St Columban (543-615)
Columban is the most outstanding and well known of the very numerous Irish missionaries who left Ireland to be missionaries in Europe. They called this exile from their homeland white martyrdom. When they left their intention was never to see Ireland again.
Columban was a monk at Bangor in the North of Ireland where St Comgall was the abbot. In 590 he left Bangor and took up his wandering for Christ, his white martyrdom. He moved into the area that would roughly correspond to what we would today call Eastern France, Western Germany and Switzerland. He established monasteries wherever he stayed and monasteries were the centres of evangelisation of that time. He came into conflict with many in the local Frankish Church because he followed the rather different customs he brought with him from Ireland.
The organisation of the Irish Church was different to that of the Church on the continent of Europe. It was organised around monasteries rather than dioceses and the bishop was subject to the authority of the abbot of the monastery. That is, the one who led the celebration of sacraments did not combine that with governance of the Church as did bishops in Europe. The Irish also celebrated Easter on a different date; they had a different way of celebrating penance to the ancient rite of the Europeans and the monks wore a quite different form of tonsure. (Tonsure was the way a monk’s hair was cut to show he was a monk). The practices of the ancient Irish Church are very interesting and show us a little of the ways in which ancient Christianity developed. These Irish customs are possibly linked to practices of the Eastern Churches as there is some evidence that the Irish Church had links with the East.
All these differences caused friction between Columban and his monks and the bishops and monks of the Church in the lands of the Franks where they were preaching the gospel. These Irish monks – and Colomban outstanding among them – were incredibly courageous and had a lasting influence on the history of Europe and its Christianisation.
The last monastery to be founded by Columban was in Bobbio in Northern Italy (see main image). It continues to be a monastery to this day and it is the place where he is buried.
The Feast of St Columban is 23 November.
By Fr Frank O’Loughlin