Saturday 21 November 2015

Saint Columbanus of Bobbio, November 21

The Martyrology of Donegal at November 21 contains the entry 'COLUMBAN, Abbot, who was in Italy'. Behind this stark sentence lies a rich and multi-layered story of a complex and important Irishman and as this year marks the 1400th anniversary of the death of Saint Columbanus this will be the first of an octave of posts in his honour. Saint Columbanus has a special meaning for me as he was instrumental in awakening my interest in the Irish saints when I was still at school. I have to admit that my teenage self was initially less than enthused at having to study a module on the Irish Church and its missionary outreach between the 5th-7th centuries.  Yet it proved to be the beginning of a lifelong interest in our native saints and their contribution to European religious and cultural life. I found Saint Columbanus particularly intriguing as, like Saint Patrick, his own writings survive and it is possible to get a glimpse of the man behind them. I still have my yellowing copy of Columbanus in His Own Words, an anthology edited by the late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, which I used at school and which I am pleased to say remains in print. Quite a number of events have been organised to mark the anniversary, the blog Celebrating Columbanus: 1400 years of Mission in Europe brings together details of these plus further resources for studying the life of this great saint.  Below is an article from an early twentieth-century writer, part of a series on Celtic missionary saints, in which the author is keen to defend the role of Saint Columbanus in the Paschal Dating Controversy and to present the wealth of his almost larger-than-life achievements:

St. Columbanus

WE owe our knowledge of the life of St. Columbanus chiefly to two sources. We possess, in the first place, a life of the saint written by one of his own monks, named Jonas, who lived with him during the latter part of his life, at his monastery of Bobbio, in the Apennines. Jonas must have received from the saint's own lips, and those of his companions, the account which he has given us of the life of St. Columbanus and his missionary labours previous to his coming to Bobbio. Jonas himself came from Susa, in Piedmont, and his Life of St. Columbanus is one of the chief sources of the general history of his time. We can draw information also concerning the character and manner of living of St. Columbanus, as well as concerning his relations with the Holy See, and with various highly placed persons of his time, from the saint's own writings, which include his monastic rule, in ten chapters; a work on the daily penances of the monks; seventeen short sermons; and an instruction on the principal vices; a large number of Latin verses; and five letters, two written to Pope Boniface IV., one to Pope St. Gregory the Great, one to a Synod of the Bishops of Gaul on the Easter controversy, and one to the monks of his monastery at Luxeuil, narrating various particulars of his life. Add to these sources the general history of the times in which St. Columbanus lived and played such a prominent part, and we get as full and accurate a notion of his place in the history of the latter half of the sixth, and the early part of the seventh, century, as could be expected.

St. Columbanus was born in Leinster in the year 543, the same year in which St. Benedict died at Monte Cassino and twenty-two years after the birth of St. Columba of Iona, in Donegal. As a youth he was noted for his good looks and handsome appearance. We are told that he applied himself with ardour to the study of the liberal arts, as they were then understood in Ireland, which included grammar, arithmetic, geometry, logic, astronomy, rhetoric, and music. Fearing, however, the dangers and temptations of worldly intercourse, and mistrusting his own strength against social allurements, he had recourse to a certain anchoress, famed for sanctity of life and holy wisdom. She counselled him to fly from all dangerous occasions of sin, urged upon him the warning examples of David, Solomon, and Samson, and told him there was no security for his salvation except in flight from the world. Columbanus listened to her advice, and, although his mother, in tears, threw herself across the threshold of her home to prevent his departure, he persisted in his holy resolution, and stepping over her prostrate form, he went forth from his family abode, and betook himself to the solitude of beautiful Lough Erne, most of whose hundred islands served at that time as the sacred retreat for one or more anchorites.

After abiding for some time in solitude on an island in Lough Erne, under the direction of a venerable anchorite, St. Columbanus betook himself to the monastery of Bangor, on Belfast Lough, lately founded by St. Comgall. Here, by the shore of that narrow sea which separates Ireland from Scotland, looking out on the bold chffs of Black Head, and commanding a distant view seawards of the mountains of the Mull of Cantire, Columbanus spent many years imbibing that combined monastic and missionary spirit which was to have its outcome in his apostolic labours. He remained at Bangor till 574. In that year it was that Columbanus, now thirty-two years old, seems to have become conscious of the sphere of missionary and apostolic work allotted to him by God. So, accompanied by twelve companions, he set out from Bangor, crossed over into Britain, and, traversing that country, sailed from thence to Gaul. The year in which St. Columbanus set out from Bangor on his missionary career was the same year in which St. Columba crowned King Aidan in Scotland; and twenty-two years before the sending of St. Augustine to the Anglo-Saxons by Pope St. Gregory the Great.

The state of Gaul, when Columbanus landed on its shores, was lamentable. The Roman civilization, which for five centuries had distinguished it, had been well-nigh effaced by the long series of barbarian invasions to which it had been subjected, and which had filled the land with ruins. Christianity, which had made such progress in Gaul, during the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, where it had produced such great and shining hghts as St. Martin of Tours, St. Hilary of Poiters, St. Remigius of Rheims, and many others whose names live in the calendar of the Church, had in the early years of the sixth century, suffered an almost complete eclipse. It survived rather as a memory and a tradition than as a living force acting beneficially upon the life and character of the nation.

Jonas, the biographer of St. Columbanus, writes of 'Gaul, where, then, either by reason of the number of foreign invaders, or on account of the negligence of the governors, religion and virtue were almost held to be abolished.' The part of Gaul to which St. Columbanus made his way is represented in modem France by the department of Haute Saone, but was known to the Romans as Sequania, and was comprised in the vast plains at the foot of the Vosges, on the borderlands of Austrasia and Burgundy. So far back as the days of Julius Caesar this tract of country was noted for its fertility, and Caesar tells us that he chose it as the winter quarters for his army in the year 58 B.C. The chief town of this district was Luxovium, the modern Luxeuil, celebrated under the Roman dominion for its hot springs and baths.

When Columbanus came to Luxeuil he found it a heap of ruins. The Huns, under Attila, had destroyed its buildings, and massacred its inhabitants. The ground was strewn with broken masonry, pillars of temples, and mutilated statues, some of the highest artistic excellence, as may be seen by a few specimens that have been discovered, and which are now found in the museum of the Town Hall at Luxeuil. These ruins were the abode of wild beasts, and bears, buffaloes and wolves were found there by Columbanus in large numbers. At a distance of eight miles or more from Luxeuil, situated on the side of a mountain rising out of the plain, was an ancient Roman fort, known as Castrum Anagrates. Here, amidst the ruined remains, still encircled by the thick walls built by the Roman military engineers, Columbanus began the foundation of his first monastic settlement; and Annegrai as it is named in the French language, became the first monastery of St. Columbanus. At that period, Gontran, a grandson of King Clovis, ruled in Burgundy. He has been described as the least bad of the degenerate and worthless dynasty of the Merovingian kings. He received Columbanus gladly, offered him his protection, and helped him by grants of land to make his first monastic foundation. Thus favoured and protected by the king, the better disposed amongst the nobles began to visit Columbanus, and many amongst them were so completely won over by the saint to a virtuous life that they resolved to leave the world, and besought him to clothe them with the monastic habit, and receive them into his monastery. In a short time the number of monks at Annegrai was so large, that Columbanus was enabled to establish there that 'Laus Perennis' which had existed in the monasteries of Egypt, and which became afterwards such a distinguishing feature of Irish monastic foundations.

The 'Laus Perennis' was kept up by the monks being divided into seven choirs, which sustained an unceasing psalmody of Divine worship day and night. Such earnest and public worship of God could not go on for any length of time without producing much fruit, and thus it came to pass that the numbers of monks increased so fast that Columbanus was forced to begin the foundation of another monastery amidst the remains of the city of Luxovium the Plain. This soon became the chief foundation of St. Columbanus in France. It was either there, or at Annegrai, that he wrote his famous monastic rule, wherein his fervid devotion and zeal can be seen in the extreme austerity and severity of his legislation. Luxovium, or Luxeuil, was destined to become a centre from which was to radiate a new and vigorous spirit of religion and piety throughout the whole of France. From Luxeuil came forth no less than sixty-two saints, whose festivals are kept in the calendars of the French dioceses, and who founded churches and monasteries throughout the length and breadth of France.

It would be quite impossible within the limits at our disposal to trace, even in outline, the history of the monasteries, churches, and even cities that owe their existence to the monastic foundations of St. Columbanus at Luxeuil. Allow me, however, to recall one only of the many names associated with that of St. Columbanus at Luxeuil, the sweet aroma of which still lingers in the place-names of France. The monk whom St. Columbanus chose as the gardener of his monastery at Luxeuil was called Valery. Columbanus dearly loved Valery, and was wont to say that no flowers smelt so sweet, and no vegetables were so fresh, as those which were reared by Valery. Once when Valery entered the room where Columbanus was giving a conference to his monks on Holy Scripture, he brought with him such a sweet perfume of flowers into the lecture hall that Columbanus said to him: 'It is thou, beloved, who art the lord and abbot of this monastery.' It was this Valery, the gardener of Luxeuil, who afterwards carried the rule of St. Columbanus into Picardy, founding there several centres of religion and piety. The chief foundation of Valery still bears his name, and St. Valery-sur-Somme is a place-name familiar to every student of English history as the French port from which William the Conqueror set sail with his fleet for the invasion of England. No one who has read Freeman's History of the Norman Conquest can ever forget the graphic description of Duke William's waiting with his army at St. Valery for the south wind to carry them over to England, and how it was immediately after the body of St. Valery had been carried in procession round the town, and public prayers had been said for the wind to change, that the south wind came, and the fleet set sail. Other names associated with that of St. Valery as disciples of St. Columbanus who founded churches and monasteries in Picardy, are those of St. Omer, and St. Bertin, the founders, respectively, of the monastery and diocese of St. Omer, and of the celebrated Abbey of St. Bertin. Many other foundations were made from Luxeuil in different parts of France by disciples of St. Columbanus, such as those of Rouen, Jumieges, and Fontenelle, by St. Ouen, whose magnificent abbatial church at Rouen, one of the purest specimens of French Gothic architecture, still perpetuates his name. Several foundations from Luxeuil were made also in Burgundy, Brie, and Champagne.

The large number of those who joined themselves to St. Columbanus at Luxeuil began very soon to attract the attention of the Bishops of Gaul, who were not long in discovering the divergence of practice at Luxeuil from their own as to the time for the observance of Easter. St. Columbanus had brought with him from Ireland the discipline of the Celtic Church concerning the date of the Paschal festival, which St. Patrick had brought into Ireland from Rome. A more correct astronomical computation had, later on, caused Rome to alter the date for the observance of Easter, which the Celtic Church, out of veneration for the original tradition it had received from its great apostle and founder, refused to accept. Hence arose the famous Paschal controversy between the Celtic missionaries who adhered to the primitive Roman reckoning for the festival of the Resurrection, and the Bishops of the rest of Christendom, who had accepted the later method for the computation of Easter which had been adopted by the Holy See. The Frankish Bishops found fault with Columbanus for not conforming to the existing practice of the Church in Gaul concerning the date of Easter, and Columbanus, instead of yielding the point to them, boldly defended his own practice, as that of the Celtic Church originally derived from Rome. We possess a letter of St. Columbanus addressed to a synod of the Bishops of Gaul, wherein, whilst claiming the right to adhere to the practice of his country regarding the time for the celebration of Easter, he puts in a plea for peace and mutual toleration: —

Let us live here in Gaul [he writes] in like peace with you as we hope to live in eternally in Heaven; but if it be God’s will that ye drive me from this wilderness whither I have come so far for the sake of Jesus Christ, I shall say with the prophet: 'If for my sake this great tempest is upon you, take me up and cast me forth into the sea.' I am not the author of this difference; I have come into these parts, a poor stranger for the cause of the Christ Saviour, our common God and Lord. I ask of you Holiness but a single grace: that you will permit me to live in silence in the depth of these forests, near the bones of seventeen brethren whom I have already seen die. . . . Ah, let us live with you in this Gaul, where we now are, since we are destined to live with each other in Heaven, if we are found worthy to enter there. ... It is yours. Holy Fathers, to determine what must be done with some poor veterans, some old pilgrims, and if it would not be better to console than to disturb them. I dare not go to you for fear of entering into some contention with you, but I confess to you the secrets of my conscience and how I believe, above all, in the tradition of my country, which is, besides, that of St. Jerome.

The bold and straightford outspokenness of Columbanus served only to excite against him the hostility of the Bishops of Gaul who were besides being prejudiced against him by the unscrupulous intrigues of a very remarkable personage, who had come at that time into the position of the supreme ruler of both Gaul and Burgundy. Queen Brunhilde was a woman whose extraordinary diplomatic ability was only equalled by her overweening ambition and the unprincipled conduct of her wicked life. Two of her grandsons, Theodebert and Theodoric, had succeeded, whilst still but youths, to the thrones of Austrasia and Burgundy, thus leaving Brunhilde to rule over both countries as Queen Regent. She seems to have used her power much in the same way as the late Empress Dowager of China used hers, to which extraordinary woman she seems to have borne a strong resemblance in character. There is hardly a crime of which she had not been guilty in order to gratify her ambition and love of power. Circumstances had now arisen which brought her into collision with St. Columbanus, whom she had at first tried to win over to her own ends.

Both Theodebert and Theodoric had, as they grew up, under the beneficial influence of Columbanus, begun to give themselves to a right way of living, and the saint had found for Theodoric a good Christian maiden to be his wife and queen-consort. This did not suit the policy of Brunhilde, and she sought an occasion to upset the influence of Columbanus. When the saint paid a visit to the court of Bucherese, between Chalons and Autun, Brunhilde came there and presented to him four illegitimate children of Theodoric, born before his marriage, and prior to his coming under the influence of Columbanus, and desired the saint to give them his blessing. 'These,' said she, 'are the king's sons, and I present them now that they may gain thy blessing.' Columbanus sternly refused, saying: 'Know that these children shall never reign, for they are the fruit of dishonest passion.'

From that moment the fury of Brunhilde against St. Columbanus knew no bounds, and she never ceased to plot for his banishment, although at first she continued to make an outward show of respect for him, in order to conceal the venom of her hatred. Knowing well that no woman was admitted within the precincts of his monastery, she nevertheless presented herself there, and demanded entrance. The saint refused, as she knew he would, to allow her to enter, whereupon she complained to the king that Columbanus had insulted her, and ordered all communications to be cut off with his monastery, and that nothing should be given by anyone to the monks. Theodoric, afraid of Brunhilde, tried to persuade the saint to throw open the doors of his monastery to her, but Columbanus threatened to excommunicate Brunhilde and the king if they did not respect the monastic enclosure. Whereupon the king grew angry, and tried to force an entrance into the monastery with his soldiers. He had penetrated as far as the refectory when he was confronted by Columbanus, who said to him: 'If you force an entrance into this place, the privacy of which has hitherto been respected, I will accept neither your gifts nor your favours. And if you come here to destroy our monasteries and to violate our rules, know that your kingdom will fall and your race be annihilated-' A prophecy which was destined to have a speedy fulfilment.

The words and bearing of Columbanus caused the king to desist from his attempt to enter the monastery, but the rebuke of the saint, who followed the king as he departed from the enclosure, made him turn, and tell Columbanus that if he thought he was going to gain the crown of martyrdom at his hands, he was mistaken, for he intended to expel him from his dominions, and force him to return to his native country. He then directed one of his courtiers to conduct the saint to Besangon, where he seems for a while to have been placed in charge of the bishop of that city, and where we are told that he laboured amongst the many prisoners who then filled its prisons and of the many conversions he made amongst them. The bishop with whom he was placed was a holy and apostolic man, named Nicetas, who soon became enamoured of Columbanus, whose sanctity he recognized. However, the saint was unwilling to remain at Besangon, and made an attempt to return again to his monastery at Luxeuil; whereupon he was seized by order of the king, and embarked upon a ship at the mouth of the Loire which was ordered to sail at once for Ireland. No sooner had the ship set sail than a storm arose, and she was driven ashore on the French coast. The captain, being superstitious, thought that the saint and the few monks who accompanied him were responsible for the disaster, and refused to take them again on board his ship, and so it came about that Columbanus found himself driven back again to the kingdom from whence he had been expelled.

He therefore set out once more on his apostolic journeyings, and directed his steps first to the court of Clotaire, the King of Soissons and Neustria, where he obtained an escort to conduct him to Theodebert, King of Metz, or Austrasia. Passing through Paris, Meaux, and Champagne, he arrived at length at Metz. Here he was joined by some more of his monks, who had escaped from Luxeuil to the protection of King Theodebert. After a short sojourn at Metz, and encouraged by the promised protection of Theodebert, he resolved to set out with his companions to preach the faith amongst the still pagan inhabitants of the countries bordering on the Rhine.

Embarking, therefore, on the Rhine, by slow stages, he ascended the river, preaching and converting the natives of the various settlements upon its banks, where he halted on his missionary voyage. He reached at length the lake of Zurich, and here he remained some time at a spot called Tuggen, where the Simmat enters the waters of the lake of Zurich. The most distinguished amongst his companions, whose name has lived in history, geography, and in the lives of the saints, was one of his own countrymen, named Gall. He was destined to remain in Switzerland, and become its chief apostle, the founder of one of its principal cities, and the name-saint of one of its cantons.

To this day the town and canton of St. Gall preserve for us the memory and the name of that strenuous apostolic Irish missionary saint, the friend, companion, and disciple of St. Columbanus. In the Municipal Library of St. Gall are still preserved a larger number of Irish manuscripts than are to be found in any other continental city.

When Columbanus and his companions arrived, they found the inhabitants of all that country between the Aar, the Alps, and the Lech, to be idolators, who chiefly worshipped the god Woden, and who were, in their manners and customs, wild and violent. The vigorous preaching of Columbanus and of Gall, who had the advantage of a knowledge of the German language, speedily excited their ire, and after a short sojourn at Zugg, they were driven out with violence by the inhabitants.

Departing, therefore, from the shore of the lake of Zurich, Columbanus made his way to Bregentz, upon the lake of Constance, and here he remained three years. Here, again, the daring and impetuosity of the Irish missionaries caused them to encounter the rage and fury of the pagans. For we are told that Columbanus and Gall at times overthrew the pagan temples, and broke the boilers in which they made beer to be offered in sacrifice to Woden. This caused the pagans to refuse to allow the monks to have food, and they were forced to subsist on the wild birds they could kill, on herbs and fruit, but chiefly on the fish they could catch in the lake.

Columbanus, we are told, made the nets, and Gall at night time cast them into the waters of the lake, and took plentiful catches of fish. A striking and most dramatic incident is recorded of this night fishing of St. Gall. Once, as he sat in his boat, plying his nets, amidst the darkness and silence of the night, he was startled by a loud and harsh voice crying aloud from the heights of the mountains above him, and then he heard a voice, as if coming from the waters of the lake replying. It was the Demon of the Mountain calling to and being answered by the Demon of the Waters. 'Arise,' cried the Demon of the Mountain, 'and help me to chase away these strangers, who have expelled me from my temple; it will take us both to drive them away.' 'What use would it be?' answered the Demon of the Waters. 'Here is one of them upon the water, whose nets I have tried to break, but I have never succeeded. He prays always, and never sleeps. It will be labour in vain, we shall make nothing of it.'

Then Gall made the sign of the cross, and said to them: 'In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave these regions without daring to injure anyone.' He then hastened to land, and awoke Columbanus, who at once ordered the bell to ring for the night Office. Hardly had the first psalm been intoned, than the yells of the demons were heard echoing among the mountains, at first loud and furious, and then gradually dying away in the distance, like the noise of an army in swift retreat. A truly fine and weird scene, worthy of the pen of Goethe or Schiller, and one that, coming to us as it does from a record of the dim and distant past, even if it be not of a real event, brings with it the conviction of the existence in the minds of those early Irish missionaries of that lively realization of the nearness of the world of spirits to our earthly abode which always predominates so strongly in the Celtic character.

After a sojourn of three years at Bregentz, where many of the pagans were converted to Christianity, Columbanus, after some hesitation as to the further course of his missionary travels, felt drawn to press forward further south to preach the faith to the Lombards, who had embraced Arianism. So he set his face towards Italy, and taking with him only one companion, a monk named Attains, he pushed forwards towards the St. Gothard Pass.

If we have been interested and enthralled, as so many have been, when reading the account of the passage of Hannibal across the Alps, we can hardly fail to be aware of a far greater and more thrilling interest in the passage over the Alps of this intrepid Irish missionary saint in the early years of the seventh century. St. Columbanus had long had a desire to travel into Italy, which was destined to be the final goal of his missionary career. What the St. Gothard Pass was like at that time, and what a journey across it implied, it would be hard to say, hard even to imagine. It was bad enough in the later Middle Ages, and even in more recent times; but what it must have been when St. Columbanus crossed it, who can say?

What kind of a bridge spanned the deep and wild ravine at that well-known spot where, centuries after, was built that famous bridge, familiar to everyone as the 'Devil's Bridge‘? Had the saint to clamber down the steep precipice into the ravine, and scale the rocks on the other side? We do not know. What we do know for certain is that he made the ascent of the Pass, and reached Andermatt, perched high up above the spot where the mountain is now pierced by the great tunnel of St. Gothard. There he must have remained some considerable time, for we know that he there preached the faith to the Grisons, and converted them to Christianity. To this day in the small and very ancient church, which still exists, is shown in the middle of the nave, and in front of the altar, the rock which St. Columbanus used as his pulpit, and from which he preached to the people who flocked to hear him. It is still the only pulpit of the little church; and on the feast days of the saint thousands of Swiss peasants from the neighbouring mountain districts flock to Andermatt to celebrate the memory of their great apostle and patron, and to invoke his intercession. After quitting Andermatt, Columbanus proceeded on his laborious journey. We next hear of him at Milan, at the court of Agilulf, King of the Lombards, and husband of the famous Queen Theodolinda, the friend of Pope St. Gregory the Great, to whom that saintly Pope sent so many precious relics.

At Milan, Columbanus occupied himself preaching and writing against the Arians, who were then very numerous in Lombardy. He was well received by King Agilulf and Queen Theodolinda, who held him in great esteem and veneration. Columbanus, however, now nearly seventy years of age, longed for solitude, and the quiet of monastic life, and prevailed upon the king to make him a grant of land on which to build a monastery. Between Milan and Genoa, some distance to the south of Piacenza, there is a gorge in the Apennines formed by the rushing waters of the Trebbia. It was the spot where Hannibal, after he had crossed the Alps with his army, had first encountered the rigours of winter amidst the snow-clad mountains of Italy, during his famous campaign, immortalized in the pages of Livy. There, among the pine-clad Apennines, Columbanus found the last resting-place of his pilgrimage on earth. Here he speedily gathered round him some of his monks, and began to clear the ground, and lay the foundations of his new monastery.

The remains of an ancient church under the invocation of St. Peter, ruined during the barbarian invasion, still stood there. This was repaired, and made to serve as the Abbey church. Columbanus is described as working with his own hands at the building of his abbey. He felled trees of the forest, and helped to bear on his shoulders the great beams that formed the rafters of the edifice. In his old age, he still showed all the signs of his vigorous and impetuous character, and soon there arose on that wild and beautiful site, the Abbey of Bobbio, destined to become such a renowned centre of religious life, and home of learning, the fame of which is written in the record of the culture and civilization of medieval Christendom.

The school and library of Bobbio ranked amongst the most celebrated of the Middle Ages.Muratori has given us a catalogue of 700 manuscripts possessed by the Abbey of Bobbio in the tenth century. From the library of Bobbio came the famous palimpsest, in which Cardinal Angelo Mai discovered the lost Republic of Cicero. The Abbey existed until 1803, when it was suppressed by the French. The ancient church of the Abbey now serves as a parish church. It was during this last stage of the life of St. Columbanus that he wrote miost of his Latin poems, which show such an astonishing familiarity with the classical elegancies of the Latin tongue, most unusual at that period of history. When he was in his sixty-eighth year he sent to a friend, who was applying his mind too exclusively to serious thought to the detriment of his health, a letter, written in Adonic verse, asking him not to despise such frivolous trifles as those verses, with which even Sappho could recreate her spirit: —

Inclyta vates,
Nomine Sappho,
Versibus istis
Dulce solebat
Edere Carmen.
Carmina linquens,
Frivola nostra
Suscipe laetus.

It was during these latter years of his life that he wrote that letter to Pope Boniface IV. on behalf of the famous 'Three Chapters,' which has been so often quoted by Protestant writers to show that St. Columbanus did not acknowledge the primacy and supremacy of the Holy See. There can be no doubt that Columbanus was wrongly informed about the matter in dispute, and misunderstood it at the tune he wrote; and that there are expressions in this letter to the Pope which are exceedingly strong, as he himself acknowledges. Some of these strong expressions have been selected by anti-Catholic writers, separated from their context, and quoted against the saint's Catholic orthodoxy. But equally outspoken and strong expressions of blame and rebuke could be quoted from St. Bernard's famous treatise On Consideration, addressed to Pope Eugenius III., and St. Bernard, nevertheless, has been made by the Holy See a doctor of the universal Church. One passage from this celebrated letter of St. Columbanus to Pope Boniface IV. which, by the way, is a passage carefully overlooked and never quoted by Protestant controversial writers, will be quite sufficient revelation of the mental attitude of Columbanus towards the See of Rome:—

We Irish, who inhabit the extremities of the world, are the disciples of St. Peter and St. Paul, and of the other Apostles who have written under dictation of the Holy Spirit. We have received nothing more than the Apostolic and evangelical doctrine. There has never been either a Jew or a schismatic among us. The people I see here, who bear the burden of many heretics, are jealous; they disturb themselves like a frightened flock.Pardon me then, if, swimming among these rocks, I have said some words offensive to pious ears. The native liberty of my race has given me that boldness. With us it is not the person, it is the right which prevails. The love of evangelical peace makes me say everything. We are bound to the Chair of Peter; for, however great and glorious Rome may be, it is this Chair which makes her great and glorious among us. Although the name of the ancient city, the glory of Ausonia, has been spread throughout the world as something supremely august, by the too great admiration of the nations, for us you are only august and great since the Incarnation of God, since the Spirit of God, has breathed upon us, and since the Son of God, His car, drawn by those two ardent coursers of God, Peter and Paul, has crossed the oceans of nations to come to us. Still more because of the two great Apostles of Christ, you are almost celestial, and Rome is the head of the churches of the whole world, excepting only the prerogative of the place of the Divine Resurrection.

It would be hard to find another passage in the whole of Catholic literature which surpasses this fine passage from St. Columbanus in the eloquent expression of whole-hearted loyalty to the Chair of St. Peter.

St. Columbanus died at Bobbio on the 22nd November, in the year of our Lord 615, in the seventy-third year of his age. His body was buried at Bobbio, in the crypt of the Abbey church underneath the high altar, where his sacred relics still rest, enclosed in a stone coffin. Kneeling in spirit before that shrine which encloses the mortal remains of this glorious Celtic missionary saint, amidst the vastnesses of the pine-clad Apennines, and looking backwards from the present into that dim and distant past, through the long vista of the ages that intervene, there arise before my mind the words of Montalembert*, in his Monks of the West, with which this notice of St. Columbanus can fittingly be closed: —

From the moment that green Erin, situated at the extremity of the known world, had seen the Sun of Faith rise upon her she had vowed herself to it with an ardent and tender devotion, which became her very life. The course of ages has not interrupted this; the most bloody and implacable of persecutions has not shaken it; and she maintains still, amid the splendours and miseries of modern civilization and Anglo-Saxon supremacy, an inextinguishable centre of faith, where survives, along with the completest orthodoxy, that admirable purity of manners which no conqueror and no adversary has ever been able to dispute, to equal, or to diminish.


* Monks of the West, Vol. ii. p. 242.

W.H.Kirwan, 'Some Celtic Missionary Saints: St Columbanus', in Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. XXXII (1912), 60-75.

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