Born on the border of Wexford and Carlow in 543AD Columban (as he was then known) spent his childhood in the South East of Ireland. He was renouned for his good looks, and much to the reported distress of his mother, instead of marriage he answered God’s call and opted to follow the religious life.
Moving north he began his studies at the monastery of Cleenish on Lough Erne. Here he worked hard to become a Latin scholar and as was common practice adopted the latin version of his name (Columbanus). Some years later he moved from Fermanagh to Bangor to join the great monastery on the shores of Belfast Lough which had been founded by St Comgall. This monastery was renouned throughout Europe and was known as “the light of the world”. Columbanus remained in Bangor for many years studying under Comgall.
In 591AD at the age of 48 Columbanus left Bangor to spread the Gospel, sailing down Belfast Lough in an open boat with St Gall and other companions. He travelled through Britain and eventually made his way to continental Europe – setting in Annegray in France. Here he spent some 20 years – establishing his own monastery. Columbanus was a strict advocate of adherence to a frugal prayerful life and set his monastery apart from the rich and opulent courts of local kings and queens. His monastery soon became as centre for prayer and pilgrimage. Columbanus moved on to found further monasteries at Luxeuil and Fontaine.
Deciding to return home from the port of Nantes Columbanus was thwarted by a severe storm. Taking this as a sign that God wished him to continue his mission he returned to Prum in Germany and from there on to Bregenz in Austria on the shores of Lake Constance. The area around Bregenz retains much devotion to St Columbanus and has a town which was fittingly twinned with Bangor in October 1987.
From Bregenz Columbanus travelled to northern Italy. He settled in the small town of Bobbio outside of Milan. Here he restored the ancient church of St Peter. His work done, Columbanus passed away peacefully having in his own words “spread the good news throughout Europe”.
The relevance of St Columbanus to our lives today
He devoted his entire life to service to others. He valued learning, hard work and study. Perhaps most importantly he did not seek to be popular or to follow the crowd. Instead he had a clear set of moral values and was steadfast in his belief that some things were right and some things were wrong. He insisted on clear adherence to Gods laws, to always doing the right thing, which was not always the easy route. His clear ideas on right and wrong brought him into conflict with powerful lords who wanted to bend the rules to suit themselves. They sought Columbanus’ approval for their wrong doing but he never let himself be bowed or bullied by these powerful men. He stood firm to his own principles and questioned wrongdoing when he saw it.
At a time when travel and communications were difficult Columbanus was brave and courageous in his decision to spread the Gospel throughout Europe. He took risks for what he believed in, and did not let his age hold him back. He was kind to those he met and shunned material possessions.
Columbanus and men like him are responsible for creating the Ireland of Saints and Scholars who brought Christian values and learning to Europe at a time when it was badly needed. They showed leadership and courage in advocating their values and were not shy in reminding their own authorities in Rome that they were falling short of their responsibilities.
His life is an inspiration to us all. We are proud and privileged to carry his name and his values forward in our modern world.