Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences

General Audience
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 uncultivated land.

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 V).

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 Baptist.

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 reborn.

[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.

Copyright 2008 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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