ST. COLUMBANUS, (543-615)
from
A History of Preaching
by
F. R. Webber

St. Columbanus, or Columban, was one of the Celtic missionaries who carried the Gospel to Continental Europe. He was born in the land of the northern Irish Picts, between Louth and Loch Erne. He was educated by Sinell, a pupil of Finnian of Clonard, at Loch Erne. Then he decided to go to St. Comgall's Bangor in Ulster for his further education and his theological training. The scene that took place in the little cob cottage of his mother is pathetic to a degree. His old mother was reluctant to see him leave home and cast his lot among strangers. She pleaded with him not to leave her, and when her tears and hysterical entreaties failed to dissuade him, she flung herself across the threshold of their cottage, wailing pitifully. This continued for some time, and at last the young man, sore of heart, stepped over his mother's form, bade her farewell, and set out upon the career that was to make him famous.

After spending some time at Bangor in Ulster first as a pupil and then as a missionary preacher, he crossed the Channel to Continental Europe and made his way to Burgundy. He established centers at Anegray in 590, and at Luxeuil. He was not long in Continental Europe before he became involved in a dispute with the missionaries and bishops of the Latin Church. They opposed him because of the fact that he celebrated Easter according to the chronology of the Celtic Church, because he would not adopt the Roman tonsure, and for other practices that they deemed heretical. They urged him to submit to the authority of the local bishop and the Bishop of Rome.

Columbanus was resolute. He refused to recognize the authority of Rome, but declared in letters to his opponents that he accepted only the authority of the Celtic Church, and especially of the community at Bangor in Ulster. He explained in detail the practice of the Celtic Church in regard to the date of Easter, and he testified against the practice of the Roman Church in regard to diocesan bishops. He warned his Latin neighbors against the danger of too close a relation between their Church and the civil authorities. He declared that the simpler and more evangelical usages of the Celtic Church were more thoroughly in keeping with the Apostolic Church than theirs. He even went so far as to write a letter to the Bishop of Rome, questioning his growing authority, and calling attention to the points of difference between the Latin and the Iro-Pictish Churches.

The controversy continued for some time, and in 610 Columbanus had to withdraw from Luxeuil. He preached among the Alemanii and the Suevi. He made his way to Lombardy, to Bregenz in the Tyrol, and to Bobbio in the Apennines. Much might be said in regard to his labors in those places, and accounts of his important work are available. His community at Bobbio became a strong center of missionary training, his pupils going out on missionary tours after the manner of the parent school at Bangor. A catalogue of the library at Bobbio, as it was in the tenth century, exists. At that time it contained some 700 books, among them the famous Antiphonary of Bangor, which gives us information in regard to the form of worship used by the Celtic Church. It is now in the Ambrosian Library at Milan. The Bobbio library contained a manuscript of the Gospels which Columbanus was accustomed to carry with him wherever he went. Other books included a commentary on the Psalms and a commentary on St. Mark, both with notes in the Pictish language. The celebrated Muratorian Fragment was among the manuscripts in St. Columbanus's library. Other books included theological writings and a number of volumes of the classics. The libraries at Bobbio and at her sister community St. Gall, contained many books that disappeared, due to the fact that learned men of the day borrowed books and neglected to return them.

Misunderstanding has been caused in the past because of the fact that early historians declared that St. Columbanus was a Scot. Later historians repeated this statement, citing ancient sources. The fact was overlooked that in early days the Irish people were called Scots; and it was at a much later date that this term came to be applied to the residents of northern Pictland.

Columbanus was a tireless missionary, an able teacher and a preacher who possessed his full share of the fiery eloquence for which the Celts were famous. The usual fables have attached themselves to him, and the usual garbling of history has taken place at the hands of historians, Mediaeval and modern, who disregard the fact that Columbanus refused to conform to the Latin Church, and allowed himself to be banished from Luxeuil rather than accept the authority of his Latin neighbors and their bishops. Throughout his life he was an unconformed Celt of a resolute sort, and any effort to present him in any other light is pure absurdity. However, it is only fair to say that it was not entirely his disputes with the bishops of the Roman Church that caused Columbanus to withdraw from Luxeuil and go to Switzerland. He was a preacher of almost apostolic fervor, and his fiery Celtic oratory gave offense to many, including the royal family. At Anagrates he preached a series of sermons against the sins of the day, and he did not hesitate to rebuke publicly King Theodoric, grandson of Brunhilda, because of his immoral living. The king professed repentance and sent Columbanus gifts of choice foods and wines. Aware of the fact that the king's repentance was not sincere, Columbanus returned the gifts to Theodoric, with the stern words: "It is written, 'The gifts of the wicked are an abomination to the Most High'." The king, alarmed at the great influence of Columbanus, came in person to the muinntir, hoping that he might persuade the great preacher to cease his terrible denunciation of the evils of the day. Columbanus not only refused to listen to the king, but he declared that his community was not subject to the king's command, neither would he allow himself to be silenced either through gifts or through persuasion. The weak king was inclined to let matters drop, but his strong-willed grandmother, the former Queen Brunhilda, used her influence, and Columbanus was cast into prison. There his impassioned eloquence converted many of the prisoners to Christianity, including the prison-keeper and his wife.

After his release from prison Columbanus, mindful of the dispute between himself and the Latin Bishops, and the hostility of the royal family, withdrew from Luxeuil. He was not the first Celtic missionary to Burgundy, as is commonly supposed; for when he went to Anagrates, west of the Vosges, he and his companions were close to starvation, and in the old Vita Columbani we read of the Celtic ab named Carantoc, who had a community not far away, and who sent food and other supplies to the missionaries at Anagrates.

During the waves of barbarian invasion much of the early history of these great Celtic missionaries was lost. Only fragmentary accounts have come down to our day, as ancient manuscripts, sometimes in the Celtic languages, are discovered in the libraries of Europe, as have been the books from St. Gall and Bobbio. Thus it is that a few of these great missionaries, men such as Ninian, Comgall, Columbanus, Gall and others, emerge from time to time from what was once half legend, and the old manuscripts have been bringing to light the authentic life story of these eminent men. Theirs was a missionary zeal exceeded only in Apostolic days, as we see them preaching throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, England and finally Gaul, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. As their romantic story is being brought to light, slowly but surely, these men are filling the strange gap that once appeared between Apostolic and Patristic days and the time of the rise into power of the Latin Church.

Of Columbanus, Mr. A. B. Scott, the great authority on all things Celtic, said long ago: "As a missionary few can compare with him. As a disciple of Jesus Christ, his personal example and life were blameless. His moral courage was apostolic. . . . He simply remained by what he had been taught in a Church that by its isolation had heard nothing of the innovations of the Roman Catholics. His idea of Christianity was more apostolic than the ideals of the Church that persecuted him in Luxeuil."


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