Monday 24 June 2013

Saint Rumoldus of Dublin, June 24

Below is a paper published in 1922 on the Life of Saint Rumoldus of Dublin, in which the writer admits that he is a saint not well-known in the land of his birth. 1922 was a rather momentous year for Ireland, and the writer, J.B. Cullen, cannot contain his nationalist enthusiasm from spilling over into the text at various points. Indeed, Cullen presents the lack of martyrs at home as an act of divine providence, for we were a 'chosen people' destined to spread light and learning to other nations, and for that some heroic Irish saints, like Rumold of Dublin, had to embrace martyrdom. The sources record June 24 as the date of Saint Rumold's martyrdom, but due to the clash with the feast of Saint John the Baptist, Pope Alexander IV transferred his feastday to July 1.


IN the accounts handed down to us of the first centuries of the Irish Church, and in the several calendars in which the names of our national saints are preserved, it is very remarkable how few martyrs are commemorated. Writers of ecclesiastical history, alluding to this fact, frequently notice that Ireland was the only spot, in the whole of Christendom, where the Gospel took possession without resistance or bloodshed. The introduction of the faith, which in other countries brought Christians to martyrdom, in Ireland led them into monasteries and sanctuaries of peace. This justifies us in thinking that Divine Providence facilitated in a special manner the conversion of this chosen people, whom He destined to carry the light of faith and learning over land and sea, and to regenerate whole nations, whose children were steeped in the darkness of paganism, superstition, and idolatry. The limited number of our early saints who were privileged to clasp the palm of martyrdom, for the same reason, were, it would seem, forced to seek the prize they coveted in lands far beyond the encircling seas of their native isle. St. Rumoldus was one of these. The name of the Saint takes various forms : Rumoldus (Latin), Romoel (Irish), Rombaut (Flemish), etc.

St. Rumoldus was born about the close of the seventh century. His father, Datha, was then King of Leinster, his mother being daughter of the King of Cashel. The faith of Christ was well established throughout Ireland at the period of the Saint's birth, an event which was attributed to the miraculous efficacy of prayer. His parents were advanced in years, and had long abandoned the hope that one of their line should succeed to the throne of Leinster. Both were excellent Christians and, through the influence of their position, rendered, in these remote times, great services to religion. Gaulafer, the saintly Bishop who then occupied the See, which then represented that of Dublin at the present day, was the fastest friend of the worthy King and Queen. In his efforts to promote the moral and religious welfare of his people they were always ready to aid him. The saintly prelate, consequently, often thought within himself how great a change might take place, in religious matters, after the death of King Datha. The laws of tanistry regarding the succession might, he foresaw, possibly transfer to less worthy hands the sceptre of his kingdom. The fervent and constant prayer of the zealous Bishop was that this misfortune if God's Will might be averted. His petitions were heard, and great was the surprise and joy throughout the province when the birth of a prince was announced. The infant prince received baptism at the hands of the saintly Bishop who like Holy Simeon of old rejoiced that he had lived to see the auspicious day he had so ardently longed and prayed for. When our future saint came to the years of reason, his parents entrusted his spiritual training and education to Bishop Gaulafer. In addition to the training in the ways of religion and virtue, instructions in the science of war and government were not neglected. The boy, on his part, gave early promise of being a wise and capable ruler. But, as we shall see, the ways of men are very often not the designs of Divine Providence.

When his education was completed, Rumoldus passed the remainder of his early life in his royal home. The comeliness of his person and the excellence of his disposition had more than ever endeared him to his parents, no less than to his tribesmen, who looked forward to the day when he should be their king.

However, in his inmost heart, Romoel craved not the honours of the world nor the wearing of a royal crown. To the surprise of his countrymen, and despite the tearful remonstrances of his loving parents, the young prince determined to forsake his beloved home and embrace the religious life.

We are indebted to foreign sources for most of the particulars that weave around our pen in this brief sketch of our Saint's career. His wonderful sanctity, humility, and austerities are spoken of with lavish admiration by all his biographers. On the death of Gaulafer, Rumoldus, being then a priest, was unanimously chosen as his successor, and so conspicuous were his wisdom and talents that, when his royal father died, the chieftains and people of Leinster determined to accept no other than the Prince-Bishop of Ath-Cliath for their king.

However, Rumoldus, who at his ordination had renounced his claims to earthly honours, would not hear of the popular demand. The people, on their side, insisted that he should fill jointly the office of king and bishop. It was an hour of great trial to the Saint, during which, it is related, he was frequently sustained and comforted by miraculous visions, and was often favoured by visits from the ministering angels of God.

Casting his cares on God and fervently invoking the Divine guidance, at length a life's decision was made. Rumoldus determined to steal away from his native country, whose people, in their boundless admiration for his holiness and virtue, compelled him to chose exile in order to escape the dignity they would fain force upon him. Disposing of such personal possessions as he had, and without making known his intentions to anyone, he left Ireland for ever. Crossing the dividing seas between Ireland and the Continent, he directed his footsteps along the usual route of pilgrims in those days through Flanders and along the banks of the Rhine till, at last, he reached Rome. His visit to the Eternal City was made for the purpose of laying his future projects before the Vicar of Christ. Moreover, we must remember that he was still Bishop of an Irish diocese, and then, as now, he could not renounce his sacred office without the sanction of the Holy See. Stephen III was, at that time, the reigning Pontiff (752-757), by whom Rumoldus was received with paternal affection and veneration. Divesting himself of the insignia conferred upon him at his consecration, he laid them at the feet of the Pope, whom he besought to release from his episcopal charge. Having fully explained the motives that impelled him to come to this resolve, he humbly petitioned the Pope that he might be granted the apostolic commission to retrace his steps to Central Europe, and there preach the Gospel in some of those countries where in his Romeward journey he found the inhabitants practising the darkest forms of paganism. Realizing that the holy man was evidently inspired to do great things for the sake of Christ, the Holy Father yielded to his entreaties, and, furthermore, gave him permission to choose the place of his future mission, wheresoever he felt himself called upon by Almighty God to labour for the salvation of souls.

Rumoldus, giving thanks to Divine Providence, earnestly besought Heaven that the scenes of his future career might be made known to him. In answer to the Saint's prayers it was revealed to him that his mission would lie in that part of Belgic Gaul (now the Netherlands) where the rivers Scheldt and Dyle, in their final course, enter the sea (at present the harbour of Flushing). When he had paid his final visits to the shrines of the Apostles, and the tombs of many martyrs, Rumoldus, with the blessing of the Vicar of Christ, set out on his return journey till he reached the Province of Brabant. Here, as he came in sight of the river Scheldt, he recognized, by Divine intuition, the scene of his future mission and ' the place of his resurrection.' Not far from the banks of the river Dyle (a tributary of the Scheldt) he took up his abode, forming a little wicker cell, and beside it a tiny oratory, on the spot now marked by his cathedral tomb. This was the origin of the city of Mechlin (or Malines), whose site was then but a dreary scene. Away from the river sides stretched a waste of desolate moorlands. The district was then scarcely inhabited, and the melancholy silence of the surroundings was broken only by the shrieking of water-fowls or the nightly howlings of wolves and other beasts of prey.

The province of Brabant was, at this time, governed by an excellent ruler, Count Ado, who came of the race of the famous Pepin of Heristal. Although Ado's subjects were almost entirely pagans, the Count himself was a Christian. When, after some time, the advent of Rumoldus became known in Brabant, and the news reached the ears of the ruler of the province, the latter's heart was filled with joy. Losing no time, Ado and his worthy consort hastened to seek the Saint and testify their happiness at his arrival. When Rumoldus unfolded to them the heaven-directed object of his mission, both gave thanks to Almighty God for the blessing vouchsafed their people, and for which they had long ardently prayed. Moreover, the worthy pair promised to do all that lay in their power to aid and promote the work our Saint had at heart. From the day of their meeting till the close of Rumold's life, Ado became his dearest friend.

The charity and generosity of the Count and his spouse found favour with Heaven, and, as a proof of this, Almighty God vouchsafed them a great earthly and unexpected joy. Though married for many years their union was not blessed with children ; but shortly after the time of which we write a son was born to them. Beyond the happy parents themselves no one rejoiced more than the grateful Rumoldus, and it was the pious belief of all that the child was the gift of his prayers. The ceremony of holy baptism was performed by our Saint, who conferred on the little boy the name of Libertus. In gratitude for the goodness of God, in their regard, the zeal of Ado and his wife was doubly increased in promoting Christianity throughout Brabant.

Like most of the tribes of Northern Europe, the people of Brabant were, at this period of history, worshippers of the pagan god Woden. The Danes, as we know ourselves, were ardently devoted to the service of this false deity in Ireland, before they embraced Christianity. It is noteworthy in history that among the followers of this form of superstition many were possessed of evil spirits ; and in his missionary labours Rumoldus, it is related, was often called upon to do battle with them. The miracles that crowd upon the pages of the Saint's life, if enumerated here, would carry our pen far beyond the limit of this cursory narrative. Many and beautiful are the legends still preserved in the pious traditions of the Netherlands of the wondrous events that marked the foreign mission of our Irish Saint. They form the subject of many an artist whose works adorn the walls of the churches dedicated in his honour, or fill the pictured windows of those noble temples of God. The one, perhaps, oftenest portrayed is the miracle of ' Count Ado's drowned child.' Thus the legend runs :

Not far from the abode of St. Rumoldus was the hermitage of Gundemar, a venerable recluse. There was much communion of spirit between the two holy men. Often when, perhaps, wearied with his toils, our Saint would stray across the dreary waste to meet his friend at a spot marked by a spreading oak tree, beneath which both conversed on heavenly things. It was here, one summer's evening, that the news reached them of a great calamity that had befallen Count Ado. Libertus, the joy and hope of his parents' hearts, was accidentally drowned, and his body borne away by the fatal waters of the Scheldt !

Rumoldus was grief-stricken when he heard the sad tale. He dearly loved Libertus ; and as few more than he rejoiced at the child's birth, none, save his bereaved parents, sorrowed more at his untimely end. Hurrying to the scene of the accident, where crowds of mourners had gathered and were seeking for the body, Rumoldus raised his eyes to heaven and prayed that the sullen waters might yield up the beloved dead. Suddenly, to the joy of all present, the child arose and stood before the multitude, says the old chronicler, ' alive and unharmed'! This miracle received an everlasting remembrance in Belgium, and in the ancient liturgy of the Church it finds commemoration in the Votive Mass of St. Rumold.

The report of the miraculous occurrence was soon spread far and wide the calling of the dead to life, as in Galilee of old, through the power of the living God, in answer to the prayer of His servant, and was followed by the wholesale conversion of the peoples among whom Rumoldus laboured. Unspeakable was the gratitude of Ado and his countess. Gifts of gold and silver, as well as grants of land, were placed at the disposal of the Saint, whom they regarded as their intercessor before the throne of God for the restoration of their child from death to life. The Saint, however, declined to accept those earthly gifts as personal favours, but suggested that all might be devoted to the erection of a church and the founding and endowment of a monastery. Needless to say, the holy desire of Rumoldus was unhesitatingly granted. Being always full of veneration for the martyrs of the early Christian Church, our Saint dedicated his new foundation in honour of St. Stephen. Soon numbers of aspirants entered the monastery, and in later years it is not surprising to find on the roll of Rumold's community, the name of the child of prayer Brother Libertus.

Rumoldus, who was instrumental to such an extraordinary degree in fulfilling the designs of God, was, alas ! destined to close his marvellous career with the seal of martyrdom. His powerful remonstrances and denunciations of immorality aroused a fierce animosity against him on the part of one of the nobles of the province. Blinded with the desire of revenge, he plotted the death of the holy man. Hiring some accomplices, wicked as himself, they watched their opportunity to waylay the saintly abbot, and, one evening, finding him in a lonely place, as he was returning to his monastery, they seized him, and carrying him into the depths of a neighbouring forest, murdered him! In order to conceal their crime the miscreants then brought the body to the riverside and sunk it with heavy weights at a spot overhung by spreading trees. However, when the darkness of night set in, a mysterious flame of light was seen to hover above the spot, which attracted the notice of some fishermen. Night after night the light appeared at the same part of the river. The report of the occurrence soon spread.

In the meantime, the unacccountable disappearance of the abbot from his monastery gave rise to various misgivings as to what might have happened him. One night Count Ado, accompanied probably by some of the monks, having elicited the willing services of a few fishermen, rowed out to the spot over which the light appeared, for the purpose of dredging the river's bed. The sad conjectures they entertained proved, alas ! too true. In the very place, the body of the Saint was drawn up to the surface of the water ! The precious remains, followed by his sorrowing monks and his beloved friend Ado, were at once borne to the church of St. Stephen, where they were eventually laid to rest. In the sacred calendars of the Church his death is registered under date June 24, 775. It is remarkable that the death of St. Rumoldus, who always had so much devotion to the early Christian martyrs, fell on the feast of the 'beheading of St. John the Baptist'. Since the martyrdom of St. Rumoldus the people of the Netherlands have been faithful to his memory. In century after century his jubilees have been celebrated with becoming splendour and devotion, and were observed as national festivals. In his native Ireland his existence is almost forgotten.

The cathedral of Mechlin is the noblest, and probably the costliest, monument ever erected to the memory of an Irishman. The present structure, on the original site of St. Rumold's monastery, was begun in the thirteenth century, but was, to a great extent, rebuilt in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, and it has been the archiepiscopal metropolitan church since 1560. Above the great altar of the cathedral the relics of the Saint rest in a costly shrine. Despite the outbreaks of revolution which have so frequently desolated Belgium, the remains of the Patron of Mechlin were never desecrated. Whenever the hour of danger was at hand, faithful sentinels were always ready to secure and conceal those treasures of a nation's faith. The various shrines in which the relics were preserved were objects of strange vicissitudes from time to time. In the year 1528 the Reformers, under the Prince of Orange, despoiled the reliquary of its costly jewels. Again, in 1793, another casket, more beautiful than the first, was carried oft to Brussels, by the French, and there melted down. The present casket, an exquisite work of art, was wrought by a celebrated goldsmith of Mechlin, and rests, as we have already said, over the high altar of the church. In the south aisle of the cathedral a series of twenty-five panel paintings adorn the walls. These were executed by famous Flemish artists (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries), and having been removed to Paris by the French, were restored in 1813.

The chimes of the cathedral tower rival those of Bruges, as the finest and most perfect in Belgium. It may be noted that St. Rumold's cathedral, among the many works of religious art that adorn it, contains, in the south transept,' The Crucifixion,' by Van Dyck, which is admitted to be the great artist's masterpiece. It is a marvellous composition every detail of the picture bears the closest inspection.

In an earlier part of this essay we remarked that St. Rumoldus is seldom thought of in Ireland, and perhaps we might add that only a limited amount of veneration is accorded him in the land of his birth. But, in touching upon this subject, it is pleasing to note that in one church of the metropolitan city of Ath-Cliath (the ancient territory over which he once ruled as Prince-Bishop), the church of Rathgar, a fine life-size statue of this royal saint and martyr may be seen in one of the niches of the triforium of the sanctuary. It stands at the extreme right, facing the figure of St. Laurence O'Toole. The three intervening recesses are fitly occupied by the figures of the 'Three Patrons of Ireland,' to whom the parish is dedicated. This shows that our Irish Saint had not escaped the thought of the learned and venerable Dean Maher, P.P., through whose zeal the fine classic church of Rathgar as well as that of Rathmines were erected just a century ago (1822).

It is regrettable that the names of the saints of Ireland are not remembered by Irish parents when giving names to their children at baptism. Perhaps, this suggestion might be more effectively carried out if children were given names chosen from the Irish calendar of saints on the festal day of Confirmation. This custom, if more generally adopted, would give the youth of Ireland a deeper interest in the lives and virtues of the saints of the land that bore them.

In the advent of the brighter times that are dawning over the destinies of Ireland, the history of the country will need to be re-cast or re-written. Hitherto, for centuries past, it was the policy of alien rulers to stifle the national aspirations of our nation, to suppress the use of its native language, and blot away the memories of the glorious achievements of saints and sages, heroes and scholars, who once won for Ireland the right of being styled ' the light of Western Europe.' That day is happily gone. The story of Ireland, her glories and sorrows, and the speaking of her native tongue will be no longer

. . . bann'd and barred forbidden fare.

Let us hope that in the near future a full and impartial history of Ireland will be compiled by competent scholars and willing pens. Manuscript materials for such a task are available in abundance. In days of political troubles and of religious persecution these national treasures were scattered through the libraries of the Continent Rome, Milan, Vienna, Salamanca, Switzerland, Brussels, Louvain, and other university centres. Not a few may be found nearer home, at Oxford, the British Museum, London, and in Trinity College, the R.I. Academy, and the Franciscan Library, Dublin.

Over many of these vellum pages, in far-off times, our ancient scribes spent long years of incessant labour and literary toil. May we hope they may be yet, and soon, unfolded and their contents brought to light. Speramus.


Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. XX, 1922, 54-64

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