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Fr Billy Swan

This November 23rd marks the 1,407th anniversary of the death of St Columbanus which took place at his monastery in Bobbio in Northern Italy in 615. Despite being a proud Irishman who often referred to his country of origin in his writings, he is arguably less known here in Ireland than he is in places like Italy. But today, on his feast day, it is time to take pride in one of our greatest saints who made an immense contribution to the establishment of Christianity and civilization in mainland Europe in early medieval times. This contribution has been widely recognised in the universal Church. In 2008, during a series of catechesis on the Church Fathers at his General Audience, Pope Benedict XVI referred to Columbanus as ‘a father of Christian Europe’ who ‘with the Irish of his time had a sense of Europe’s cultural unity’.[1] Here I would like to briefly introduce the person of Columbanus and explore an element of his writings that retains great importance for contemporary Christians.

Columbanus was born somewhere near the Wexford/Carlow border around 550 AD. Having discerned a monastic vocation, he travelled north and first entered the monastery of Sinell at Cleenish, Co. Fermanagh before moving further north, entering the monastery of Comgall in Bangor, Co. Down. Having spent many years of monastic life at Bangor where he became proficient in rhetoric, grammar and a familiarity with Sacred Scripture, Columbanus received permission from his abbot to become an ascetic exile and to leave Ireland for the rest of his life. His motivation for doing so was to follow Christ with total abandonment in an act of extreme piety that was akin to martyrdom. Despite this being his primary motive for leaving Ireland, Columbanus began to realise as he travelled that God had other plans for him and his life. While his motive for leaving Ireland was penitential he realised that his presence and that of his companions in monastic settlements across Europe, took on an important missionary dimension and objective. In his fourth letter he writes: ‘It was my wish to visit the pagan peoples and to have the Gospel preached to them by us’.[2] In 591, Columbanus left Bangor with twelve companions and set sail arriving in Brittany before moving inland eventually settling in Burgundy at Annegray where he founded his first monastery under the patronage of the local Merovingian rulers. Not long afterwards he founded two more monasteries nearby at Luxeuil and Fontaine. Columbanus enjoyed an initial period of success in his bold European adventure. However, trouble arrived in due course. Columbanus refused to acknowledge the authority of the local bishops when they ordered him and his monks to celebrate Easter on the date prescribed in Gaul as opposed to the date celebrated by the Irish Church at the time. Tensions came to a head when Columbanus refused to bless the illegitimate children of King Theuderic II who was his Merovingian benefactor. He and his monks were expelled and banished back to Ireland. They departed by boat at Nantes but landed instead in northern Gaul from where travelled to the Rhine and sailed as far as Lake Constance and Bregenz where he established another monastic foundation. He then travelled further south into Milan in Italy which was under the authority of the Lombard King Agilulf who was a Christian though Arian. The King granted Columbanus a piece of land at Bobbio in the Apennines where he founded his last monastic foundation in approximately 613. It was there in 615 that Columbanus died. His remains are interred in a crypt in the lower part of the ‘basilica San Colombano’ in Bobbio. The inscription on the tomb reads ‘Here St Columbanus, Abbot, rests in the peace of Christ…Heic quiescit in pace Christi S. Columbanus Abbas’.

A major reason for the revival in interest in Columbanus is the corpus of writing he left behind. These writings are all in Latin whose quality is widely acknowledged by scholars to be of a very high standard.[3] For English speakers, the standard translation of all his works is to be found in G.S.M. Walker’s critical edition of Sancti Columbani Opera published in 1957.[4] This edition contains six letters (Epistulae), thirteen sermons (Instructiones), the monks rule (regula monachorum), the common rule (regula cenobialis), the Luxeuil Penitential and five poems written by the saint. From all these writings, many themes emerge but for the purposes of this short paper, one is selected that was of great importance for Columbanus – that of unity among Christians and all peoples.

Columbanus understood that the mission of the Church is to baptise ‘the whole human race…in the name of this God as one God’.[5] The call to unity among his monastic brethren is seen in his poignant fourth letter from Nantes as he prepared to leave his monastery following his expulsion by King Theuderic II. In his parting words, Columbanus calls on his monks to ‘look to it that you be one heart and one mind’.[6] Immediately the saint links this unity to faith in ‘the common Father of us all’.[7] To his successor as abbot, Attala, he asked that he make ‘provision chiefly for peace ever anxious to preserve unity of spirit in the bond of peace’.[8] As he departs from his brethren he proposes that the best way of honouring his fatherhood of the community is to ‘unite yourselves all together in one party’.[9] He immediately links this call of monastic unity to unity in Christ: ‘he who loves unity is mine; he is not mine who divides; for he who does not gather with me scatters’.[10] In his tenth sermon he exhorts: ‘let us belong to Christ not to ourselves’.[11] This call to unity in the community was more than an guarantor of internal harmony in the monastery but as Columbanus points out, in the context of his letter from Nantes, it was to give united witness to wider society, in this case ‘in the neighbourhood of the Britons’ who inhabited Britanny.[12]

For Columbanus, the call to unity is of primary concern not only within the walls of the monastery but also in the outside world. This concern is expressed in his letter to the French bishops in 603. Controversy forms the context of this correspondence as Columbanus is responding to a summons to appear before the bishops, in order to answer to them about the date his monastery celebrated Easter. Although the saint represents himself assertively and justifies his liturgical practises, he is keen to preserve unity between his monastery and the Gallic bishops who were assembled at Chalon-sur-Saone. Columbanus is never shy in asserting his Irishness, differences of nationality and ethnic origin but these differences are subordinate to the collective unity that comes with faith in Christ: ‘Fathers, pray for us as we also do for you, wretched though we be and refuse to consider us estranged from you; for we are fellow members of one body, whether Franks or Britons or Irish or whatever our race may be’.[13] Again Columbanus returns to the theme of unity in faith: ‘let all our races rejoice in the comprehension of faith and the apprehension of the Son of God…in whom let us love one another, praise one another, correct one another, pray for one another that with Him in one another we may reign and triumph’.[14] Here is a unity that is not held together by a common consensus but by a real communion of believers in the same person of Christ: ‘with the causes of disagreement and difference cut off, all the sons of God shall mutually enjoy between themselves a true peace and entire charity by the likeness of their characters and the agreement of their single will’.[15] This is the unity that Columbanus exhorts with the French bishops and that he considers vital to any resolution to the differences that had arisen with them over the Easter controversy. Rational agreement alone is insufficient. Unity in faith and affection is vital. In dealing with the sensitive issue of Easter, Columbanus was anxious that unity be maintained among them as Christians so that their witness to unity is not damaged or compromised: ‘Far be it then that I should maintain the need to quarrel with you so that a conflict among us Christians should rejoice our enemies…far be it indeed, far be it’.[16]

The saint is convinced that unity in the Church will be assured among those ‘who love and believe alike. Let you therefore all say and think the one thing so that both sides may be one – all Christians’.[17] He writes these words in his fifth letter to Pope Boniface IV written in 613 at the behest of King Agilulf the Arian king, urging him to act to preserve the unity of the Church as successor of St Peter. The letter reveals the Irish saint’s understanding of the papacy being both at the service of unity and the pope being head of a united Europe: ‘To the most fair head of all the Churches of the whole of Europe…totius Europae’.[18] In rhetoric that all of his audience would have understood, Columbanus described the spread of the apostolic faith of Peter and Paul from Rome as a chariot ‘riding over the sea of nations…the Most High Pilot of that carriage who is Christ, the true Father, the charioteer of Israel’.[19]

In this letter, Columbanus identifies himself as Irish: he belongs to a community of Christians that received the apostolic faith of Peter and Paul. The significance of this information by way of Columbanus’ right to intervene in a matter of unity among Christians by writing to the pope is that he connects his origins on the periphery of the world to his calling to help unite the whole. For this reason he writes to a man he sees as representing the apostolic faith of Peter and Paul and who has an indispensable task to unite for ‘Rome is also head of the Churches of the world’.[20] Should disunity occur that is caused by ‘the Enemy’ who ‘binds men with this very lengthy cord of error’, let this cord ‘be cut off by you immediately…with Peter’s knife’.[21] Here Columbanus urges the pope on behalf of King Agilulf and himself to act ‘so that all should be made one, that as peace comes to the country, peace should come quickly to the Faith, that everyone in turn may become one flock in Christ’.[22]

He concludes the same letter by affirming the apostolic faith of Peter and Paul in Christ as the foundation on which this unity is built. Such faith is the gateway to communion with God and unity in the Trinity: ‘that we may be counted worthy to abide in Christ, to please him and give thanks and to praise him unceasingly with the Father and the Holy Spirit in your company and in the communion of all the saints, here and eternally’.[23] He even goes so far as to say: ‘For I cannot understand how a Christian can dispute the faith with another Christian’.[24]

What can we conclude from Columbanus’ passion for unity among Christians? His writings display a compelling case that authentic Christian faith leads to a unity of worship among believers and bonds of communion to which all other differences are subordinate. His teachings challenge the modern concept of believing but not belonging and present faith as a life changing act that redefines ones relationship with God and others. Becoming Christian immerses us into the unity of the Trinity and calls for a collective witness to that unity in the world. Columbanus’ emphasis on unity is contemporary in that his vision extends beyond his own boundaries: that unity be maintained both in the monastery and achieved among Christians. For modern Christians, this emphasis urges us to foster unity in our own families, communities, parishes and wherever Christians interface with cultural and religious difference. To borrow St John Paul II’s teaching on the priesthood, Christians and Christian communities are called to be ‘bridges not obstacles for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man.’[25]

For Columbanus, the pope as successor of Peter is a key figure in ensuring this unity. We do not know if Columbanus’ passion for unity that he expressed in his letter to the Pope Boniface IV was ever acknowledged by him. Yet it certainly was by later popes. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Pope Pius XI credited him for the rebirth of Christian virtue and civilization over a great part of Europe. In the last decade, Pope Benedict XVI said of him: ‘since he worked as a monk, missionary and writer in various countries of Western Europe with good reason he can be called a European saint. With the Irish of his time he had a sense of Europe’s cultural unity’. He also called him ‘a father of Christian Europe’.[26] For this reason, the unique contribution of Columbanus to the universal Church has been rightly immortalised with an altar dedicated in his honour in the crypt of St Peter’s Basilica along with his feast being added to the general calendar of the Latin Church in 1969. This universal recognition of Columbanus’ efforts to secure unity and reconciliation is something Irish Christians of all denominations can be proud of today. His concern for unity in Europe is contemporary, as political leaders come to debate common economic policies and shared responsibilities towards suffering humanity as was seen in the recent refugee crisis affecting Europe. The concern of Columbanus for the collective as well as the individual is prophetic, particularly in a Western culture where the fulfilment of self takes centre stage.

May more Irish Christians come to know and appreciate the life and witness of St Columbanus. May his work for and love of unity among Christians be an inspiration for modern Christians and fulfil the Lord’s desire that ‘they may be that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (John 17:21).


[1] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 11th June 2008. Published in Pope Benedict XVI, Great Christian Thinkers, SPCK, London 2011, 148-150. [2] Letter IV, 5. [3] Cf. D. Ó Cróinin, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200, Longman Group Publishers, Essex 1995, 176. [4] G.S.M. Walker, ed., Sancti Columbani Opera, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae, II, Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin 1957. [5] Sermon I, 2. [6] Letter IV, 2. Professor T.M. Charles-Edwards calls this letter ‘one of the most moving documents of the early medieval period’. T.M. Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2004, 234. [7] Letter IV, 2. [8] Letter IV, 3. [9] Letter IV, 9. [10] Letter IV, 9. [11] Sermon X, 2. [12] Letter IV, 9. [13] Letter II, 9. [14] Letter II, 9. [15] Letter II, 5. [16] Letter II, 7. [17] Letter V, 13. [18] Letter V, 1. [19] Letter V, 11. The cult of the Sol Invictus which reached its height in the third century under the emperor Aurelian was the emperor’s natural associate who ruled the earth as the vicegerent of the supreme god. As late as 324 AD, Roman coinage depicted the emperor on a chariot with his head surrounded by a sun-burst, travelling from East to West. As the sun moved from East to West so did the empire’s dominance move in the same direction. Underneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, on the vaulted ceiling of the tomb of the Julii, there is a third century mosaic which depicts Christ as the sun god Helios riding his chariot toward the West. Most archaeologists concur that this mosaic represents an early attempt to Christianize elements of pagan faith. [20] Letter V, 1. [21] Letter V, 9. [22] Letter V, 17. [23] Letter V, 17. [24] Letter V, 13. [25] Pope John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, 43. [26] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 11th June 2009.


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