Wednesday 18 March 2020

Saint Christian O'Connarchy of Mellifont, March 18

Mellifont Abbey: A Guide and Popular History (1897)

We commemorate an Irish saint today who achieved high office within the Church and who was a pioneering leader of the Cistercian order at its original foundation of Mellifont Abbey, County Louth. As Canon O'Hanlon explains below, we really should know more about the life and career of Saint Christian O'Connarchy, but alas the accounts of him that were promised to the great seventeenth-century hagiologist, Father John Colgan, never did materialize. It is rather a pity as Saint Christian sounds like an interesting man living in interesting times:

St. Christianus, or Giolla Criost O'Conarchy, first Abbot of Mellifont, County of Louth. [Twelfth Century.]

The last of the Fathers, as St. Bernard is affectionately termed by the Church, infused new vitality into the decaying monastic spirit of Western Europe; and, at a time when, but for a mighty spiritual influence, the fervour of religious observance might have languished. From France, his institute extended to these islands. So early as 1128, Giffard, Bishop of Winchester, had introduced the Cistercian Order into Great Britain. It was originally instituted,by Stephen Harding, an Englishman of remarkable energy and holiness, and, it had one of the most illustrious of the mediaeval saints for its true patron.

The founder of Waverley Abbey had noble imitators. Soon, Furness Abbey,  in Lancashire, Fountains Abbey, in Yorkshire, New-Minster, Kirksted, and Roche, followed. The Order went on spreading, until the work of monasticism was finished in England. Then, it was found, that there were seventy-five Cistercian houses of men, in England, and twenty-six nunneries, belonging to the same Order. Notwithstanding, however, their great influence, the English branch is singularly barren, in historical memorials. At a somewhat later period, the Cistercian Order was introduced to Ireland, and the present holy abbot presided over the first house there established. The Life of this holy man, Christianus, or Christian,—sometimes called Christianus Ua Condoirche or Giolla Criost O'Conarchy,—had been frequently promised to Colgan; yet, he was not able to procure it, when he published from various sources those Acts, which are to be found in his work. The Bollandists, at this day, only have a few brief notices regarding him, and they preferred waiting to see, if his life should turn up, and reveal to them evidence, that any ancient writer had called him Sanctus or Beatiis. The English Martyrology, Arnold Wion, Ferrarius, Vincentius, and Hugh Menard, insert his name, in their several Calendars.

According to some accounts, he was born or educated, at Bangor, in Ulster; and, if we credit Colgan, this holy man was a disciple, and also the Archdeacon, of St. Malachy O'Morgair, Archbishop of Armagh; and, afterwards, he most probably travelled with the venerable prelate, when first leaving Ireland for Rome, about the year 1138, and when he visited Clairvaux, the great house of St. Bernard, on his way. Returning by the same route, it seems probable, that Christian was one of the four disciples, who remained as postulants, under the charge of St. Bernard, and who were admitted as monks of the Cistercian Order. When St. Malachy reached Ireland, he felt a great desire to found a house, and to procure a superior and monks from that Order to inhabit it; so that soon the Abbey of Mellifont, a few miles from Drogheda, in the present county of Louth, was founded by Donough O'Carroll, and, in the year 1141, St. Bernard sent over Christian, when duly trained, as the superior of some French brothers, to plant the good seed. About the year 1142, Mellifont seems to have been occupied, and here Christian lived for some time, with his monks. It has been asserted, that Christian was subsequently elevated to the See of Lismore, and that he was the identical Papal Legate, who was present at the Council of Kells, assembled in the springtime of the year 1152,  and over which Cardinal John Paparo, Priest of St. Laurence in Damaso, presided, at the instance of Pope Eugene III. Besides, the distinction given to Christianus O'Conairche, as Bishop of Lismore, and Legate of the Sovereign Pontiff for Ireland, he is called head of the Irish monks; but, in the latter case, we must understand, probably, only those of the Cistercian Order, in Ireland.

It is untrue, as has been advanced by some, that he was bishop over Down, succeeding St. Malachy O'Morgair there, or that he presided as Archbishop over Armagh. Equally false is the account, that he departed this life, so early as A.D. 1148. It has been supposed, that Christianus presided over one or two other Synods held in Ireland, and in the capacity of Apostolic Legate. Mellifont Abbey having been completed, about the year 1157, it was consecrated, with a magnificent rite and solemnity. Then and there, a numerous Synod of bishops—the Archbishop of Armagh included, with kings, chiefs and princes attending—was assembled. Large gifts were bestowed on the Abbey, by these magnates. Again, in the year 1158, it is stated, that a Synod of the clergy of Ireland was convened, at Eri-mic-Taidhg, in Laeghaire, at which twenty-five bishops assisted, with the Legate of St. Peter's successor. Their object was to ordain rules and good morals. The Comorban of St. Patrick was present, and the assembled clergy ordered a chair, like every other bishop's in Ireland, for Flaithbheartach Ua Brolchain, the successor of St. Colum-Cille, and also they decreed the arch-abbacy of the Irish churches in general, as his due. The present holy abbot must not be confounded with Christian O'Morgair, the brother of St. Malachy, and who presided over the See of Clogher. Citing the authority of Petrus de Natalibus, and of the English Martyrology, in the list of Henry Fitzsimon, we have Christianus, Bishop, entered, at the 18th of March. In the anonymous Catalogue of National Saints, published by O'Sullivan Beare, at the same date, he is simply called Christianus. The Bishop of Lismore, Christian O'Conarchy, must either have resigned his See, or died before 1159, for even at this date, we find recorded the death of his successor, Maelmaire Ua Loingseach, Bishop of Lismore. In Harris' Ware, it is stated, that Christian O'Conarchy resigned his See, about the year 1175, and that having grown tired of all worldly pomp, this resignation happened a long time before his death. He is said to have lived to an advanced age, and to have died, in the year 1186. Again, it is related, that he was buried at Odorney, alias Kyrieleyson,—a monastery of his own Order,—in the county of Kerry. However, regarding the foregoing statements, and the present holy man's identification, in reference to them, much uncertainty remains.

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