Find your parish Donate

Bishop Denis’ thoughts on the recent St. Columbanus Day celebration

Some thoughts as Kildare & Leighlin prepare to host the XXVI International Columbanus Celebration in July 2025:

I was delighted to be part of a delegation to attend theXXV International Meeting of the Columban Communities in Piacenza, Italy, from Saturday 22 June – Monday 24 June. Accompanying me on the delegation from the Irish Episcopal Conference were Bishop Michael Duignan, Bishop of Galway, Kilmacduagh & Kilfenora and Bishop of Clonfert; Bishop Paul Connell, Bishop of Ardagh & Clonmacnois and Bishop John McAreavey Bishop Emeritus Dromore, along with representatives from other dioceses and Columban communities, particularly from Dalgan Park in Navan.

For the past 25 years these meetings have succeeded in creating a network of spiritual and cultural friendships in those parts of Europe where Columbanus and his companions left the imprint of their presence. Last year I also attended a similar celebration in St. Gallen, Switzerland.

Immediate highlights this year for me included the Conference on Saturday 22 June in the Church of St. Bridget of Ireland. Speakers included Dr. Damian Bracken (UCC) whose spoke on ‘Traditions of St. Brigid in Italy and the Continent: mission and identity’. Dr. Bracken in his excellent talk reminded us of how Brigid and Columbanus have left a huge imprint on mainland Europe – Columbanus through his travels and the many monasteries he established; Brigid through the traditions associated with her devotion. Perhaps at home we fail to appreciate the deep impressions our Irish saints have made on mainland Europe.  

Later there was the Reception of the Holy Relics of St. Columbanus in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and St. Justina, Piacenza in the context of Evening Prayer, followed by a superb concert by the Music Conservatory of Piacenza performing many pieces including Bruckner’s ‘Locus Iste’, Mozarts ‘Laudate Dominum’ and ‘Padre dei populi d’Europa’ by the Italian priest composer Marco Frisina. His composition sounded like an anthem for Columbanus.

On Sunday 23 June, there were a number of receptions by the Civil Authorities and then by the Religious Authorities, followed immediately by Mass in the presence of the holy relics. The chief celebrant of the Mass was Bishop Adriano Cevolotto, the Bishop of Piacenza and the Abbot of Bobbio, todays successor to St. Columbanus. Pope Francis in a special message for the celebration encouraged us not to leave St. Columbanus in the past, his values are not just a legacy that has passed, but a living reality that can help Europe recover the best of its heritage.

I was delighted at the end of the Mass to announce that during next years ‘Jubilee of Hope’, the International Columban Day would be celebrated in Carlow Cathedral on Sunday 13 July 2025. This will the first time the celebration will be in the Republic of Ireland, but not the first time on the island of Ireland. The 2015 celebration was hosted in Bangor and Armagh.  

On Monday 24 June, we made the trip out to Bobbio, a journey of no more than fifty minutes from Piacenza. Archbishop Noel Treanor, the Holy See’s Nuncio to the European Union, celebrated Mass there at the tomb of St. Columbanus. It was very moving to be at the tomb for the Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, reminding all of us how important births and deaths are in the liturgical calendar. Very conscious that Myshall, County Carlow is the birthplace of St. Columbanus as cited by Cardinal Tomás Ó’Fiach and Dr. Margaret Murphy of Carlow College, St. Patrick’s, I felt we had in ways come full circle, from the birth of the saint in Myshall in 543AD to his place of death in Bobbio in 615AD. And there on the side wall adjacent to Columbanus’ tomb hung a St. Brigid’s Cross.

Following Mass, the Irish Ambassador to the Holy See, Frances Collins launched an exhibition ‘Ireland and the Birth of Europe’ honouring the legacy of St. Columbanus and the Irish Church. The monastery in Bobbio became a great seat of learning in medieval Europe, possessing one of the largest libraries which existed in the Middle Ages. With an emphasis on learning, Columbanus and his followers contributed to the shaping of a European heritage that endures today. “They were not only missionaries but ambassadors for our small island”, Ambassador Collins reminded us. Addressing the launch on behalf of the Irish Episcopal Conference, Bishop Michael Duignan spoke of “the esteem, emotion and veneration that St. Columbanus is remembered” across mainland Europe. Speaking at the same launch, Dr. Damian Bracken reminded us “Ireland didn’t join Europe in 1973, we were part of European mainstream for 1,000 years before that. When people lose sight of their cultural and spiritual patrimony and historical depth, they lose sight of everything”.

Columbanus’ vision for Europe is one based on cooperation between people, to live in peace and unity. His monasteries attracted many young people at a time when Europe needed re-evangelisation. Pope Benedict XVI saw Columbanus as one of the ‘Fathers of Europe’. Columbanus reminds us we have been intimately connected with the rest of Europe throughout our history. He was the first to use the phrase “all of Europe” in a letter to Pope Gregory in 600AD and later in a letter to Pope Boniface in 613AD he wrote “we Irish”. Columbanus wasn’t afraid to wear the green jersey while also appreciating we were part of something much greater.

Hosting the International Festival in Carlow allows us an opportunity to reintroduce Columbanus to the Irish people. Politics and discourse has become polarised, not just in the United States but across Europe. We hear of the rise of the ‘far-right’. Creating fear is their mantra. The language of fear, of anger, of hate has no place in civil society and not in the Europe we strive to live in. The European project was launched with the objective of “no more war on European soil” and sadly we see what is unfolding in Ukraine and in the Middle East. Recently in Luxeuil a plaque was unveiled to mark Robert Schuman, the French statesman known as the ‘Father of Europe’. He described Columbanus as “the patron saint of all those who now seek to build a united Europe”. It was no coincidence that our accommodation in Piacenza was with the Scalabrinian Fathers, founded by St. John Baptist Scalabrini, known as the Saint of the Migrants. The migrant issue remains one of the greatest challenges Europe and Ireland face this day. We must use this time of preparation for July 2025 to reintroduce ourselves to the person, the saint, the man, who was St. Columbanus, one of the greatest missionaries of the early Irish Church and hear, maybe for the first time, his message for today.