Sunday 27 November 2016

Saint Virgil of Salzburg, November 27

November 27 is the feastday of a saint into whose interesting life and career I hope to do much more research - Virgil of Salzburg. Behind this classical name lies an eighth-century Irishman, Fearghal, whose love of learning threatened to lead him into trouble, especially with his contemporary, Saint Boniface, who, like Virgil, laboured among the Germans. Below is a paper from the American Ecclesiastical Review on the life of Saint Virgil, not only a great Irish missionary, but also a great Irish scholar.


SOME time ago an item of news made the rounds of the Catholic press that must have cheered the heart of every missionary. Catholic Ireland, it said, has begun to take an active share in the evangelization of China. On St. Patrick's Day the Chinese Missionary Society of Maynooth, one of the youngest of our missionary organizations, sent forth its first band of apostles to the Far East. Their destination is the Province of Hupe on the Yangtzekiang. Others will follow soon, for the Mission Seminary is filled to overflowing with students.

On reading this welcome news my thoughts turned back to the glorious days of the ancient Irish Church, when Ireland's sons went over the seas in shiploads to bring Christianity and civilization -to every country of Europe; when Columkille converted the Pict, Columbanus and Gall preached to the Alamannian and the Lombard, and Kilian laid down his life in defence of the faith in the Thuringian Forest. What a pity that, with but a few exceptions, these Irish heroes of Christianity found no contemporary biographers to tell the world of their deeds and sufferings. Of many of them we know hardly more than their names; with others legend and folklore have been so busy that it is no easy task to separate the chaff from the wheat in the accounts that have come down to us. In this paper we shall attempt to sketch the career of one of the last great Irish missionaries of the early Middle Ages St. Virgil of Salzburg. His so-called biography was written four hundred years after his death and is of no historical value. For our knowledge of him we are indebted to occasional notices in various contemporary sources.


About the early life of Virgil, or Fergil, as he was called in his native land, we know nothing at all. When we first hear of him, he was abbot of Aghaboe in the present Queen's County, Ireland. His superior knowledge of mathematics had gained for him the surname of the Geometer. About 743 he left his monastery to spend the rest of his days on the Continent as a voluntary exile "for the love of Christ ". The fame of St. Fursy's tomb and of the great Irish monastery that had sprung up round it drew him to Peronne in Western Gaul. At Quierzy on the Oise he met the Neustrian Mayor of the Palace, Pippin the Short, who had just returned from his successful expedition against his rebellious brother-in-law, Duke Odilo of Bavaria, The Prince became greatly attached to the learned monk and kept him in his palace for two years. Then he sent him to Odilo, who after a short period of imprisonment had been permitted to resume the government of his dukedom. Of Virgil's companions two are known to us by name : Tuti, or Dobda, an Irish Bishop, called the Greek, and Sidonius, who was probably also an Irishman.


Several years before Virgil's arrival St. Boniface had organized and reformed the Bavarian Church. He had divided the country into four dioceses, viz., Passau, Ratisbon, Freising, and Salzburg, and appointed able and God-fearing men to preside over them. A synod, which met in Ratisbon in 740, crowned the work of reform and ushered in a long period of bloom for the Church in Bavaria. Amongst the clergy there were, however, still some whose unclerical conduct or lack of theological training was a constant source of annoyance to Boniface and of disedification to the faithful. It was an unlettered priest who occasioned the famous controversy between Boniface and Virgil which was attended with such unpleasant consequences for both. Owing to his ignorance of Latin he had baptized with the words: "Baptizo te in nomine patria et filia et Spiritus Sancti" (" I baptize thee in the name fatherland and daughter and of the Holy Ghost"). Boniface, always scrupulous, and still more so as he advanced in years, decided that baptisms administered in this manner were not valid, and ordered rebaptism. Virgil and his friend Sidonius, whom he appears to have charged with this task, questioned his ruling and sought from Pope Zachary a clear decision in the matter. The Pontiff pronounced in favor of the Irishmen. "If the person who baptized," he wrote to Boniface on I July, 746, " had no intention to introduce either error or heresy, but merely from ignorance of the Roman tongue made use of such words, we cannot agree with you that on this account the baptisms must be repeated. Therefore, if the report that has reached us is true, you must not in future issue such orders, but zealously hold to what the Fathers teach." Boniface submitted, but the friction between him and Virgil did not end here.

About this time Bishop John of Salzburg died. Without consulting either the Pope or his Legate, Odilo appointed Virgil to succeed him, making him at the same time abbot of St. Peter's monastery in that town. Virgil took upon himself the administration of the vacant see, but for some reason or other deferred his episcopal consecration indefinitely. The purely episcopal functions were performed by his friend Dobdagrec. Such arrangements were frequently found in Ireland in those days and in Continental districts where Irish influence was paramount When Boniface, who was by no means inclined to give up his rights over the Bavarian Church, contested his position, Virgil replied that he held it with the sanction of the Pope. Zachary flatly denied this: he did not even know, he said, whether to call Virgil a priest or not. We may suppose that Virgil acted in good faith, and that he was misled by Odilo into believing that the matter had been arranged with the Holy See.

Virgil's uncanonical position in Salzburg was only one of the charges that Boniface lodged against him in Rome; another was that he strove to poison the mind of Odilo against him; a third, that he was a teacher of heresy. What truth there was in the second accusation, we have no means of determining.

In regard to the third, we have no first-hand information as to Virgil's supposed heretical teachings, but only the Pope's answer to Boniface's report. According to this, he taught that "there was another world, and other men beneath the earth, and sun, and moon." From these words it is not altogether clear what Virgil's doctrine was, or where his error lay. A glance at the cosmographical ideas current at the time may throw some light on this much-mooted question.

The earth, anciently believed to be a flat surface, was already known to the educated Greeks and Romans to be a globe. On the question of antipodes, or inhabitants on the other side of the globe, opinion was divided. Those who believed in their existence maintained that they were a race of men wholly independent of us and separated from us by an impassable barrier of heat and water. Called upon to express their views on these matters, the Christian doctors left the question of the sphericity of the earth open, but emphatically rejected the doctrine of antipodes as repugnant to the scriptural teaching on the unity of the human race, the universality of original sin, and the redemption of all men by Christ.

In the eighth century the great mass of the uneducated and no doubt the vast majority of the educated also, regarded the earth as a plane; but neither the doctrine of the sphericity of the earth nor the supposed existence of dwellers under the earth was entirely forgotten. Being a great scholar, Virgil must have been acquainted with Martianus Capella, Bede, and Isidore of Seville, perhaps also with Pliny and Macrobius. In Bede, Pliny or Macrobius he found scientific proofs for the sphericity of the earth, and in Isidore he read of the "unknown regions beyond the ocean" and of the races of men "fabled" to dwell there. In his lectures to the monks of St. Peter's, in his conversations with his friends, perhaps even from the pulpit, he may have given expression to these views without the necessary explanations. If he had merely spoken of another world beneath our earth with another sun and moon or the same sun and moon that illumine ours, his doctrine might have aroused astonishment and even contradiction, but neither Boniface nor any other bishop would have branded it as heretical ; for these are questions that can in no way be a matter of faith; but if he spoke of other men beneath the earth, of antipodes, he was universally understood to mean, even if he did not expressly say so, a race of men not descended from Adam and not redeemed by Christ, and Boniface was perfectly justified in denouncing him to the Pope.

Zachary pronounced no immediate sentence in the case. He was evidently not fully convinced of Virgil's guilt. "In regard to the said Virgil's sinful and perverse doctrine," he wrote to Boniface on 1 May, 748, "which he has taught against God and his own soul if it be proved that he holds that there is another world, and other men beneath the earth, and sun and moon summon a council, expel him from the Church, and degrade him from the priesthood." He also wrote to Duke Odilo, requesting him to send Virgil to Rome to be examined. To Virgil and Sidonius the latter had evidently again identified himself with his countryman he sent a letter of reprimand and a summons to appear before him. Boniface himself he admonished "not to give way to anger in dealing with the erring, but rather to reprove, convict, and rebuke them in all patience that they may the more surely return from error to the path of truth".

We do not know whether Virgil went to Rome or not; nor is there any trace of a Bavarian council having been summoned to decide his case. The war that broke out between the Franks and the Bavarians after the death of Odilo in the summer of 748 and ended in the defeat of the latter, probably made the holding of a synod impossible. It has been suggested that Pippin interfered in favor of his former protege, and prevented further action against him by his fellow bishops. I am inclined to believe that Boniface followed the advice of the Pope and in a friendly conference gave Virgil the opportunity of clearing himself entirely from the imputation of heresy. At all events, what we know of Virgil's subsequent career precludes even the possibility of his having been deposed from his office or subjected to any ecclesiastical penalty.


At the urgent request of the clergy and laity of Salzburg Virgil received episcopal consecration on 15 June, 767. All our sources agree that he ruled his diocese with wisdom and energy. Immediately after his consecration he began the erection of a cathedral church. It was finished in 774 and dedicated to St. Rupert, the Apostle of Bavaria, whose relics he had removed to it from their former resting-place in St. Peter's monastery. An incident which occurred in 767 shows that he had completely broken with the views of his native land on the episcopal office, and that he had become a "Continental bishop" in the full sense of the word. A certain nobleman, named Gunther, had erected a monastery at Otting near the present town of Waging and requested Virgil to help him to find monks for it and to consecrate the monastery church. Virgil promised to do so, but only on condition that the new foundation should be subject to his jurisdiction. Virgil did not, it seems, found any monasteries himself, several, however, such as Tegernsee, Kremsmunster and Chiemsee, owed their erection to his initiative. He was, on the other hand, a great church builder, as his epitaph testifies :

Interim et erexit pulchro molimine multa
Templa, loco quaedam nunc quae cernuntur in isto.

Virgil also took an active part in the ecclesiastical life of Bavaria. In 774 he was present at the important synod held at Dingolfing in Lower Bavaria. The acts of the synod are still preserved. They show how zealously the bishops watched over the spiritual and temporal welfare of their flocks. They insist on the strict observance of Sunday, on discipline in the monasteries, and on the rights as well as the duties of serfs and slaves. To restrain duelling, they decreed that a peaceful settlement must be attempted before an appeal to arms was permitted. It was at this synod, too, that the bishops and abbots of Bavaria formed a union, or confraternity, of prayer, the members of which pledged themselves to assist each other by prayers and good works in life and by Masses after death.


Endowed with a full share of the missionary zeal of his countrymen, Virgil also turned his attention to the pagan nations settled on the borders of his diocese. About the middle of the eighth century Borut, the ruler of the Carantanian Slavs, sought the aid of the Bavarians against the fierce Avars, who had been harassing and pillaging his lands for years. Duke Odilo acceded to the request, but Borut had to acknowledge his overlordship and send his son Gorazd and his nephew Cheitmar as hostages to Bavaria. Here the princes were instructed in the Christian religion and received baptism. Borut was succeeded by Gorazd, who thus became the first Christian ruler of the Alpine Slavs. His premature death prevented him, however, from doing anything for the spread of the Christian faith amongst his subjects. His successor Cheitmar requested Virgil, to whom he was bound by ties of devoted friendship, to preach the Gospel to the Carantanians. Unable to do so himself, Virgil sent his countryman Modestus with a number of priests and clerics in his stead.

For ten years Modestus labored untiringly amongst the rude peasants and shepherds of the Carinthian and Styrian mountains. In spite of the difficulties and dangers with which he had to cope, he succeeded in establishing Christianity firmly in the land. Christian communities sprang up in various parts, and with Virgil's aid half a dozen churches, rough wooden structures, but sufficient for the needs of the faithful, could be erected. After the death of Modestus in 760 the infant Slavish Church was threatened with utter ruin. The pagans took up arms against the Bavarians, fired the churches and expelled the missionaries. Still Virgil did not lose heart. As soon as the insurrection was quelled, he dispatched a fresh band of apostles to take up the abandoned work. The ruined churches were rebuilt, the scattered Christians returned to their homes, and better days began to dawn for the mission. Virgil did not live to see the full fruits of his efforts for the conversion of the Slavs. Still it was he who had prepared the soil and sown the seed and sent the laborers, and therefore he has been justly styled the "apostle of the Carantanians ". He had also planned the evangelization of the Avars, who dwelt farther to the east; but as no favorable opening presented itself, he desisted from the attempt.


After his conflict with St. Boniface, Virgil to all appearance gave up his speculations in cosmography; his restless mind, however, was busy in another direction. He took the liveliest interest in the preservation of the historical traditions of the Bavarian Church. He gathered the materials for a life of St. Rupert and encouraged his episcopal colleague, Aribo of Freising, to write the life of St. Corbinian. But the most important historical document which we owe to him is the Salzburg Liber Vitae (Book of Life). It was begun in the year of his death, and contains the names of all persons, clerical and lay, living and dead, who were in spiritual communion with the monks of St. Peter's monastery in Salzburg, and for whom commemoration was to be made at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Among the thousand names entered on the lists are those of all the Abbots of Iona (Hy) from 597, the year of the death of St. Columkille, to 767. Among the living potentates we find the name of the Pictish King Cinadhon. A letter is still extant in which a certain Abbot Adalbert recommends a deceased monk to the prayers of Virgil and his associates.

Virgil died 27 November, 784. Alcuin celebrated his virtues and learning in a poem which is still preserved. On 5 April, 1167, the Cathedral of St. Rupert in Salzburg was destroyed by fire. In 1181 some workmen, while clearing away the debris, discovered Virgil's tomb with an image of the saint bearing the inscription :

Virgilius templum construxit scemate pulchro.

Numerous miracles ascribed to his intercession led to the introduction of his cause in Rome and his canonization by Gregory IX in 1233. His feast is celebrated on the 27th of November. This is all that authentic history tells us of Virgil, the scholar, bishop, apostle, and saint. Only total ignorance of the facts, or the wish at all costs to cast an aspersion on the papacy, can make of him, as has been frequently done, a "martyr of science and a victim of Roman intolerance ".


American Ecclesiastical Review, Vol LXIII, (1920) 13-21.

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