omily of Bishop Michael Smith on the Feast of St Columban, celebrated in Dalgan Park on Monday 23 November 2015
Just to share a few thoughts with you as we come to the end of the year-long celebration of the 1400th anniversary of the death of St. Columbanus. It has been a journey that took you from Bangor to Bobbio with many places in between, including many celebrations here in Dalgan. It followed the life journey of Columban from south Leinster through Ireland, France, Rhine valley, Germany, Austria, Switzerland ending in Italy.
That 1400 years later he is considered worthy of such remembrance is testimony to his extraordinary impact on the faith, culture and identity of Europe. That Pope Francis sent his own special envoy to the celebrations in Bobbio underlines this impact. Our readings from Isaiah and Luke sum up his life as a pilgrim for Christ. He certainly brought good tidings and having put his hand to the plough there was no turning back.
There was an extraordinary providence at work in his life. Like many another young Irish man at that time he sought the solitude of the monastic life. His sharp mind and aptitude for study and prayer was evident from a young age. His stay in Cleenish laid the foundations that were to take deep root during his many years as a monk is the rather austere ambience of Comgall’s monastery in Bangor.
We can only wonder about the debate that took place in the monastery as he asked leave to go as a pilgrim for Christ to Europe, taking twelve companions with him. He had a high profile in the Monastery being ordained a priest –few monks were – and it seems head of the monastic school. Comgall must have thought long and hard before giving his consent. Yet it was during these austere years in Bangor that his character was truly formed – a man deeply embedded in the scripture, a total trust in the Lord and a determination to live his vocation to the full.
You are all familiar with the journey that brought him through France, the problems his outspoken comments caused him, and the determination that motivated him. When expelled from Luxeuil he left a monastery behind him that not only survived but flourished. This says something deep about his character and the wisdom that animates his rule.
Leaving was very painful but that is the experience of many missionaries along their missionary journey. There was a providence at the heart of it all and the remaining years of his life bore immense fruit through further foundations ending with his final foundation in Bobbio. Bobbio became one of the great cultural and religious Centres in Europe, lasting down to the French Revolution.
Two quotations sum it all up. Pope Benedict is his beautiful talk on Columban had these words ‘a man of great culture…he proved rich in gifts of grace. With his spiritual energy and his faith, with his love of God and neighbour he truly became one of the Fathers of Europe’.
Montalembert is even more expressive ‘Columban’s greatness consists not so much in the establishment of any permanent organisation as in the fact that he enkindled a new spirit of monasticism in Europe and in time became the guiding influence in European civilisation’.
When Robert Schumann and Jean Monnet with others deciding that Europe should not endure another war conceived the idea of the European Community they saw Columbanus as their Patron since he was the first to speak of Europe.
His impact was immense. St. Benedict had founded his monasteries a century earlier but they had not taken off – the impetus Columban gave to the spread of monasticism ultimately transformed the face of Europe. The monasteries became the great intellectual and cultural powerhouses of Europe. Gradually over time the Columban monasteries adopted the gentler rule of Benedict, replacing the more rigid and stricter rule of Columban. It was a case of he must increase and I must decrease.
It is perhaps worth pausing for a moment and ask why did Columban take to the high seas and the roads or tracks of Europe. It wasn’t to found a string of monasteries around Europe. A pilgrim for Christ he was seeking the face of God. He had spent about 30 years learning and reflecting, especially focused on the Word of God. He was blessed with great intelligence. He embedded in his soul a great inner strength, a total acceptance of God’s will. It didn’t faze him to tell kings and rulers what he thought of their behaviour and morals.
He wrote to Popes, advising them. Pope Gregory the Great was a recipient his letters. Did that wise and holy Pope, who also had such an influence on European development, recognise in Columban the providential figure that God had chosen as his instrument in the re-evangelising of Europe. His interaction with Columban suggests that he did in truth appreciate the giftedness is this awkward Irish monk.
The image Irish people had in Europe before the monks started to spread out all over the continent was not exactly a positive one. We were considered somewhat barbaric and uncouth. Yet it was this detachment from personal self-interest that allowed Columban to be such a potent and effective teacher and confessor. He teaches our age a valuable lesson since pursuit of self interest has now become the dominate motivation for so many. He spearheaded the introduction of a new understanding of Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Mercy of God.
He lived in a Europe that was disintegrating with the invasion of so many peoples into Europe following the collapse of the western empire. Shades of what is happening in our time. When he visited the European Institutions earlier in his Pontificate, Saint John Paul spoke of a Europe that was losing its soul, a Europe that was throwing away its roots and culture. Pope Benedict repeated the same challenge when he made the same pilgrimage some years later.
The Europe that Columban encountered was little different. Who would have expected that the catalyst for reawakening in Europe would come from the wilds of Ireland. The ways of the Lord are very different from ours.
Columban was a man totally at ease with God, at ease with his faith. He was a deeply providential figure that left a lasting legacy to a Europe in need of finding again it soul and mission. Boronio’s definition of history as the teacher of life is ever true. Columban can teach us much through his openness to God, his openness to the transcendent. Because of his belief in God and the affirmation of the dignity of each person there is a consistency at the heart of catholic belief and its social teaching.
I have to confess to having a reservation of that often used phrase ‘an option for the poor’. The option of the Church must always be an option for Christ that finds it expression in reaching out to the poor and disadvantaged since all are touched with the image of God. It was his total option for Christ that allowed Columban to reach out to all, especially the poor and marginalised. This year-long celebration is not just evoking the memory of a towering figure in European history. He can truly teach us much about faith and its proclamation in our age too.