As we celebrate the Year of Consecrated Life it seems very fitting that this year, 2014 – 2015, is also designated, by the Church, as the Year of Columbanus. This Irish monk, who played a major role in rekindling the Christian Faith in Europe during the “Dark Ages,” is probably the most significant Irish religious figure of all time. Pope Pius XI said that “the rebirth of Christian wisdom in Europe can be attributed to the labour and fervour of Columban”. He has been called a “messenger of blessing” to Europe, a light in the darkness that prevailed after the fall of the Roman Empire. Even though he himself founded only five monasteries – Annegray, Luxeuil, Fontaines in France, Bregenz in Switzerland and Bobbio in Italy – hundreds of monasteries throughout Europe trace their origin to his monks and also followed the Rule of Columbanus for centuries.
Sculpture by Claude Grange in Luxeuil
2015 marks the 1,400th anniversary of his death in Bobbio, Italy in 615.
Pope Benedict XVI in a special address in 2008 referred to Columbanus as the greatest Irishman of the Middle Ages but modern historians, such as Damian Bracken, consider Columbanus to be the greatest Irish person of all time and also the person best-known internationally in Irish history. Tomás Ó Fiaich in his book “Columbanus in his Own Words” heralds Columbanus as a man of firsts in Irish history – the first Irish writer to leave “a literary corpus” and also the first Irish person to be the subject of a biography – written shortly after Columbanus’ death by the monk Jonas of Susa. Columbanus is regarded as the first Irish person to describe himself as Irish and to give some account of what this means. Columbanus’ influence was so powerful and lasting that he “was responsible for Ireland’s reputation as the land of saints and scholars”.
Columbanus was also the first Irish person to have an impact on continental Europe. He had the vision to see beyond individual nations. In a letter to the French bishops (c603) he writes “we are all members of one body, whether Franks or Britons or Irish or whatever our race”. Columbanus was the first to use the expression “totius Europea”(all of Europe) in his letter to Pope Gregory the Great (c600). In 1950 Robert Schuman, French Minister for Foreign Affairs and one of the founding fathers of Europe, declared Columbanus to be “the patron saint of all those who seek to construct a united Europe”. The celebration of the 1,400th anniversary of the birth of Columbanus in 1950 (not celebrated in 1943 because of the war) was the occasion for Schuman to share his ideas on a united Europe with the heads of state of eight countries gathered in Luxeuil to honour Columbanus.
Abbaye Saint Colomban Luxeuil
A major part of Columbanus’ legacy is his writings – quite a few still survive. These can be divided into four categories – Monastic Rules and Penitential, Letters, Sermons and Poetry. These give us a picture of the life-style in his monasteries. They also give us insights into his own personality and spirituality.
Columbanus combined the two monastic traditions – that of Egypt – seeking seclusion in the desert – and that of Basil – asking the question “whose feet will I wash?” In his letter from Nantes to the monks at Luxeuil, Columbanus writes “I want the salvation of many and seclusion for myself … the one for the progress of the Lord the other for my own desire”. While working hard in the service of his monks and the local community Columbanus also liked to get away and spend time alone with God. He had his cave near Annegray in France and also in Bobbio he sought solitude in caves in Monte Penice and San Michaele. Yet even in these remote places people flocked to him.
Columbanus Cave in Annegray
Columbanus attached great importance to education. His monasteries were centres of literacy and learning and became famous for their libraries and scriptoria. Nearly all surviving manuscripts from continental Europe produced during the 7th and 8th centuries are due to Columbanus. These are now in the libraries in Turin, Milan and St. Gall.
Cave of San Michaele, Bobbio where Columbanus died in 615
In the early 20th century Columbanus became the patron of the Columban Fathers and Sisters. Through these 20th century Irish missionaries Columbanus is now widely known in the farthest corners of the earth from China to South America where lots of churches and parishes now bear his name.
To this day his influence is visible throughout France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and especially in Italy and he is, arguably, better known in these countries than in Ireland. Numerous parishes are dedicated to him and devotion to him is very much alive. In more recent times a new parish near Eurodisney has been called St Colomban du Val d’Europe. Very active associations of the friends of St Colombanus exist with headquarters in Luxeuil, Saint Colomb (Brittany) and Bobbio.
Images of Columbanus are everywhere – in stained-glass windows in the churches and in statues. He is always depicted with a bird on his shoulder or speaking to animals. It is believed that Bobbio influenced the development of the Franciscan Order in Assisi.
St. Francis’ love of creation may indeed be traced back to Columbanus’ love of nature. It is thought that St. Francis himself visited Bobbio.
Since 1998 a Columban’s Day celebration has taken place every year in different places associated with Columbanus beginning in San Colombano al Lambro in Italy. In 2010 Columban’s Day was celebrated in Bangor and in October 2014 it took place in Rome to coincide with the launch of the Year of Columbanus.
Many events have been organised to celebrate this special year. The BBC is preparing a film on Columbanus and the various places associated with him. Mary McAleese, who was born near Bangor, will be the commentator for this film which is scheduled to be shown in November. Seminars have been planned in Bangor in May 2015, Luxeuil in September and Bobbio in November on the theme of “Making Europe: Columbanus and His Legacy”. The seminar in Bobbio will mark the close of the Year of Columbanus on his feastday on 23rd November, 2015.
In March 2014 the European Association of the Way of St. Columbanus was formed to launch a new European Cultural Route from Bangor to Bobbio similar to the Camino de Santiago. This way goes through seven countries through which Columbanus walked on “peregrinatio pro Christo” – Ireland, Britain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy. Simon Derache was one of the first pilgrims to walk the “Columbanus Way” setting out from Bangor on 26th March 2014 and arriving in Bobbio on 29th June 2014.
Again it is fitting to celebrate Columbanus with the launch of a pilgrim way as pilgrimage was so important in his life – he saw life as a pathway and Christians as pilgrims on the pathway of life. In his 6th Sermon he writes “I am always moving from the day of birth until the day of death”. Having spent about thirty years in the monastery in Bangor, Columbanus felt called to voluntary exile for Christ. This voluntary self-exile was seen as “white martyrdom” – not only leaving one’s homeland but also giving up one’s legal and social position and becoming a stranger without rights, moving from the known and comfortable into what was unknown and challenging. Peregrinatio was also seen as seeking one’s place of resurrection, a place of new beginnings. For the Irish monks peregrinatio was more than just exile – it was linked with mission – a desire to visit the pagan peoples and preach the Gospel to them.
Of all the Irish peregrini there is no doubt that Columbanus has had the most widespread and lasting impact – as monk, missionary, teacher, preacher, pilgrim, and author. It is hoped that, during this special year of celebration of the 1400th anniversary of his death, he may be proclaimed one of the Patron Saints of Europe.
“Since we pass through this world merely as pilgrims, let us keep our eyes fixed on the end of the road, where our real home lies.” (St. Columbanus, Sermon 8)
Ann Lenihan rsm