Celtic Influences in Eucharistic Liturgy

What are some of the Celtic influences in our eucharistic liturgy and how can they be utilized to enhance our liturgical prayer?

Because our heritage of revelation, prayers, and rituals is intensely Judaic, and the Eastern Mediterranean environment into which it came and blossomed was Greek, one might be tempted to think that the only Celtic influence in eucharistic liturgy is the Irish Wake. Even when Christianity spread to the Western Mediterranean, the influence there was intensely Roman — who had done everything they could to extinguish any Celtic influence in their cultural sphere. Indeed, the structure of the Mass (in both our Eastern and Western Catholic churches) is often described as the synagogue service of psalms, scripture reading, prayers and a commentary followed by the temple offerings and followed in turn by the Passover ritual — all augmented by the action of the Holy Spirit and the direct words of Jesus. Is it any wonder that the search for any Celtic influence in the eucharistic liturgy might be as elusive as the proverbial search for the needle in the haystack?

If, however, one looks carefully at Celtic spirituality, one can notice traces of Celtic influence that added flavor to our eucharistic rituals and practices over the centuries. These influences come via two pathways. Some Celtic practices were so similar to the Greco-Judean rituals that they integrated unnoticed and added only subtle influences on these established practices. Some other Celtic practices were so deeply rooted in human longings that their addition was accepted without clear cognizance of their non-Greco-Judean origin. In this article we will examine the four characteristics of Celtic Spirituality as they were inserted into the structure of the Greco-Judean liturgy, and some implications/possibilities for further development in contemporary and future worship practices. We do this as we seek to integrate worship of God more interiorly into any western culture steeped in Celtic spirituality at its instinctive core.

Preliminary Distinction

A crucial distinction between spiritual and sacred needs to be pointed out as we look at this interaction. For most Christians, because of the centrality of Jesus Christ who is absolutely both divine and human, our understanding of the spiritual has automatically moved into the sacred or to a connection with God directly — through the centrality of Jesus Christ in all Christian prayer and worship. This logical jump built upon the Jewish idea of God’s direct interaction with that community and revealing both God’s name [YHWH] and tender yet almighty characteristics.1 Yet, for other cultures, the idea of spiritual meant only a connection with the world of the spirits. This perspective included a participation with spirits in nature (connecting to animals or places) or to a realm beyond the ordinary human struggle to survive. Humans buried and mourned their dead — but remained connected to them in a variety of ways.2 Being spiritual included practices that enhanced that connection to those who had moved from the physical world into the spiritual world. These rituals were considered by the Israelites either as somehow magical, or the worship of false gods; and they have routinely been looked upon that way through the centuries when Christian missionaries penetrated other cultures. Practices like “New Age” spirituality and other studies of personal self-enhancement, even including critical references to a “higher power” in the 12-step programs for addiction recovery3 have clarified the distinction between spiritual and sacred that can and does exist. It may indeed be possible to see such actions in ancient cultures, which expressed a longing for the spiritual and attempts to connect to it, not necessarily as worship of false deities — but simply as an aching longing to fill the emptiness in each human soul with whatever they could reach. Studies of St. Patrick and subsequent Irish missionaries show that, to the Celts, the message of Christ and the gift of Christ’s sacraments took them from their pre-existing connection to the spiritual into the sacred wonderfully and well.

Major Characteristics of Celtic Spirituality

Four aspects of Celtic spirituality stand out: (1) Immanence of the spirit world or divine; (2) Community connectedness; (3) Art and music as ways of entering the spiritual; (4) Life as a pilgrimage seeking “thin places” for greater connection with that spiritual world.4

1. The sense of immanence of the divine was a particular struggle for Christianity’s insertion into the Celtic culture. Contrary to the Canaanite pagan perspective of fertility gods close to them on every hilltop, or the Greek sense of gods exemplifying human characteristics like wisdom or courage, the Jewish emphasis was on the transcendence of (one and only one) God and God’s intense holiness.5 This approach, compared with our sinfulness, found its echoes in the Platonic description of the world of forms as distinct from our natural world and was taken up by early spiritual writers. Importantly it was taken up by St. Augustine in his eloquent descriptions of original sin and concupiscence and its effects on our human nature and particularly on the body.6 His significant influence on the theology and spirituality of the west during the Middle Ages, reduced the effect of charismatic figures like St. Francis of Assisi and the entire Franciscan intellectual tradition in the 1200s down to present times.7 Their attempts to recapture and use properly any sense of imminence of the divine in nature has remained a bit suspect. Yet with the advance of medical science leading to a greater understanding of the Theology of the Body,8 this Franciscan-inspired flavor, including a greater motivation to care for animals and all of creation, may again become acceptable enough to serve a very useful purpose in today’s world.

2. One can easily see the connection between the Celtic emphasis on community (clan membership) and the tribal connections in ancient Israel.9 Worshipping as family groups, led by one’s parents or elders, fit within the Jewish and early Christian styles of worship so well that the Celtic practice of worshiping as a family may have actually eased their transition into Christianity. This flavor resulted in the development of “house monasteries” where whole families became miniature monastic communities at the time of St. Patrick, and it has reemerged beautifully in the present-day emphasis on the family as the “domestic church.”

Studies of St. Patrick and subsequent Irish missionaries show that, to the Celts, the message of Christ and the gift of Christ’s sacraments took them from their pre-existing connection to the spiritual into the sacred wonderfully and well.

3. Art and music were not as great of a part of ancient Jewish and early Christian activities as they were for Celtic cultures. Though the psalms were chanted in the temple and by pilgrims on their way to and from Jerusalem,10 and although there are a number of early Christian hymns that have come down to us and continue to be prayed during vespers regularly,11 music seemed to play a larger part in non-Jewish worship.12 Yet, art and music are a wonderful “nest” in which the spiritual naturally develops, and to which the sacred naturally connects — which may be why they were used so often in the non-Jewish cults referenced above.

Celtic music, to an even greater degree, pervades Celtic life experiences with its “lilting” quality that uplifts us still today. Moreover, because in Ireland at the time of St. Patrick their entire history was put into verse and memorized, could not this poetry have been accompanied by melody to assist with its retention — as the history of Irish and Scottish balladeers seems to support? The development of Gregorian Chant is consistent with both the Celtic and Judeo/proto-Christian tradition of using music in liturgy; and it often accompanied movement either in processions or simply when incensing sacred items or places. Although there is sparse evidence of anything as exciting as King David’s dancing before the arc of the covenant in early Christian activity, the Celtic hornpipe melodies that have come to us seem to have a similar effect on dancers in more secular settings — especially when inhibitions might have been lowered by the medicinal effects of Celtic brews. The beauties of liturgical dance as practiced in the Zairian Rite and other African celebrations would resonate well with the Celtic tradition — which considered music and dance a way to connect with the spiritual.13

Graphic arts likewise were minimal in the original Jewish Tent-Temple design but increased under Solomon;14 and early Christian sacred art included both frescoes and mosaics.15 Likewise among Celts one can find an abundance of stone crosses embellished with intertwined designs of great intricacy. That same intricate design has been used to indicate the interweaving of the persons within the Blessed Trinity and can be found on sacred objects of every kind including chalice bases. Yet, graphic art seemed to be used only as an embellishment of sacred objects, rather than implying any deeper issues such as those faced in the Eastern Mediterranean dioceses during the iconoclast controversy.16 As a result, both musical and graphic arts, even though both of these areas were viewed as pathways to the spiritual among the Celts, found that their use in liturgical design and performance remained only an augmentation, fitting — sometimes naturally, sometimes only tangentially — into the service or liturgical activity. Whereas in frontier evangelical settings, from tent revivals to ordinary weekly worship, music (and today also videos) appear to hold a status almost equal to preaching.

4. It is with the view of life as a pilgrimage, augmented by the connection to “thin places”, that we find a slightly controversial influence, harkening back to the idea of immanence, but which also reveals itself within art and music. Though there are lilting melodies which found their way into hymns like the Breastplate of St. Patrick,17 and though the soaring designs of Gothic cathedrals seem to guide life’s pilgrimage into the heavens the way the ancient round towers all over Ireland have done over the centuries,18 and though the practice of even short pilgrimages found minimal difficulty being incorporated into Christian practice, there have been greater struggles with incorporation in this area than in others.

Much like the unbroken intertwining of lines in Celtic art, the fact that pre-Christian Celtic religious narratives did not include an account of creation lent itself to an idea that our lives were all part of an intertwined but (never-beginning and never-ending) ongoing process. This concept had overtones in descriptions of parts of (or all of) creation as being as eternal as their gods and spirits.19 Additionally, the idea of “thin places” where the physical world we normally experience somehow comes very close to (is almost in tune with) the spiritual realm has some but very few counterparts in the Judeo-Greek understanding on which Christianity is built.20

Yet we find this sense of the “human actions somehow penetrating into or passing through the barrier to the spiritual realm” and into the sacred realm present still in the Roman Canon or First Eucharistic Prayer.21 This sense of penetration does not seem significantly different than, indeed somehow seems to build upon, the sense of penetration into the sacred when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies in the temple once a year or the priest in the Byzantine family of rites passes through the doors in the iconostasis. In some ways, the entire sense of anamnesis or “entering into the mystery of a remembered sacred event” seems almost to create a “thin place” in every Eucharistic celebration — and the eucharistic presence in the tabernacle perpetuates this. Thus, there may indeed be ways to incorporate this Celtic sense properly and well into our contemporary liturgical celebrations.

Implications and Applications

One may legitimately ask why anyone should be concerned with such esoteric issues as these? It is no secret that English has become the present-day international language; nor is it a surprise to anyone that Celtic peoples (Irish, Scott, Welsh and even English to some extent) have migrated to — and also taught in — nearly every part of the world.22 The music, the style of art, and even the melancholy longing of these peoples have pervaded the settlements they established and have left their Celtic longings embedded in the (often subconscious) aspects of contemporary society nearly everywhere. Therefore, connecting to these elements of Celtic spirituality should naturally deepen the liturgical experience in subtle but very helpful ways.

Understanding these Celtic longings hidden in our instincts can help western cultures focus liturgical decisions toward actions that reach the deepest parts of parishioners’ personalities.

Some of the implications may seem passé, such as the addition of a creation narrative and eschatological goal to Celtic history or trying to place monasteries in thin places such as a specific sacred glen or garden spot; yet the suggestions here may be more useful than originally imagined.

1. With process theology underlying much of our contemporary culture, by adding instead a sense of real origin that connects with the scientifically established big bang theory (with a divine hand at work for our purpose and destiny) may help as much in our present culture (particularly with many Millennials who describe their lives as rootless or drifting) as it did for the ancient Celts. Recapturing history becomes a gift to them.

2. Finding the right spot for a new parish church may mean more than just good access for parking or cheap real estate. Acquiring a “feel” for each optional location may help a committee decide between alternate locations. Moreover, enhancing the location with the right landscaping or establishing a prayer garden spot will enable the creation of a nature-enhanced thin place for that new sacred edifice.

3. Although church architecture in the first 1,000 years followed the desire to simply house or gather the congregation and was often of a low-squat or organizational style, the Gothic architecture of churches and colleges that emerged all throughout western Europe testify to a soaring or “lilting” flavor to the buildings and buoyed their occupants’ spirits. Is it any wonder that the New York faithful chose a Gothic cathedral rather than the progressive and efficient styles of the buildings around them?

4. The sense of the immanence of the divine in nature around us is often described by spiritual writers as “seeing the fingerprints of God” in the things God has made, particularly in animals. Thus, the blessing of animals, homes, cars, etc., transforms this connection of creature to creature with the explicit grace of Jesus Christ — and resonates with Celtic instincts in each of us, particularly in children.

5. The use of processions, parallel to pilgrimages or the “calling of the clans,” lets the faithful participate through whole-body movement in ways we are beginning to re-appreciate. These include some familiar activities that still are processions/pilgrimages:

• Coming up for Communion at Mass and for ashes on Ash Wednesday;
• Corpus Christi processions with the monstrance around church property, or Marian devotions where individuals each bring a flower at the end of the Mass to the statue of the Blessed Mother, or even larger processions such as the candlelight wheelchair processions each night at Lourdes;
• Palm Sunday (with blessed palms) and Holy Saturday (with individual candles) that gather the community or “call the clans” into the house of God;
• Processing as a group from spot to spot while doing Stations of the Cross outside (rather than simply staying put in church and watching the priest and servers move from station to station), or even more intensely going to each of the stational churches in Rome on Good Friday.

Yet they can also include some less-readily recognized or practiced processions:

• The procession with newly-blessed candles into the church (completing the Christmas season) on February 2, or processions of grieving families (individually when called forth) to light a remembrance candle for a lost loved one on November 2
• The long-practiced lighting of wedding candles by the mother of the groom and mother of the bride as part of the pre-entrance procession (calling clans together);
• The individual bringing up of gifts like canned goods on Thanksgiving as part of the offertory, or a parallel bringing up of a matchstick (as a symbol of the portion of Christ’s cross we carried that year) to a tiny fire in front of the altar (surrounded by sacred earth and holy water) on Sylvestertag (Dec 31st) to which the priest adds incense to “change our burdens into prayers” that we offer back to God as we conclude that year;

All of these involve the whole community of faithful in that procession/pilgrimage that is a gift of the whole self back to God in worship.


Understanding these Celtic longings hidden in our instincts can help western cultures focus liturgical decisions toward actions that reach the deepest parts of parishioners’ personalities. Employing some of these suggestions can touch deeply any faithful who are starved for these Celtic aspects in our digital culture — and may entice them to return to church rather than simply remain on-line.


1 Cf: Ex 3:4-18, Hos 11:1-11, etc.

2 Mexican “Day of the Dead” celebrations, Hindu and Buddhist sense of reincarnation, mourning rituals among the Jews and their pagan neighbors, burying of useful materials with deceased, etc.

3 This treatment, developed in the 1930s, references a “higher power” and though it comes from a Christian perspective it is useful in alcohol, narcotic or any addiction, even by atheists. See any of their training pamphlets, or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve-step_program

4 Davies, Oliver, Celtic Spirituality, Paulist Press, 1999, ISBN 08091-38948, p 7, 14, 20ff.

5 “As far as the heavens are above the earth are my ways above yours…” Is 55:8-9

6 Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who was trained as a rhetorician. He could explain both his ideas and those of others very well. For his ideas on the body see (De nupt. et concup., II, xxvi, 43) and other passages.

7 Alexander of Hales (1185-1245), Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) and John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) to the contemporary blessing of animals on St. Francis’ feast day Oct 4th.

8 St. John Paul II, Theology of the Body, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005, 129 lectures delivered in the general audiences between September 5, 1979 and November 28, 1984

9 St. Paul reminds his Jewish hearers that he is from the tribe of Benjamin: Rom 11:1, Phil 3:5.

10 Psalms 120-134 were pilgrim psalms chanted by ordinary folks, though the Levites chanted psalms in the temple.

11 Col 1:12-20, Eph 1:3-10, Phil 2:6-11, 1 Peter 2:21-24, Rev 4:11, 5:9-12, 11:17-18, 12:10-12, 15:3-4, 19:1-7

12 Daniel 3:5,15, for example, as well as the word “incantation” coming from the root “chant” or sing.

13 Fleming, F. et al., Heroes of the Dawn, Barnes & Noble, 2003, ISBN 0-7607-3929-3, p 37ff.

14 1 Kings 6:18-33

15 Frescoes in the substructure of San Clemente in Rome, Mosaics of Ravenna and Constantinople, etc.

16 Eberhardt, Newman C., A Summary of Catholic History, Herder Book Co., St. Louis, 1961, vol I, p 390-7.

17 Worship, GIA Pub, Chicago, 1975, p 127, and other similar tunes.

18 Though Gothic design did not originate in Celtic lands, it did develop only after Irish monks had re-evangelized Europe after the fall of the Roman empire. See McManus, Seumas, The Story of the Irish Race, Devon Adair co., New York, 1973 p 232 ff or Eberhardt, op. cit., p348

19 Breastplate of St. Patrick, op. cit., p 127, Stanza 2 refers to “eternal rocks.”

20 Acts 16:13, St. Paul meets Lydia at what the Celts would describe as a thin place “a spot by the river that seemed like it might be a place of prayer.”

21 Roman Missal # 94: “Supplices te rogamus, omnipotens Deus: jube haec perferri per manus sancti Angeli tui in sublime altare tuum…”

22 McManus, op. cit. Irish monks re-evangelized France, Germany and Scandinavia in the middle ages, p 232, and Irish soldiers or “Wild Geese” have fought around the globe in service of many powers, p 454 and Irish missionaries have assisted in evangelization everywhere the English language went in the 18th through 20th centuries, p 723.


About Patrick Dolan

Patrick Dolan is a recently retired diocesan priest from the Archdiocese of Louisville, KY, and an army chaplain. He was Senior chaplain in the US National Guard, responsible for all the states and territories including 1500 clergy and 365,000 soldiers. He is current chair of the Louisville section of the American Chemical Society and “visiting scholar” at Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium working on integrating science and theology.