Fr Billy Swan
As the Irish Church looks into her history, she finds many sources of inspiration for her continued summons to mission both at home and abroad. One of those giants of the Irish missionary tradition is St Columbanus (c. 543-615). Here I briefly explore the missionary legacy of his extraordinary life and how he engaged in mission by embarking on pilgrimage, emphasising unity and engaging with culture.
A Pilgrim for Christ
Despite his monastic vocation, Columbanus’ life was marked by travel. It began 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 to the monastery of Comgall in Bangor, Co. Down. Having spent many years of monastic life at Bangor, Columbanus received permission from his abbot to become an ascetic exile and to leave Ireland for the rest of 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’ (Letter IV, 5). In 591, Columbanus left Bangor with twelve companions and set sail arriving in Brittany before moving inland and settling in Burgundy at Annegray where he founded his first monastery. Not long afterwards he founded two more monasteries nearby at Luxeuil and Fontaine. Following a dispute with 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 again in northern Gaul from where travelled to the Rhine and sailed as far as Lake Constance and Bregenz. There 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 and is buried in the crypt in the lower part of the ‘basilica San Colombano’ at Bobbio.
Few of our lives will ever follow a pattern like this and yet the story of Columbanus’ pilgrimage is archetypal in many ways. Like Biblical figures such as Abraham, he left the safety of his home and then native land in response to a call he sensed from God. There were risks and dangers that were met with a heroic trust in God and his providence. As his story unfolded, he realised that his life was not just about him but that others would move into the space that he had opened up, most notably his fellow monks and the thousands who benefitted from the monastic movement. And so it goes with any Christian vocation. While settled in a certain place, God’s call uproots us and summons us on a journey that invites us to faith. Where our destiny lies we may not know but on that adventure, God clears ground for others to follow. Similar to great figures like St Patrick before him, Columbanus’ fidelity to the Lord’s call led to his life being extraordinarily fruitful in ways he could never have imagined. He is therefore an archetype and model of an Irish Christian, baptised and sent on a pilgrimage at home and abroad.
United in Mission
The theme of unity is prominent in the writings of Columbanus. The unity of his monastic communities was, in his view, a model of unity for the world. 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. In his parting words, Columbanus calls on his monks to ‘look to it that you be one heart and one mind’. Immediately the saint links this unity to faith in ‘the common Father of us all’ (Letter IV, 2).
For Columbanus, the call to unity was 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. Columbanus was never shy in asserting his Irishness, differences of nationality and ethnic origin but for him, these differences were 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’ (Letter II, 9).
For Columbanus and for the early Church, there is but one mission entrusted to the Church of Christ – to ‘go teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19-20). The mission of the Church is to gather people of all nations into community and into communion with the one Lord. The unity of God’s Church transcends all distinctions. The gifts of all of us are forever at the service of our common mission. That is why Pope Francis speaks of evaluating everything in a missionary key (see The Joy of the Gospel). The fruitfulness of the mission depends on prayer and fidelity to Christ but also on being united in that mission that we bear to the world. The scandal of division becomes all the more tragic because it weakens our message and sign we give. That is why Pope Francis has reframed ecumenism in the context of the Church’s mission to the world. Only by ‘going forth’ together as a Church can unity prevail and differences be overcome.
Engagement with Culture
The legacy of St Columbanus, St Benedict before him and their fellow monks is well documented. The original intentions of these leaders were dwarfed by the growth of the monastic movement which spread across Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire. Monastic communities soon became centres of learning, spirituality and theology which offered people a light of hope in the Dark Ages and led to the renaissance of Christian culture. The communities Columbanus founded at Annegray, Luxeuil, Fontaine and Bobbio gathered people together across nations, languages and cultures, sowing the seeds of a renewed civilization at a time of chaos. This contribution was recognised in 2008 Pope Benedict XVI who referred to Columbanus as ‘a father of Christian Europe’ who ‘with the Irish of his time had a sense of Europe’s cultural unity’ (General Audience, 11th June 2008).
At a time when the European project is struggling to retain cultural unity, Columbanus’ story urges us to resist the privatisation of faith but to engage robustly with the culture of our time. A missionary faith evangelises our culture so that faith becomes culture. It seeks to help and inspire Christians to be creators and shapers of culture. This is why the Irish Church needs Spirit filled evangelisers who have the confidence to engage with cultural questions at a time when the unity of nations appears to weaken. Finally, the link between communities of learning and the renewal of culture that we see with Columbanus is also a warning against any split between the intellectual life and pastoral life of the Church.
The unique contribution of Columbanus to the universal Church has been rightly immortalised with an altar dedicated to 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. In this extra-ordinary month of mission, he stands at the beginning of an Irish missionary tradition of which we can be truly proud. May his prayers and inspiration impel all Irish Christians to be pilgrims for Christ, people of unity and actively engaged with modern culture.