CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Columban is a saint for our times

HONG KONG (SE): “Greatness lies in bringing people to God and that is why we venerate the life of St. Columban,” Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing said at a Mass marking the 1,400th anniversary of the death of the sixth and seventh century saint celebrated at St. Joseph’s in Central on November 21.

He told the 300 or so people gathered for the celebration that although St. Columban is little known in this part of the world or even in his native Ireland, in the countries that he wandered during his life time, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, there is widespread devotion to him.

Bishop Ha said that although St. Columban was a monk and fundamentally a man who preferred the cloistered life of prayer and study, this very same prayer and learning prompted him to also be a man of action.

He added that the spirituality he developed inspired him to become convinced that he was being called to preach the word of God, but not among his own people, so he sought permission to leave his native Ireland at the age of 50 and became a self-imposed exile for Christ.

He is known in Ireland today as the country’s first man of letters, being trained in the major Latin authors, rhetoric and the scriptures, as well as the writings of the early fathers of the Church.

The director of a documentary produced by RTE Ireland, Declan McGrath, says, “Columban is a fascinating character, perhaps the greatest Irishman who ever lived.”

He adds that he is the first from his land to leave a body of written work and the first to be the subject of a biography. “However, his real legacy lies beyond Ireland,” he points out.

The editor of the Columban magazine, Far East, Father Cyril Lovett, notes that experts say his letters reveal an astounding grasp of Latin language and style.

He became the head of what is referred to as the great monastery of Bangor in his native land, but later in life declared himself a pilgrim for Christ, which in concrete terms meant exile, as he had to renounce his legal status and social position.

“It was my wish to visit the pagan peoples and to have the gospel preached to them by us,” St. Columban wrote of his decision to cut his ties with his homeland.

Bishop Ha pointed out that the Europe that he arrived in was a hostile place, but he went with a confidence that he could engage with this rambunctious, foreign culture and use his learning to contribute positively to its people’s lives.

“That was the strength of his hope,” Bishop Ha said.

It was not a vain hope, as during his years wandering Europe he set up over 100 monasteries that became famed houses of prayer and learning.

Kings courted his knowledge and wisdom, and his attractive personality often enabled him to maintain favour, despite the endless public controversies he became embroiled in.

Nor did he fear disfavour, enduring banishment and rejection, as in the defence of what he believed to be right, he fearlessly took on kings and even three popes, although he always maintained a deep respect for the papacy.

But the host of McGrath’s documentary, former Irish president, Mary McAleese, pinpoints perhaps his greatest legacy as being a witness to the power of hospitality.

In the documentary, Mary McAleese and the man who saved Europe, she says that he displayed an incredible hospitality towards the other, who was different from himself, which enabled him to bring unity where relations were fractured and replace enmity with understanding.

St. Columban once wrote, “A life unlike your own may be your teacher.”

McAleese calls him the saviour of Europe, enabling civilisation to survive the dark ages following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

In its international version, the documentary is even more specific, swapping the word saved for unified in its title.

“And it is that legacy that has an urgently relevant message for today’s fractured Europe,” McGrath adds.

McAleese describes him as bringing unity to Europe and attributes this to his tremendous capacity for hospitality, in terms of being able to gather people of varying ethnic backgrounds, evening warring peoples, together to pray, study and work.

She reflects that this bred a new spirit of cooperation and friendship among divided peoples, enabling them to come together and begin to form cooperative arrangements for their future.

His influence is attributed to the conversions that he affected and the rule of life that he composed.

The life of St. Columban, his work, his writings and his faith have ensured that his legacy would survive and the Republic of Ireland has marked the 1,400th anniversary of his death with the minting of a postage stamp in recognition of the man who is arguably its greatest son in history.

St. Columban also left the oldest surviving literary record of anyone describing themselves as Irish and his influence did much to shape the contribution that the nation has made to the faith and cultural development of the world today, especially in the adopted cultures of the United States of America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

Father Lovett describes St. Columban as an attractive saint, as his memory has not been whitewashed, leaving both his strong and weak points laid bare.

“Columban comes across as having that inevitable mixture of attractive and unattractive personal qualities that mark our common humanity,” he writes.

Like St. Francis of Assisi, he also had a great love for God’s creatures. He walked in the woods and it is said that birds landed on his shoulders to be caressed.

Bishop Ha described him as truly being a saint for our times, calling him a man who lived his faith in a complex, turbulent environment, yet able to inspire others to follow him.

He called his confidence that he could engage with the foreign and readiness to be culturally hospitable an important lesson for our world today, as it stands divided in fear before crazed violence and cold towards those fleeing danger.

St. Columban eventually settled in Bobbio, Italy, where in the year 615 he finally identified the fulfillment of his lifetime search for the place of his resurrection.

His life holds urgent lessons for today’s world. He is indeed a saint for our times.


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