Mass to honour St. Columbanus

Church of St. Comgall, Brunswick Road, Bangor, Co. Down @ 7.30pm

Closing Mass of Diocesan & Parochial Year in honour of 1400th Anniversary

Fr. Joe Gunn PP

I think I can put myself firmly in the category of being a philatelist. Maybe there are philatelists in the congregation tonight in Bangor? A philatelist likes to collect postage stamps, has an interest in first day covers and would dearly love to have in their collection a ‘Penny Black’. That stamp was the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, issued on May 1st, 1840. I’ll meet you at the back of the church if you have a spare one in your pocket tonight! Why talk about stamp collecting on an evening when I am here to mark the end of a wonderful year of celebrations, commemorating the 1,400th anniversary of the death of St. Columbanus. Well, An Post very fittingly has issued a stamp designed by Steve Simpson, depicting the image of St. Columbanus as it features on a stained glass window in Mount St. Joseph’s Abbey, Roscrea. It’s a €1.05 stamp, so if you are down south, you can use it, to post your Christmas cards to overseas destinations. Bangor, after all was the starting point for Columbanus’s far flung journey into continental Europe, so this very place has a revered tradition of reaching well beyond its frontiers.

I am truly honoured to have been invited by Fr. Joe Gunn to preach this evening, on this the actual feastday of St. Columbanus and the day when officially the year of celebrations draws to an end. This is my first visit to Bangor and while I had the sat-nav as Fr. Joe gave me the exact coordinates before I set out, Columbanus made this same journey before me, setting out from Myshall in County Carlow with no coordinates, no sat-nav and no motorway system! Where is Myshall you might wonder? It lies at the foot of the northern slopes of the Blackstairs Mountains. Myshall also gave us St. Finian, the great teacher and tutor. The late Cardinal Tomás Ó’Fiaich in his very readable work on the saint says: “It has been conjectured that Columbanus was born around 543 on the borders of the modern counties of Carlow and Wexford[1]. Until this past year of celebrations commenced there might have been a little conjecture regarding the accuracy of Columbanus’s place of birth, but the commemorative year has changed all that. I announced last June at our own diocesan celebrations in Myshall that it is irrefutably believed the Saint was born in the townland of Rathnageeragh in Myshall Parish on the side of Mount Leinster. Supporting Tomás Ó Fiaich, we also have the learned opinion of the medieval historian and scholar, Dr. Margaret Murphy; Aidan Larkin, the author of ‘Saint Columbanus, Pilgrim for Christ’, and the Columban Fathers, Tim Redmond and Cyril Lovett, current editor of ‘The Far East’.

On July 14th last I had an opportunity to visit Bobbio. This was something very special, knowing where Columbanus was born and then visiting where he died; tonight completes the circle. Bangor is where Columbanus was formed. Bangor is where his vocation was nurtured. Bangor is where his personality matured. Luke’s gospel for tonight’s feastday celebration reminds us of the challenge that following a vocation call entails: “Leave the dead to bury their dead, your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God[2]. It’s no wonder we hear nothing more about Myshall, Carlow or the Blackstairs Mountains, Columbanus once he left, he moved on completely. When the time would come for him to leave you in Bangor, he would never return here again either. So what was he leaving behind in following this call to priesthood? I imagine he had many options open to him as a young man in a society of flourishing commerce, agriculture and chieftancy. His biographer Jonas of Susa who entered Bobbio three months after the Saints death, doesn’t hesitate to mention that Columbanus was good looking, he was attractive and would have caught the attention of many a girl, but all the time Columbanus longed for something deeper. Even his mother had the premonition that the child she carried in her womb would be “a remarkable genius”. Doesn’t every mother think the same of her offspring!

When I visited Bobbio and went down into the crypt of the Basilica of St. Columbanus, I saw the sarcophagus of the saint, decorated with splendid motif retelling the stories of the saint’s life. On the wall to the left of the sarcophagus was an ancient St. Brigid’s Cross woven out of dried wheat stalks. I had arrived, the link with St. Brigid, St. Patrick, St. Comghall was very strong and very complete. The past year has given us here in Ireland an opportunity to reclaim the Saint with whom we have had an uneasy relationship since he sailed out of Bangor in 591, never to return again. Twelve monks accompanied him on a journey that would take him to Gaul, Burgundy, Annegray, Luxeuil, Fontaine and then to Bobbio. It was continental Europe who made the Saint their own. In 1950 Robert Schuman, one of the founding fathers of the European Union described him as “an illustrious Irishman who left his own country for voluntary exile and willed and achieved a spiritual union between the principle European countries of his time. He is the patron saint of all those who now seek to build a united Europe[3]. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI perceived him as “the best known Irishman of the early Middle Ages … he had a sense of Europe’s cultural unity. The expression ‘totius Europae’ … is found in one of his letters”. Sean McBride saw him as “not only a great Irishman but one of the greatest Europeans of his time[4]. Former President Mary McAlesse sees him as “a man who crossed borders – literally and figuratively … the first person to communicate a sense of Irish identity in writing and the first to introduce us to the concept of a united Europe[5]. An even more important question is how do we view this saint, now that this anniversary year draws to a close? Have we reclaimed him as one of our own or are we still that little bit uncomfortable?

Why was Columbanus so determined to get to Europe? I think there is something to be found in the insularity of Ireland as against the connectivity of continental Europe. Hasn’t this very issue featured in the current debate around the movement of migrants and refugees and the closures of borders? Columbanus would have shrugged and frowned at such an action around border controls, he was a pioneer of the united Europe concept. While he was here in Bangor, he probably had more in common with Scotland than he would have with Kerry! Even on continental Europe, Columbanus clashed with local Bishops and local leaders, one of his great achievements in life was the art of diplomacy. He was a man who feared no one except God. He even challenged Popes on the date on which Easter was to be celebrated. Columbanus didn’t shirk controversy, but knew clearly where he stood on the issues of the day. We can only speculate as to why he left Myshall and why he would leave Bangor. Columbanus was a strong determined man, full of initiative – today we might call him a ‘self-starter’. He didn’t need anybody to prompt or push him, he was drawn by the power of a vocation call. Not unlike the adolescent Jesus who went AWOL[6], leaving his parents distraught, Columbanus too could as easily have said: “why are you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?[7] or even better still from tonight’s gospel: “Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God[8].

My uncle followed in his footsteps in 1948 when he was ordained in Dalgan Park, outside Navan for the Society of St. Columban. He would work in Japan and later, because of illness, in his home parish of Lobinstown in County Meath. He wasn’t alone. In his day there were many vocations to the Columban Fathers. Columbanus gradually became a living person for them and not some figure from the ancient past. Many more continue to hear the call Columbanus heard, but fewer respond to the promptings of that call. We are too busy, we are too preoccupied, we miss seeing the bigger picture. Columbanus was a man who saw and understood that bigger picture. What thoughts might he had of Myshall and Bangor as at the age of 75, he breathed his last breath out in Bobbio? Hard to say, he mightn’t even have thought much, because he saw us all as one church, living in the unity of the Blessed Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So what will be left after this celebratory year ends. A commemorative stamp in some dusty philatelist’s album? A greater awareness of the concept of a unified Europe? A deeper appreciation of the treasures he has left behind him – six letters, thirteen sermons, a monks rule, a common rule, a penitential and five poems? In a few weeks’ time we will begin our ‘Year of Mercy’; maybe this offers us the greatest legacy of this celebratory year. Columbanus gave us an understanding of the sacrament of reconciliation. He introduced individual confessions into the Celtic monasteries of Europe. Apparently previously, sins were confessed in public; this was a whole new understanding of the sacrament. I suggest that today the Irish church needs a whole new re-visioning of the sacrament. For too long we spent our energies on needing to remember everything. Did we tell everything? Did we leave something out? Did we hear our penance accurately? When we go the sacrament, it is not to plead forgiveness from God but to thank him for it, as the writer Herbert McCabe reminds us “when God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him[9]. I pray that the Year of Mercy will see a renewal of the practice and tradition of personal confession, a deeper awareness of our broken past but an even greater appreciation of our blessed future. If St. Columbanus contributes something to that renewal, this past year has indeed been very worthwhile.

From his ninth sermon I pray:

Lord, kindle our lamps,

Saviour most dear to us,

that we may ever shine in your presence,

and always receive light from you,

the light perpetual,

so that our own personal darkness

may be overcome,

and the world’s darkness,

driven from us. Amen[10].

[1] Ó Fiaich, Tomás: ‘Columbanus In His Own Words’, Veritas, 1974, pg. 18-19

[2] Lk. 9:60

[3] Redmond, Tim: ‘14th Centenary of Saint Columbanus’ published in The Far East 2015

[4] Ó Fiaich, Tomás: ‘Columbanus in his own words, Veritas, 1974, pg. 153.

[5] RTE Documentary: ‘Columbanus: The First European’, broadcast on November 1st, 2015

[6] Absent Without Leave

[7] Lk. 2:49

[8] Lk. 9:62

[9] MacCabe, Herbert OP: ‘God, Christ and Us’, London, 2003, pg. 16

[10] Sayles, Pat, ‘Saint Columban’, 199, pg. 19.