Starting with a 530km Irish section, the Columban Way eventually ends in northern Italy
Fr Kevin Hegarty
IN recent years there has been a huge growth of interest in pilgrimage walks. The Camino de Santiago is the best known in Europe. Established over a thousand years ago, various routes in France, Spain and Portugal lead pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, a city in north west Spain, where St James is reputed to be buried.
By the early 1980s the numbers undertaking the pilgrimage had dwindled to a few thousand each year. However, in 2019, before the onset of Cov- id-19, almost 350,000 made the journey. It is nOW on the Unesco world heritage list.
The renewed interest in the Camino has sparked the revival of another medieval pilgrimage, the Via Francigena, which stretches from the UK city of Canterbury to Rome. It has also inspired the creation of new pilgrim walks. Last month anew heritage trail was launched to follow in the footsteps of St Columbanus, the sixth century Irish Monk who founded monas- teries in France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. The Columban Way is the starting point of a wider European pilgrimage trail stretching 6,000km and linking places associated with the Irish saint.
The 530km Irish section starts in Mount Leinster, Co Carlow, and ends in Bangor, Co Down, stretching across counties Wexford, Kildare, Laois, Meath, Cavan, Monaghan, Fermanagh and Armagh. The trail then crosses over to France and eventually ends in the small town of Bobbio, Italy.
Columbanus was born in Mount Leinster in 543 AD. He belonged to an aristocratic family. Women were attracted by ‘his fine figure, splendid colour and noble manliness’. He liked them too, but abandoned the pursuit of love to follow his ideal of becoming a priest. He had sought the advice of a local female permit, who was a spiritual adviser to him. She told him, “Go away, turn from the river into which so many have fallen.”
His decision to become a monk displeased his mother. She had envisaged a splendid career for him as a soldier and political leader. He even had to step over her prostrate body as he left home for the monastery.
He fled first to Glenish, a monastery on Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh. He then went to Bangor in Co Down, which was a renowned centre of Christian learning. He was an able scholar and became skilled in grammer, classical literature and the scriptures.
In 589 AD, after a quarter of a century in Bangor, he felt called to leave the quiet life of the intellectual and to embark on the Christian evan- gelisation of the European mainland. With 12 willing followers, he set off on the perilous venture, never again to return to Ireland.
By 591 AD they had reached France, where they found a society split by barbarian invasions, civil strife and religious corruption. Columbanus and his companions began to attract followers by their ascetic lifestyle, a welcome contrast to the laxity of the local clergy.
King Childebert invited him to establish monasteries in his Kingdom. Columbanus set up three foundations, the best known at Luxeuil. The king’s death in 600 AD ended royal patronage of the mission. His successor, King Theodoric, quar- relled with Columbanus. Local bishops, jealous of the success of the Irish evangelisation, reported him to the Pope because he followed the Celtic rather than the Roman calendar in celebrating Easter.
In 610 AD, the king expelled the Irish mission, but the Celtic influence nevertheless remained significant in shaping French monastic culture.
Columbanus and his followers, after an arduous journey over the Alps, reached northern Italy, where he founded his most famous monastery, at Bobbio. It became a centre of prayer, learning and culture. Its library was especially distin- guished. Pope Emeritus Benedict described Bob- bio as ‘a cultural centre on a par with the famous Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino.
Columbanus’s memory and legacy endure on mainland Europe. He remains a major figure in the history of European monasticism. Robert Schuman, who was one of the founders of what is now the European Union, paid him the following tribute: “St Columbanus, this illustrious Irish man, who left his own country for voluntary exile, willed and achieved a spiritual union between the principal European countries of his time. He is the patron saint of all those who now seek to build a united Europe.”