Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On St. Columban
"A Tireless Builder of Monasteries"
H.H. Benedict XVI
June 11, 2008
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I would like to speak of the holy Abbot Columban, the most famous
Irishman of the early Middle Ages. With good reason he can be called a
"European" saint, because as monk, missionary and writer, he worked in
several countries of Western Europe. Along with the Irishmen of his
time, he was aware of the cultural unity of Europe.
In a letter, written around the year 600 and addressed to Pope Gregory
the Great, we find for the first time the expression "totius Europae"
(of all Europe) with reference to the presence of the Church in the
Continent (crf. Epistula I,1).
Columban was born around 543 in the province of Leinster, in southeast
Ireland. Educated in his own home by outstanding teachers, who led him
to the study of the liberal arts, he was later entrusted to the guidance
of Abbot Sinell of the community of Cluain-Inis, in Northern Ireland,
where he was able to further his study of sacred Scriptures.
At the age of about 20 he entered the monastery of Bangor on the
northeastern part of the island, where Comgall was abbot, a monk
well-known for his virtue and ascetic rigor. In full agreement with his
abbot, Columban zealously practiced the severe discipline of the
monastery, leading a life of prayer, ascesis and study. There he was
also ordained a priest. Life at Bangor and the abbot's example
influenced the concept of monasticism that with time matured in Columban,
and which he later spread in the course of his life.
At almost 50 years of age, following the typically Irish ascetic ideal
of the "peregrinatio pro Christo," namely, of making himself a pilgrim
for Christ, Columban left the island with 12 companions to engage in
missionary work on the European continent.
We must, in fact, keep present that the migration of people of the North
and East had made entire Christianized regions fall back into paganism.
Around the year 590, this small band of missionaries landed on the
Breton coast. Received with benevolence by the king of the Franks of
Austrasia -- present-day France -- they asked only for a piece of
They obtained the ancient Roman fortress of Annegray, all demolished and
abandoned, and now covered by forest. Used to a life of extreme
renunciation, the monks succeeded in a few months in building the first
hermitage on the ruins. Thus, their re-evangelization began to be
carried out above all through the testimony of life.
With the new cultivation of the land they also began a new cultivation
of souls. The fame of those foreign religious, who, living on prayer and
in great austerity, built houses and cultivated the earth, spread
rapidly and attracted pilgrims and penitents. Above all, many young men
asked to be received in the monastic community to live, like them, that
exemplary life that renewed the cultivation of the earth and of souls.
Very soon, the foundation of a second monastery was rendered necessary.
It was built a few kilometers away, on the ruins of an ancient thermal
city, Luxeuil. The monastery then became the center of monastic and
missionary radiation of Irish tradition on the European continent. A
third monastery was erected at Fontaine, a one-hour walk further north.
Columban lived at Luxeuil for almost 20 years. Here the saint wrote the
Regula Monachorum for his followers -- for a certain time more
widespread in Europe than that of St. Benedict -- delineating the ideal
image of the monk. It is the only ancient Irish monastic rule we possess
today. By way of integration, he elaborated the Regula Coenobialis, a
sort of penal code for infractions, with rather surprising punishments
for modern sensitivity, explainable only with the mentality of the time
and the environment.
With another famous work titled "De Poenitentiarum Misura Taxanda,"
written also at Luxeuil, Columban introduced private and repeated
confession and penance on the continent. It was called "tariffed"
penance because of the proportion established between gravity of the sin
and the type of penance imposed by the confessor. This novelty awakened
the suspicion of the bishops of the region, a suspicion that was
translated into hostility when Columban had the courage to reprimand
them openly for some of their practices.
An occasion to manifest their opposition was the dispute about the date
of Easter. Ireland, in fact, followed the Eastern tradition as opposed
to the Roman. The Irish monk was called in 603 to Chalon-sur-Saon to
render account before a synod of his practices related to penance and
Easter. Instead of appearing at the synod, he sent a letter in which he
minimized the issue inviting the synodal fathers to discuss not only the
problem of the date of Easter, a small problem according to him, "but
also of all the necessary canonical normatives that are disregarded --
something more grave -- by many" (cfr. Epistula II,1). At the same time,
he wrote to Pope Boniface IV -- as some years earlier he had turned to
Pope Gregory the Great (cfr. Epistula I) -- to defend the Irish
tradition (cfr. Epistula III).
Intransigent as he was on every moral question, Columban later entered
into conflict with the Royal House, because he had severely reprimanded
King Theodoric for his adulterous relations. A network of intrigues and
maneuvers was born at the personal, religious and political level that,
in the year 610, was translated into a decree of expulsion from Luxeuil
of Columban and all the monks of Irish origin. They were condemned to a
definitive exile. They were escorted to the sea and embarked, at the
expense of the court, toward Ireland.
However, the ship ran aground a short distance from the beach and the
captain, seeing in this a sign from heaven, gave up the enterprise and,
out of fear of being cursed by God, took the monks back to dry land. The
monks, instead of returning to Luxeuil, wanted to start a new work of
evangelization. They embarked on the Rhine and sailed up the river.
After a first stop at Tuggen near the Lake of Zurich, they went around
the region of Bregenz near Lake Costanza to evangelize the Germans.
Shortly after, however, Columban -- because of political affairs not
favorable to his work -- decided to cross the Alps with the majority of
his disciples. Only a monk by the name of Gallus stayed behind; from his
hermitage developed later the famous Abbey of St. Gall, in Switzerland.
Arriving in Italy, Columban met with a benevolent reception at the
Lombard royal court, but he soon was faced with noteworthy difficulties.
The life of the Church was lacerated by the Arian heresy still prevalent
among the Lombards and by a schism that had removed the greater part of
the Churches of northern Italy from communion with the Bishop of Rome.
Columban inserted himself with authority into this context, writing a
libel against Arianism and a letter to Boniface IV to convince him to
take some decisive steps in view to re-establishing unity (cfr. Epistula
When, in 612 or 613, the king of the Lombards assigned him some land in
Bobbio, in the valley of Trebbia, Columban founded a new monastery which
later became a center of culture comparable to the famous one of
Montecassino. Here he reached the end of his days: He died on Nov. 23,
615, and on this date he is commemorated in the Roman rite until today.
St. Columban's message is centered on a firm call to conversion and
detachment from the goods of the earth in view of our eternal heritage.
With his ascetic life and his conduct free from compromises in face of
the corruption of the powerful, he evokes the severe figure of John the
His austerity, however, was never an end in itself, but was only the
means to open himself freely to the love of God and correspond with his
whole being to the gifts received from him, thus reconstructing in
himself the image of God and at the same time cultivating the earth and
renewing human society. I quote from his Instructiones: "If man makes
use correctly of that faculty that God has given his soul he will then
be similar to God. Let us remind ourselves that we must restore to him
all those gifts that he has deposited in us when we were in our original
condition. He has shown us the way with his Commandments. The first of
these is that of loving the Lord with all our heart, because he loved us
first, since the beginning of time, even before we came to the light of
this world" (cfr. Instr. XI).
These words were truly embodied by the Irish saint in his own life. A
man of great culture -- he also wrote poetry in Latin and a grammar book
-- he proved himself to be rich in gifts of grace. He was a tireless
builder of monasteries as well as an intransigent penitential preacher,
spending all his energy to nourish the Christian roots of Europe, which
was being born. With his spiritual energy, with his faith, with his love
for God and for his neighbor, he truly became one of the fathers of
Europe: He shows us even today the roots from which our Europe can be
[Translation by ZENIT]
[After the audience, the Pope greeted those present in several
languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters.
In today's catechesis we turn to Saint Columban, one of the many Irish
monks who contributed to the re-evangelization of Europe in the early
Middle Ages. Columban made his monastic profession in Bangor and was
ordained a priest. At the age of fifty, he left the monastery to begin
missionary work in Europe, where entire regions had lapsed into
paganism. Beginning in Brittany, Columban and his companions established
monasteries at Annegray and Luxeuil. These became centers for the spread
of the monastic and missionary ideals brought by the monks from their
native Ireland. Columban introduced to Europe the Irish penitential
discipline, including private confession. His stern moral teachings led
to conflict with the local Bishops and the Frankish court, resulting in
the exile of the Irish monks, first to the Rhineland and then to Italy.
At Bobbio, where he established a great monastic center, Columban worked
for the conversion of the Arian Lombards and the restoration of unity
with the Bishop of Rome. It was there that he died, leaving behind not
only the example of an austere monastic life, but also a corpus of
writings which shaped the monastic culture of the Middle Ages and thus
nourished the Christian roots of Europe.
I offer a warm greeting and prayerful good wishes to Cardinal Kitbunchu
and the pilgrims from Thailand who are present today, and also to the
large group of delegates from the Pope Paul VI Institute in Nebraska. To
all the English-speaking visitors, from England, Scotland, Scandinavia,
Korea, and the United States of America, I extend a warm welcome. May
God bless you all.
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