Monday, November 23, 2009


I can't let this day go without mention of St. Columban of Bobbio. He is the one on the left above accompanied by St. Basil (the younger) of Constantinople. Bobbio, in Northern Italy, was where he ended up but not where he started out. He was a Leinster man, like myself and most of my ancestors, born about 543. He studied under St. Sinnell at Cleenish on Lough Erne and then with St. Comgall at Bangor, Co. Down.

Somewhere between the 570's and the 590's he headed off with twelve companions for the Continent. Welcomed by a local king he established a monastery at the abandoned Roman fort at Annegray where he converted the ruined temple of Diana into a church dedicated to St. Martin of Tours. Columban's monasticism was the strict Irish form and it attracted followers, men in search of God. Soon monasteries at Luxeil and Fontaine followed.

Falling foul of the new king Columban and his monks were banished and thus began their long and epic search for a home. Along the way some monks founded their own monasteries such as St. Dicuil at Oignon and St. Gall at Lake Constanz.
Having passed over the Alps Columban made it to the court of the Lombard King who offered him the ruined church of St. Peter, 70 miles from Milan. Here at Bobbio he ended his days.

It was during these years he wrote to the Pope. He asserted

For all we Irish, inhabitants of the world's edge, are disciples of Saints Peter and Paul and of all the disciples who wrote the Sacred Canon by the Holy Spirit. We accept nothing outside the evangelical and apostolic teaching. None of us is a heretic, no one a jew, no one a schismatic; but the Catholic faith as it was transmitted by you, successors of the Holy Apostles is maintained unbroken.

He was, of course, an Irishman to the end, valuing informality and good-natured humour:

When an unworthy man like me writes to an illustrious one like yourself, my insignificance makes applicable to me the striking remark which a certain philosopher is said to have once made on seeing a painted harlot: 'I do not admire the art, but I admire the cheek'...

Columban was no painted harlot but a great and holy man whose monasteries acted as beacons in the darkness of Europe and made a huge contribution to its rebuilding. Robert Schuman called him the 'patron saint of those who wish to construct a united Europe'. I would add 'provided it is Christian and Catholic.'

Translations are by the late Tomás Cardinal Ó'Fiaich. Source: O'Brien Pocket History of Irish Saints by Brian Lacey.

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