Saint Columbanus Pilgrim for Christ

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By Aidan J. Larkin

A new biography of Saint Columban (543−615) has been published this summer.

It was written by Father Aidan Larkin, a Columban missionary who was ordained in 1985 and is at present ministering in Chile. Before he was ordained to the priesthood Fr Larkin worked in the Legal Service of the European Council of Ministers in Brussels, and this experience fostered his interest in the significance of Saint Columban as a model for contemporary Christians.
Prior to tracing the life and ministry of Saint Columban, Fr Larkin sketches the early growth of Christianity in Ireland, and the life and spirituality of the Celtic monasteries which nurtured Saint Columban’s faith and inspired him to leave Ireland and become a peregrini (Latin: traveller) for Christ. Fr Larkin studied the classical texts of ancient Greece and Rome at University College Dublin, and in this book he points out that Saint Columban too would have studied such writers as Cicero, Virgil and Horace at the monasteries of Cleenish and Bangor in Ireland. The dominant motive for these studies was to have access to the Latin bible, the Vulgate. The studies helped form Columban’s character and faith, sharpened his thinking, gave him the confidence to confront kings and popes, and enabled him to write prose and poetry which has been praised through the centuries.
In sketching an outline of the practice and spirituality of the monastic life which formed Columban, Fr Larkin emphasizes that it was centred on personal and liturgical prayer, fasting, penance, work—both physical and intellectual—and prayerful reading of scripture, lectio divina. Many monks, notably Columbanus, opted for peregrinatio, a wandering through the world in which a monk became a “stranger for God,” and “an exile for Christ”.
The political and ecclesiastical controversies of the time in which Columban became embroiled during his travels in Europe are described clearly and succinctly in the book. For example, many people know that around the time Saint Columban lived there was a dispute between Rome and other Churches, especially the Celtic Church of Ireland and Britain , about the date on which Easter should be celebrated. Few people, however, can explain how and why this conflict arose. Fr Larkin explains to his reader the nature and significance of the struggle, without introducing unnecessary complications.
Before Saint Patrick arrived there around 440, Palladius had been sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine I, around 431. Paladius brought with him an 84-year cycle for calculating the date of Easter. However, in 457 Rome adopted another manner of calculating that date, and other places followed—but not all. When pressurized to adopt the new cycle, the Celtic Churches refused, and maintained they were merely continuing a tradition that had originally been followed in Rome. The dispute continued for many years. In 600 Columban wrote from France to Pope Gregory I asking for instruction on the matter, and wondering why the Gallic Church there was able to use still another method for calculating the date of Easter, different again from that used in Rome. He requested that “we may in our pilgrimage maintain the rite of Easter as we have received it from generations gone before.” The Irish, writes Fr Larkin , clung to their way of calculating the date of Easter “as to something ancient and right, received with the Faith.” This is not a complete defence, he admits, but Fr Larkin’s legal knowledge and experience perceives that “it is an honourable plea in extenuation.” (p.112).
After the death of Columban, the monastery of Bobbio accepted the custom of the universal Church in regard to Easter, and it was reward by the Pope with a special mission to combat Arianism. The Arians refused to accept that Jesus could be, as declared by the Creed of the Council of Nicea (325) of the same substance, or “consubstantial” with the one and eternal God. In spite of his criticism of papal authorities, the attachment to orthodoxy of Columban’s monks had won them the confidence of the papacy, and they were invited to join in the struggle for the true faith.
Although Columban is frequently honoured as a great missionary, when he arrived in France in 590 most of the people there had been baptized. They had already heard and believed the gospel, “but afterwards they had abandoned the effort to life a true Christian life” (p.101). The focus of Columban’s ministry was urging people to “be reconciled to God.” Europeans have again abandoned the gospel, and as the Church ponders on the task of re-evangelizing Europe, another glance at the life and work of Saint Columban could inspire us for the task ahead.
This book is the fruit of much scholarly research into original sources on the life of Saint Columban, yet the style of writing makes for easy reading. The Columban which emerges from Father Larkin’s work is a man of deep faith and constant prayer, with an independent mind, faithful to the traditions of his forbears, and loyal to the Pope as the guardian of the faith handed down from the apostles. Saint Columban was passionate in his determination to uphold true and orthodox faith. One cannot but wonder, if he were alive today, how Saint Columban would react to the ongoing dissent in the Church!

Published by the Missionary Society of Saint Columban and Cumann Seanchais Ard Macha (Armagh Historical Society)
Price £10 (plus postage and packing)

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Widney Manor Road,
Knowle,
Solihull,
B93 9AB. E-mail: colsol@columbans.co.uk