Friday 24 July 2015

Some Famous Irish Missionaries

We continue with J.M.Flood's tribute to the Irish monks who laboured in continental Europe with his account of some famous Irish missionaries:

With a few exceptions, we have but few and meagre details of the lives and works of individual Irish missionaries who laboured in the various countries of Europe. Of that large multitude of devoted men, who went from Ireland in a continuous succession for three centuries — “the death of one apostle being but the coming of another" — the records are scanty and satisfactory, consisting mainly of casual references made by contemporary Writers. The period in Europe was not favourable to the cultivation of letters, and our native annals generally do not make any reference to the Irish ecclesiastics who went abroad except in a few cases. Thus we find it recorded that Vergilius of Salzburg died in 788, Dunchadh of Cologne died A.D. 813, Gilla-na-naemh Laighen, Superior of the monastery in Wursburg, died A.D. 1085; but there is no mention made of Columbanus, Gall, Cathaldus, Fiachra, Colman or Killian.

St. Vergilius, Archbishop of Salzburg, was born, reared, and educated in Ireland, according to the testimony of Alcuin, who was almost his contemporary, but the place and date of his birth cannot be ascertained with exactness. It appears from a statement in the Annals of the Four Masters that before leaving Ireland he was Abbot of Aghaboe. He arrived in France about the year 741 and spent two or three years at the Court of Pepin-le-Bref, father of the renowned Charlemagne. Pepin esteemed Vergilius highly on account of his great learning, and when he was leaving France, gave him letters of recommendation to Ottilo, Duke of Bavaria. Bavaria had at this time been partially converted to the Christian Faith by St. Boniface and the object of St. Vergilius in going to the country was to help in completing the work which St. Boniface had begun. He settled at Salzburg, and his life there was one of unceasing effort, not only for the conversion of Bavaria, but of Carinthia and the neighbouring provinces, which were still for the most part pagan. The monks of the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter at Salzburg chose him to be their Abbot, and he rebuilt the monastery in a style of great splendour. He was consecrated Bishop of Salzburg about the year 744, and he presided over the diocese for forty years. He sent many missionaries to preach the gospel throughout the country, and paid frequent visits to the newly-established churches, so as to confirm the people in the faith. He built a stately church in honour of St. Stephen, and a great basilica dedicated to St. Rudbert, the founder and first bishop of the church of Salzburg. He died about 784 and was buried in the monastery of St. Peter.

St. Vergilius was not only a great missionary saint, but was also distinguished on account of his learning, and as an astronomer he was far in advance of his age, for he held the sphericity of the earth and the existence of Antipodes long before Copernicus startled Europe with his teaching on this subject. In spite of opposition he stoutly maintained that the earth was round, that the sun passed beneath it, and that there must be inhabitants on the other side. The doctrine and other views of Vergilius were unpalatable to the ecclesiastical authorities in Germany and charges against him were brought before the Pope. He was represented as holding astronomical doctrines which were, in fact, different from those which he really advocated, and his teaching was condemned. Vergilius would appear to have explained his real tenets to the satisfaction of the Pope, for no punishment was inflicted, and he was shortly afterwards promoted to the See of Salzburg.

St. Fursey, a famous Irish missionary in France, was the son of a Munster prince named Fintan. He was trained in Connaught at a monastery on the island of Inchiquin in Lough Corrib by St. Brendan, an uncle of his father's, and by St. Meldan, who succeeded St. Brendan as head of the community. After spending some time in England St. Fursey went to the north-east of Gaul, and landed with twelve companions at the mouth of the Somme, A.D. 638. He settled for a time at Peronne, but afterwards went to Lagny-sur-Marne at the request of King Clovis II., who was desirous of having him near his court. From the records that we possess of his life, he appears to have been a man of a quiet and retiring character. Bede describes him as being renowned both for his words and actions, as remarkable for great virtues, and as being desirous to live a pilgrim for the Lord, whenever an opportunity should offer. The same writer tells us that by the example of his virtues and the efficacy of his discourse, he converted many unbelievers to Christ, and confirmed in his faith and love those who already believed. Though St. Fursey does not appear to have possessed the learning for which his countrymen were celebrated, there was a certain exaltation in his nature which earns for him the epithet “sublime" from the Venerable Bede. He wrote an account of his ‘Visions of Heaven and Hell' which became well known in Europe, and which are the most remarkable writings of their kind anterior to the great epic poem of Dante. They show a great spiritual insight, and are full of the most excellent moral precepts. They reflect the profound religious convictions of religious men of the period, and no small amount of imaginative power is shown in the treatment of the subject. It does not seem unlikely that the great Florentine poet was acquainted with St. Fursey's ‘Visions,' and derived inspiration from them in the writing of the ‘Divine Comedy.' The Venerable Bede, who speaks with the greatest reverence of St. Fursey and his " Visions," was one of the writers whom Dante honoured in a special measure, and there are parallelisms between certain of the speeches in the "Inferno " and the words used by St. Fursey which would support this conjecture.

St. Cathaldus was born about the year 615 A.D. in Munster, and went to study at the great school of Lismore. He eventually became a professor there, and the fame of his learning" and virtues attracted many pupils to the school. In addition to teaching, St. Cathaldus preached the Gospel and founded churches in the country of the Desii. He was consecrated Bishop of Rachan, a locality which was probably in Munster, but which it is difficult to ascertain. When he had presided over the diocese of Rachan for some years he set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his brother Donatus and several companions. On their way homeward from Palestine the vessel in which they sailed was wrecked in the Gulf of Taranto. St. Cathaldus escaped from the wreck, and arrived at the city of Taranto. He found the city practically pagan and the effeminate and licentious inhabitants were almost entirely addicted to pleasure and vice. He preached to them in moving language, imploring them to return to the rule and practices of Christianity, and performed many striking miracles in their sight. The bishopric of Taranto happened to be vacant at the time, and the Tarentines besought the Irish Saint to assume the office, promising to follow his councils. St. Cathaldus assented, reluctantly, in the hope that he might be able to win them back to the faith. His labours amongst them were crowned with success, Taranto became a Christian city in reality as well as in name, and the inhabitants venerated St. Cathaldus as their patron and apostle. His remains are still preserved with great honour in the cathedral, and the inscription on his tomb, ‘Cathaldus Rachan' commemorates the debt which Southern Italy owes to Southern Ireland.

St. Donatus was bom of a noble family in Ireland, near the end of the eighth century, and was educated at the monastic school of Inishcaltra in Lough Derg. He became a priest, and obtained high distinction as a professor and a man of learning. He taught in Ireland for a number of years, and was raised to the dignity of a bishopric. He left Ireland to make a pilgrimage to Rome, accompanied by Andrew, a youth of a noble Irish family, who was one of his favourite pupils. They journeyed through France, visiting many places of pilgrimage, and then made their way through Switzerland and Northern Italy to Rome. They received there the blessing of the Supreme Pontiff, and, after staying for some time in the city, set out towards Tuscany on their return journey to Ireland. They arrived at Fiesole, situated on the mountains overlooking Florence, where there were at the time many churches and memorials of Christian Saints and martyrs. They stayed for a time at a monastery at Fiesole before resuming their journey, and the monks and people of the town became greatly attached to the two Irishmen on account of their kindly simple ways and great sanctity. Shortly after their arrival the Bishop of Fiesole died, and the clergy and people resolved that Donatus should be his successor. They approached him on the subject, but Donatus who was a man truly humble of spirit, declined the office. He told them that he was only a poor pilgrim from Ireland, and that he did not wish to be their bishop as he was not fitted for the position since he hardly knew their language or customs. The clergy persisted in their request and at length Donatus consented, and was consecrated Bishop of Fiesole about 824 A.D. He became a great and successful pastor, and laboured for thirty-seven years at Fiesole, winning the love and reverence of the people. He died in the year 861. His name is still honoured at Fiesole, and his tomb and other memories of him are held in high veneration. There is extant a short Latin poem in which he recorded his love of his native land, which he had left for ever, and celebrates the beauty of its climate, the worth of the ancient race that inhabited it, famed in the pursuits of war and peace, and noted for their attachment to the faith.

Many legends have grown around the life of Saint Fridolin, the 'Wanderer.' He was born in Connaught and gained a great reputation for learning. After travelling through various parts of Ireland, he distributed his possessions amongst the poor, and went to Gaul. He entered the monastery of Saint Hilary of Poitiers, where he remained for many years. His brother monks loved and esteemed him, and elected him as their Abbot. He left Poitiers and went to the north-east towards the Moselle founding churches on the way. Arriving at Strasburg he founded a monastery there, which was for a long time under the direction of Irish monks. Then he went to a place called Seckingen a little to the east of Basle, where he built a church, and lived for a time. His wandering and restless spirit would not allow him to remain anywhere for a lengthened period, and we find him soon again travelling through Switzerland, and converting the people of Glarus, who still bear his figure on their cantonal banner, in memory of his missionary labours in the country…

J. M. Flood, Ireland: its saints and scholars (Dublin, n.d.), 70-77.

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