By Fr Billy Swan
Monday 23rd November is the memorial of a saint who is not well known by most but has something important to teach us about our call to unity in Church and society. St Columbanus (or St Columban as he is also called) was an Irish monk, born in 543 and who died in Bobbio, in the North-West of Italy in 615. In 591, St Columbanus left his monastery in the north of Ireland, arriving in France before moving to Switzerland, Austria and finally settling in Italy. In these countries, he founded important monastic settlements. These monasteries were centers of education, community and spirituality and played a vital role in the renaissance of Christianity in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and the revival of civilization thereafter. As their founder, St Columbanus left a significant body of writing and instruction, much of which was concerned directly or indirectly with the theme of unity.
Columbanus’ teaching and monastic rule were not without controversy. In the early seventh century, he found himself on a collision course with the French bishops who called him to account over the date of his celebration of Easter. The date of Easter celebrated by Columbanus and his monks was at odds with the Roman calendar observed by the French at the time. Although Columbanus was summoned to a synod to account for himself, he declined to attend and instead replied with a letter that addressed the controversy that had arisen.
In his letter, Columbanus was anxious to resolve the dispute but insisted that this take place within the context of the unity of the Church. He is adamant that in all attempts to reconcile with the French, the bonds of unity between the parties be maintained. As he writes in the context of a dispute between the Irish and French, Columbanus grasps the perennial danger of unity being compromised not just by theological or liturgical controversies but where division appears along the fault lines of national and ethnic diversity. He famously wrote in his letter to the French: “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”.
This wise and inspiring approach to disagreement with others can be described as ‘The Columban principle’ that acknowledges diversity and difference in traditions, communities and societies but refuses to see any of them as more important than the bond of unity in the Spirit that makes us beloved children of God our Father. It invites all Christians and citizens at this time of unrest, to do as Columbanus did – to refuse to consider ourselves estranged from the other - be they different from us in any way. Adopting ‘the Columban Principle’ involves a flat refusal on our part to be alienated from one another based on denomination, politics, nationality, sexuality, race or social status. It is a recognition of a joint citizenship in God to which every other identity is subordinate.
Could this principle be adopted by us Christians and citizens as an antidote at this time of polarization and convulsion? At a time when the unity of our Church is being tested along the lines of conservative and liberal and society is being fractured along the lines of race and politics, do we need to take a step back and remind ourselves of a wider commonality that unites everyone and that refuses to see a brother or sister as alien to me?
In ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, this is precisely what Pope Francis advocates. In a section entitled ‘Unity Prevails over Conflict’ (paragraphs 226-230), the Holy Father states: ‘The message of peace is not about a negotiated settlement but rather the conviction that the unity brought by the Spirit can harmonize every diversity’ (para. 230). If this unity brought about by the Spirit is already the gift of God to the Church, then as the sacrament of unity and salvation for the world, every other loyalty takes second place in the Church to the sovereignty of being a child of God.
So what practical examples might there be of a successful application of the ‘Columban Principle’? Here I offer just a few. If we meet family members or friends this and we know that potentially divisive topics might arise in conversation whether they be about politics or history or religion, can we make a decision that any differences between us take second place to our friendship and unity? Can we have a robust and lively debate about the truth of things, the state of our country and world without feeling the need to be always right? Can we have an honest and yet charitable conversation about something and then when it is over, be free from any emotional baggage? I recall two of my best friends used to argue energetically about all kinds of topics from sports to politics to religion but when the conversation ended, they would enjoy a beer together and end the evening talking about something that united them. I admired them for their mature ability to explore the truth of things honestly and passionately and yet never to personalize any disagreement with the other.
I believe that the increasing tension and division in our societies is due to the prevalent relativism of our age when our energies are concentrated more on who is right rather than what is right. If we lose sight of objective truth as something that awaits us to discover together and ultimately unites us, then in short order our relationships begin to break down as we concentrate on winning the argument or crushing who we perceive as our opponent.
In his book Arguing Religion, Bishop Barron described this problem as ‘voluntarism’ where the joint search for truth comes a poor second to asserting my will over my rival. In the words of Bishop Barron: “For when voluntarism holds sway, there is no room for argument, for truth has become utterly individualized and relativized. When the will of each person is absolute, the possibility for constructive conversation on a shared basis evanesces, and all that is left is a clash of freedoms” (p. 44).
The Columban Principal steers us away from this danger and urges us, in the words of St Columbanus, to refuse to consider others estranged from us whatever their race, political leanings, nationality or religion might be. St Columbanus faced challenges to unity within his monasteries and then with the dispute with the French bishops. Yet through all of it he kept a wider perspective in view and insisted that all differences be subordinate to the greater framework of unity that keeps us together in charity. For this and other reasons, Pope Benedict XVI referred to St 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 all of us need to take greater responsibility for ecclesial, cultural and social unity, may St Columbanus be an inspiration for our flat refusal to allow our Church and communities to fragment along the lines of race, religion or politics.