Asnires, she cites GuŽranger as saying "it was an example of the deviations to which liturgy was liable when the Roman Mass books were not adopted."

Neither Pope John Paul II, nor Archbishop Bugnini, nor Dom Botte, nor the Second Vatican Council, nor Dom Prosper GuŽranger 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 church." [12]
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.

We know more about historical Jansenism now than ever in the past. [13] 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. [14]

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 outside Ireland.


[1] 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).

[2] See Western Monasticism: A History of the Monastic Movement in the Latin Church by Peter King (Cistercian Publications, 1999).

[3] 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).

[4] 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.

[5] 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).

[6] Op. cit.

[7] See Ernest Ruth d'Ans: "Patriarche des JansŽnistes" (1653-1728): Une Biographie by Michel Van Meerbeeck in Bibliothque de la Revue d'Histoire EcclŽsiastique , fascicule 87 (Brussels: ƒditions Nauwelaerts, 2006).

[8] 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."

[9] 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).

[10] + Attila Mikl—sh‡zy, 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 Mikl—sh‡zy, The Origin and Development of the Christian Liturgy According to Cultural Epochs (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), Vol. II, 403-405.

[11] See "Jansenism and Liturgical Reform" by Brian Van Hove, S.J. in the American Benedictine Review , vol. 44:4 (1993): 337-351.

[12] Op. cit.

[13] 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.

[14] 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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