I hope that what I have to say about St. Columban today will help you to know this remarkable Irishman a little better. Because, despite being widely known and venerated over the centuries in many parts of Europe, he is not well known here in Ireland, the country where he was born and where he lived for more than forty years. He is often confused with his older contemporary and namesake, Columba, or Colmcille. Both were monks and missionaries: Columcille in Ireland, and later in the island of Iona and Scotland; Columban, or Columbanus as he is often known, on the continent of Europe.
Today’s Gospel reading seems very apt when we talk about Columban, since during his life he was at the centre of many storms, both literally at sea and on the rivers of Europe, and there were stormy times too in his relations with other people. Both varieties of storm had far reaching effects on his life and ministry. He was born about 543 on the Carlow/Wexford border, probably near the present village of Myshall in Co. Carlow. He studied in Cleenish, Co. Fermanagh, before entering the monastery of Bangor in Co. Down under the rule of St.Comgall, where he continued his studies. He was later ordained priest and taught in the monastery school. After about twenty-five years there he felt a strong call to leave the monastery and go to Europe as an exile for Christ. Though reluctant to let him go, the Abbot recognised that his call was genuine, so he not only released him, but assigned twelve companions to accompany him on the journey. Then, in the words of the late Cardinal O’Fiaich: “Fortified by the blessing of Comgall they rowed courageously into the unknown”. They arrived in Gaul about the year 591 and spent about twenty years there. They founded many monasteries, the most famous of which was Luxeuil which became a great centre of learning. Though successful in attracting young men to the monastic life, Columban was not always diplomatic in his dealings with people. Whatever their social status, if he felt their lives and actions did not fit in with the demands of the Gospel he was forthright in his condemnation. Consequently, he succeeded in arousing the anger both of the religious leaders and the royal family in the area, and was condemned to be banished and, with his Irish companions, deported back to Ireland. A storm at sea prevented the ship from sailing to Ireland, but, instead of resting for a while, these intrepid missionaries, many of them including Columban no longer young, decided to start missionary work in a new area. They sailed up the Rhine, through Germany to Bregenz close to the border with modern Switzerland. Moving on from there they undertook what was to be Columban’s last journey, travelling on foot over the Alps into the plain of Lombardy. After spending some time in Milan, the local king granted him a site for a monastery in Bobbio, a small town about seventy miles south of Milan, and Columban and his companions moved there and began to build a monastery, and it was there in the year 615, about two years after his arrival, that he died, aged about seventy-two. It is there too that he is buried, in the crypt of the basilica dedicated to him.
It is not easy to describe Columban the man because, as is the case with many great people, his was a complex character with many gifts and many contradictions. He was a strong and effective leader, a gifted scholar, a poet, a man of prayer, and an uncompromising witness to the Gospel. He could be harsh, even with his monks, but was gentle and caring if they were sick. He wrote letters admonishing Bishops, and even the Pope, when he felt that there was a lack of leadership which was harming the Church. And as we have seen, he angered local bishops and the Royal family in Gaul, and paid the price of banishment. What was it that drove him on? It would seem that he had a compulsion to share the faith within him with others. In a recent article on the saint’s spirituality Fr. Tommy Murphy, a Columban Father, writes: A strong desire for union with God was the driving force in the life of St. Columban. He believed that the risen Christ was present in him and the world around him: and that Christ was the source of all the gifts he needed in life. This is what fuelled his intransigence, his strictness, his tenderness, his prayerfulness, his love of nature and animals. Add to this his burning desire to be a life-long exile for Christ so that he could share the faith and love of God within him with those who did not yet know God.
What is Columban’s relevance for today and indeed for you here in Crumlin parish? You are not about to leave your home and country to preach the Gospel. But it is not only the people who are called to go abroad who are missionaries. Every one of you here, by virtue of your baptism, has a call to mission to be lived out in your own life situation. Columban constantly urged his followers: Let us be Christ’s, not our own. That is the motto of the Columban Sisters and it is a challenging one. Maybe you can let it challenge you too. It strengthened Columban to witness openly and fearlessly to his faith in seventh century Europe; it can strengthen you to live and share your faith more deeply in your families, your parish, your community, your work place, wherever you are. It may not always be easy to do that in the Ireland of today, any more than it was easy for Columban in his day. But he persevered and his example will help you too to be missionaries in your own place and time.
I will conclude by reading a prayer from one of the sermons of St. Columban, probably written towards the end of his life. For me it illustrates more powerfully that any narrative, who he was and what his life was about. As we honour him this year may he pray for our country, our people at home and abroad and may he inspire a renewal of faith all over the world, and especially here in his homeland which he loved so much.
Lord, grant me, I pray you, in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son, my God, that charitythat does not fail, so that my lamp may be always lighted … and may burn for me andgive light to others. Christ, kindle our lamps, our Saviour most sweet to us, that they may always shine in your temple and continually receive light from you, the LightPerpetual, so that our own darkness may be illuminated and the darkness of the world
expelled from us.