Weekly General Audience June 11, 2008
During his general audience on June 11, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about St. Columban (543-615), one of the many Irish monks who contributed to the re-evangelization of Europe in the early Middle Ages. He left behind a body of writings that shaped the monastic culture of the Middle Ages, thereby nourishing the Christian roots of Europe.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to speak about Columban, a saintly abbot and the most well-known Irishman of the early Middle Ages. He has been called a “European” saint, and rightly so.
As a monk, missionary and writer, he worked in various countries of Western Europe. Like other Irishmen of his era, he was aware of Europe’s cultural unity. In one of his letters, which was written around the year 600 and sent to Pope Gregory the Great, we find the expression totius Europae (of all Europe) for the first time, in reference to the Church’s presence on the continent (see Epistula I,1).
His Early Years
Columban was born around the year 543 in the province of Leinster, in the southeastern part of Ireland. He was educated at home by excellent teachers who guided him in studying the liberal arts. Later, he entrusted himself to the guidance of Abbot Sinell from the community of Cluain-Inis in the northern part of Ireland, where he was able to delve deeper into his study of sacred Scripture.
At around the age of 20, he entered the monastery of Bangor in the northeast part of the island, where Comgall, a monk who was renowned for his virtue and his rigorous asceticism, was abbot.
Following the example of his abbot, Columban zealously observed the rigorous discipline of the monastery, leading a life of prayer, asceticism and study. He was also ordained a priest there. The life at Bangor and the example of the abbot had a great influence on Columban’s ideas regarding monasticism, which he developed over time and later spread throughout his life.
His Departure for Europe
At around the age of 50, in accordance with the typically Irish ascetic ideal of peregrination pro Christo (making a pilgrimage for Christ) Columban left the island to do mission work on the continent of Europe along with 12 companions.
It is worth calling that entire regions that had already been Christianized had lapsed back into paganism due to the migration of people from the north and from the east.
Around the year 590, this little contingent of missionaries landed on the coast of Brittany. They were cordially welcomed by the Frankish king of Austrasia (present-day France) and requested only a piece of uncultivated land.
They were able to obtain the ancient Roman fortress of Annegay, which was abandoned, had fallen into ruin and had been covered over by the forest by that time.
Accustomed to a life of extreme self-denial, within a few months the monks were able to build their first hermitage on these ruins. Thus, their efforts to re-evangelize began first of all through the witness of their life.
As they began to cultivate the land, they also began to cultivate souls. The reputation of these foreign monks, who lived a life of prayer and austerity and built houses and worked the land, swiftly spread and attracted pilgrims and penitents.
In particular, a large number of young people asked to be accepted into their monastic community in order to live, like them, such an exemplary lifestyle that was renewing the cultivation of lands and of souls.
Soon, a second monastery needed to be established. It was built a few kilometers away on the ruins of Luxeuil, an ancient city with thermal springs. The monastery later became a center for the expansion of the Irish tradition of monasticism and missionary activity throughout the continent of Europe.
A third monastery was constructed at Fontaine, an hour’s journey farther north.
Columban lived in Luxeuil for almost 20 years. There, he wrote a rule for his followers called the Regula monachorum that described the ideal monk and was more widely circulated throughout Europe for a certain time than St. Benedict’s rule. It is the only ancient Irish monastic rule that we have today.
As a supplement to the rule, he wrote the Regula coenobialis, a sort of penal code for offenses that monks committed, with some rather surprising punishments for our modern sensibilities, which can only be explained in light of the mentality and the milieu of that era.
In another famous work, De poenitentiarum misura taxanda, which he wrote while he was in Luxeuil, Columban introduced to the continent private confession on a regular basis, as well as penance on a “pro-rated” basis where the confessor imposed a penance that was in proportion to the seriousness of the sin.
Such new ideas aroused suspicion among the bishops in the area — a suspicion that turned to hostility when Columban courageously reprimanded them openly because of the morals of some of them. The dispute regarding the date of Easter provided the occasion to show their disagreement.
In contrast to the Roman tradition, Ireland followed the Eastern tradition vis-à-vis Easter. In 603, Columban was summoned to Chalons-sur-Marne to justify before a synod his practices as regards the question of penance and Easter. Instead of appearing before the synod, he sent a letter in which he downplayed the issues, suggesting that the synod fathers discuss not only the problem regarding the date of Easter — a small problem in his eyes — “but also all the necessary canonical norms that many have disregarded — something more serious” (see Epistula II,1).
At the same time, he wrote to Pope Boniface IV — as he had written to Pope Gregory the Great a few years before (see Epistula I) — to defend the Irish tradition (see Epistula III).
Work in Germany and Italy
Columban was uncompromising on moral matters and later found himself at odds with the royal household because he severely criticized King Theodoric for his adulterous relationships.
As a result of a series of personal, religious and political intrigues and maneuvering, Columban and all the monks of Irish origin were expelled from Luxeuil in year 610 and condemned to permanent exile. They were escorted to the coast and embarked for Ireland at the expense of the court.
However, their ship ran aground a short distance from the shore and the captain, seeing in this a sign from heaven, gave up this endeavor and, fearing God’s revenge, took the monks back to dry land.
Instead of returning to Luxeuil, the monks decided to start a new work of evangelization. They boarded a boat on the Rhine and sailed up the river. After stopping first at Tuggen, near Lake Zurich, they entered the region of Bregenz near Lake Constance in order to evangelize the Germanic tribes.
Shortly afterwards, however, Columban — because of some political events that were unfavorable to his work — decided to cross the Alps with the majority of his disciples. Only one monk by the name of Gallus stayed behind; his hermitage later gave rise to the famous Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland.
Arriving in Italy, Columban was cordially received at the Lombard royal court, but he soon had to face significant difficulties. Church life was torn apart by the Arian heresy, which was still prevalent among the Lombards, as well as by a schism that had resulted in the separation of most of the churches in northern Italy from communion with the Bishop of Rome.
Columban intervened in this dispute in an authoritative way, writing a treatise against Arianism and a letter to Boniface IV to convince him to take some decisive steps towards reestablishing unity (see Epistula V).
When the king of the Lombards deeded him some land in Bobbio in the valley of Trebbia in 612 or 613, Columban founded a new monastery that later became a center of culture that was comparable to the famous monastery of Monte Cassino.
Here he spent the rest of his life. He died on Nov. 23 of the year 615. He is commemorated in the Roman rite on this date to this day.
St. Columban’s message focuses on a powerful call to conversion and detachment from worldly goods, keeping our eternal reward in mind.
Through his life of asceticism and his uncompromising attitude towards the corruption of the powerful, he reminds us of the austere figure of John the Baptist. His austerity, however, was never an end in itself but only a means to open himself freely to God’s love and to respond with his whole being to the gifts he had received from him, thereby rebuilding God’s image within himself, while, at the same time, plowing the soil and renewing human society.
I would like to quote from his Instructiones:
“If man correctly uses the faculties that God has granted his soul, then he will be similar to God. Let us remember that we must give back to him all those gifts with which he endowed us when we were in our original condition. He has shown us the way with his commandments. The first of these is to love the Lord with all our heart, because it was he who loved us first from the beginning of time, even before we saw the light of this world” (see Instructiones XI).
This Irish saint truly embodied these words in his own life.
A man of great culture — he also wrote poetry in Latin and a grammar book — he proved to be rich in gifts of grace. He was a tireless builder of monasteries as well as an uncompromising penitential preacher, using all his energy to nourish the Christian roots of Europe, which was being born.
Through his spiritual energy, his faith, and his love for God and for his neighbor, he truly became one of the fathers of Europe. Even today he shows us the roots from which our Europe can be reborn.