Fr Kevin Hegarty
He was a poet, scholar and monk. Fourteen centuries after his death he was mentioned by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Pope Francis during their speeches at Dublin Castle during the papal visit. Mr Varadkar called him ‘Ireland’s first European and the patron saint of all who seek to construct a united Europe’. According to Pope Francis he helped write a splendid chapter in Irish and universal history.
Both were referring to St Columbanus, who was a pioneer of Irish missionary endeavour in Europe in the sixth and seventh centuries. He established several monasteries in France and Italy and was the inspiration for up to 90 more. He was a major figure in European monasticism. He introduced to the continent the Irish practice of private and frequent confession that later became the norm in Western Christendom.
His writing and poetry reveal his acquaintance with classical authors and are a testament to the quality of learning in Irish monastic schools of the early Christian period. Today, his legacy of missionary endeavour lives on in the Columban Missionary Society whose headquarters are in Dalgan Park, Navan. One of its founders 100 years ago was a Mayo priest, Fr John Blowick.
Details about the early life of Columbanus are sparse. He was born in 543 AD in west Leinster to a family of high social standing. Women were attracted by his ‘fine figure, splendid colour and noble manliness’.
He liked them too, but decided to abandon the pursuit of love to follow his ideal of becoming a monk. His decision displeased his mother. She had envisaged for him a splendid career as a soldier and political leader. He even had to step over her prostrate body as he left home for the monastery. For a quarter of a century he lived in a monastery in Bangor, Co Down, which was a renowned centre for learning. Columbanus proved an adept scholar, he became skilled in grammar, classical literature and the scriptures.
About 589, he felt called to leave the quiet life of the scholar and to undertake evangelisation on the European mainland. With 12 intrepid followers he set off on the perilous venture, never to visit Ireland again.
By 591 they had reached France, or Gaul as it was then known, where they found a society riven by barbarian invasions, civil strife and religious corruption. Columbanus and his companions began to win followers who were attracted by their ascetic lifestyle. It was a welcome contrast to the laxity of the local clergy.
The King of Burgundy was intrigued by the Columban visitor and invited him to establish monasteries in his Kingdom. Columbanus set up three foundations, the best known at Luxeuil.
The death of King Childebert in 600 ended the royal patronage of the mission. His successor, King Theodoric, quarrelled with Columbanus because he refused to baptise his illegitimate children. Local bishops, jealous of the success of the mission, reported the Irish missionaries to the Pope because they followed the Celtic rather than the Roman calendar for dating Easter.
In 610, Theodoric expelled Columbanus and a number of his followers. They made their way gradually to northern Italy. At Bobbio, he established a monastery, which became a significant centre of prayer, learning and culture. Its library was particularly distinguished.
Columbanus died in 615. To this day, his feast day on November 23 is celebrated in the diocese of Bobbio.