Sunday 1 December 2013

The Advent Fast in the Irish Church -1

Below is the text of an interesting debate on the subject of the Advent Fast and the Irish Church which appeared in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in the early 1880s. The debate was sparked by a contribution of the President of Maynooth College to the Record's regular column on theological questions. In the course of his reply, Father Walsh suggested that the Advent Fast was a relative novelty in Ireland:
Moreover, rigid as the discipline of our Irish Church has from the beginning been in regard to fasting and abstinence, the fast of Advent was established in Ireland only about a hundred years ago. This is plain from the documents published in that most interesting, but unfortunately by no means widely circulated work, Dr. Renehan's Collections on Irish Church History, edited by the present venerated Bishop of Kerry. The circumstance is especially noteworthy when taken in connexion with the fact, which we also learn from the documents published in the work referred to, that until a comparatively recent period, that is to say, until within the last two or three hundred years, every Wednesday and Saturday throughout the year was, according to the Irish discipline, a day of abstinence from meat and every Friday, a day of abstinence from eggs and even lacticinia as well. Yet the fast of Advent had then no place in the observances of our Church. It was not introduced until the year 1778. [emphasis mine]

This claim proved too much for Church historian Father Sylvester Malone who fired off a letter to the Editor:
SIR. I have just read with usual pleasure, and, I hope, profit, the latest of the many able contributions by the Very Rev. President of Maynooth College to the RECORD. I refer to that on the Advent Fast. It occurs to me, however, that in p.749, there is a misstatement, made on the strength of the O'Renehan Collections on Irish Church History &etc, that the Advent Fast has been known in Ireland only since the year 1778.

If I read Irish MSS. correctly, that Fast had been in use in Ireland more than a thousand years previously. Thus in the Rule for the Culdees its existence is implied.

" Skimmed milk on Sundays of the great Lent to the people of severe penance."

So again in the Vision of Adamnan, born in 624, the Advent Fast is not only implied but expressly mentioned as the Winter Lent. After speaking of the manner in which the Triduum should be observed, the holy writer proceeds to define when each of the four Triduums was to take place.

" The first Triduum then, unless necessarily to be transferred, should usually begin on the Wednesday after entering on the Winter Lent; the second Triduum on the first Wednesday of the Spring Lent."

These entries leave no doubt as to the prevalence of the Advent Fast in Ireland. Of course Dr. Walsh's solid theological grounds are not at all affected by the historical aspect of the question.

In conclusion, I may remark that the Irish loan-word for Lent is corgais, a contraction for quadragesima, that is forty, the fast of forty (days). By and by a fast of a shorter nature was called Corgais from a familiarity with the Quadragesima ; and thus proves not only that a conventional meaning of a word may be different from, but even essentially contradictory to, the original derivative signification of the word.
I remain, yours, &c.,

Dr Walsh was invited to respond:
At the request of the Editor, I have read the foregoing interesting note contributed by my friend, Father Malone. As I should be most unwilling to have it supposed that in any statement of mine, theological or otherwise, I was misled by my reliance on the work referred to in my Paper, in the last number of the RECORD, I think it well to add a few observations in further explanation of the point to which F. Malone calls attention.

1. In the first place, I should say that the Advent Fast which I had in view when writing or, to speak more accurately, the Advent Fast to which I wished to confine my remarks was that which is now observed in Ireland and also in other countries throughout the Church. I took it for granted that not a few readers of the RECORD might possibly be under the impression as I confess that I myself was until a few years ago, when I was set right by the learned editor of Dr. Renehan's Collections that in Ireland the Advent fast had come down to us like the fasts of Lent, or of the Quatuor Tempora, or of the various Vigils throughout the year. Every student of theology is, of course, aware that the Advent fast is not one of the fasts imposed, as those others are, by common ecclesiastical law. But I thought it not unlikely that many were of opinion that, at least in Ireland, this fast had come down to us from the early ages of our Church as a portion of that specially rigid discipline in fasting, for which our forefathers were so remarkable from the very beginning. Hence I considered it would interest many to learn that such was not the case that, even in Ireland, the Advent fast, instead of being a remnant of ancient discipline, was of very recent institution that it had no existence among us even at that period, two hundred years ago, when the extreme rigour of the Irish discipline of fasting is attested by that most interesting collection of ecclesiastical documents, for the collection and publication of which the Irish Church is indebted to Dr. Renehan and Dr. M'Carthy and that, in fine, as set forth in one of the documents of that collection, its institution dates from a time, barely a hundred years ago, the year 1778. As to the existence of an Advent fast of a very different kind, which existed in Ireland at the interesting period of our history to which Fr. Malone refers, I had no thought of explicitly referring. In fact I thought it better not to do so, as it seemed to lie altogether outside the drift of my Paper.

2. The footnote referring to the article in Ferraris' Bibliotheca, in regard to the Advent fast of ecclesiastical antiquity, indicated, I thought with sufficient plainness, that I distinctly marked off that aspect of the question as altogether omitted from my discussion of the practical question regarding the present fast of Advent, which alone I had undertaken to consider. But as it is a point of no little interest, and as F. Malone has so kindly contributed the important evidence set forth in his letter, regarding the observance of this more ancient fast in Ireland, it may be well to add, that as regards the Western Church generally, this fast, as stated by Ferraris, fell into disuse about the twelfth century. So that, whether as regards the ancient observance of the fast, or the subsequent disuse and abrogation of it, the Irish Church was by no means singular.

3. In reference to the Irish word corgais (from quadragesima) as used to designate the ancient fast of Advent, I would suggest for Father Malone's consideration, and possibly investigation, a point which may prove to be of some interest. Is it quite certain that the word corgais, as thus applied, furnishes an instance of a word employed conventionally in a sense different from its derivative or etymological signification? The Advent fast of our present discipline is no doubt a fast of much shorter duration than the forty days fast of Lent. But is it quite clear that this was true of the earlier fast to which Father Malone refers? He has done so much for the elucidation of questions concerning our ancient ecclesiastical usages, that I venture to hope he will be able to throw some light on this point. It is one, I need not say, which lies altogether outside the range of my reading.

4. My reason for raising the question is that, as regards ecclesiastical antiquity generally, there is no doubt that, in many countries, the ancient fast of Advent, was, like that of Lent, a fast of forty days. Ferraris quotes several authorities on this point. So also does Benedict XIV., in his erudite Instruction on the time of Advent, contained in one of the Pastoral Letters which he published for the diocese of Bologna, when he was Archbishop of that See, before his elevation to the Chair of Peter. " Multis saeculis," says Ferraris, " Adventum 40 diebus . . constasse indubium est. , . Hinc Adventum vocatum fuisse Quadragesimam, in Vita B. Dominici Loricati legimus, et in Sacramentariis Ratholdi, abbatis Corbiensis." It is, in fact, still observed as a fast of forty days in many of the Churches of the East. Even in the Western Church, this ancient usage is still to some extent preserved in more than one religious order, in the fast of forty days in preparation for the feast of Christmas. It would be interesting to ascertain if a similarity in our ancient usage may not prove to be the true explanation also of the term corgais, or quadragesima, as applied in Ireland to the fast of Advent.

W. J. W.

Thus the ball was left in Father Malone's court and he responded with a paper on the subject which I shall post next. What was interesting to me from Dr Walsh's initial contribution was his acknowledgment that a more rigorous tradition of fasting in general survived among the Irish laity until the mid-17th century:
The discipline of the Irish Church in reference to abstinence on fasting days is now in substantial accordance with the provisions of the common law. But it may not be out of place to note, that down to so recent a period as the middle of the seventeenth century it was characterised by excessive rigour in this respect. The use of meat was prohibited on all Wednesdays throughout the year. And in addition to the abstinence from meat, prescribed by the common law on Fridays and Saturdays, every Friday during the year, and in many parts of the country every Saturday was a day of rigorous abstinence from eggs and lacticinia such as is now observed only on two or three days in the first and last weeks in Lent. Besides, in many districts, every Friday throughout the year was observed as a day not merely of abstinence, but of strict fast.
Indeed, when the rules were relaxed by Rome, the Irish Bishops hesitated to bring in some of the changes for fear of scandalizing the faithful:
Clement VIII., in 1598, issued a Bull, empowering the Irish bishops to dispense with many of these austerities. The bishops of the province of Dublin, assembled in Provincial Synod at Kilkenny, in 1614, under the presidency of Dr. Eugene Mathews, Archbishop of Dublin, published this Bull, and, availing themselves to a certain extent of the authority which it communicated, dispensed with the more rigorous portions of the abstinence previously observed. In several points, however, the abstinence from meat on Wednesdays throughout the year, and from eggs on Fridays and Saturdays no change was made, the bishops evidently fearing that a relaxation of the ancient discipline in these respects would shock the tender consciences of the faithful.

Irish Ecclesiastical Record Ser 3, vol 1, 1880, 25, 149.

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