St Columbanus, the patron saint of Europe

By Katherine Martin 14 Feb 2019

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;  there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NIV)

There is nothing new under the sun. As the continent of Europe undergoes political and social changes, including protests, changing political landscapes and deeply divided public discourse, we can remind ourselves that these are new expressions of an age-old story. And there is wisdom in reflecting on those who have experienced the disunity and angst of a Europe in turmoil before. 

The (admittedly unofficial, but nonetheless widely recognised) Patron Saint of Europe, St Columbanus, has many things to teach us from the fractured Europe of 1400 years ago. Much is known about Columbanus as he left behind a large body of letters, sermons, sets of monastic rules and poems as well as having a hagiographic biography written about him shortly after his death. His life and legacy played an important role in the rebuilding of Europe after the second world war through the work of Robert Schuman and also in the peace process of Northern Ireland. He was named the ‘Father of Europe’ by Pope Benedict XVI. As Europe is undergoing a period of unrest and fracturing, there are still lessons to be learnt from the life of Columbanus.

Irish Christianity and ‘peregrinus’

St Columbanus began life in rural Leinster, a province on the east coast of Ireland, as the son of a wealthy family in the year 540AD. The crumbling Roman Empire was causing seismic shifts across Europe, full of violence and bitter unrest. Unromanised Ireland was facing its own revolution as the message of Christianity had reached its shores and spread rapidly through missionaries like Palladius and Patrick. Irish Celtic Christianity, in the absence of towns or cities, formed itself into monastic communities with a strong emphasis on learning and scholarship. Women and men flocked there to learn the Scriptures, Latin and the classical authors and to study and transcribe manuscripts saved from barbarian raids on the continent. Influenced by the Egyptian Desert Fathers, these Irish communities sought to live lives of self-sacrifice. One of the greatest sacrifices was peregrinus- a self-imposed exile from one’s home country and a lifelong pilgrimage to elsewhere. On peregrinus, Irish monks could share what they had learnt in their studies, and translate it into tangible ways to bless others.

Compromising well

Columbanus joined one of these early monastic communities in Bangor, Co. Down and became well versed in the literature of the day. At age 40, in the year 580AD, he embarked on peregrinus, leaving his native shores, and travelled to the dangerous continent. He encountered a Europe embroiled in clashes of tribal allegiances, poor leadership in both the Church and state, and instability that meant education and learning had all but ceased in many parts. Through careful negotiation with local Kings, Columbanus and his fellow monks engaged in setting up monasteries, first in Luxeuil, France and then Bobbio, Italy, creating vibrant communities for learning and worship that attracted children of local elites. Key to his successful journey and the setting up of these institutions was Columbanus’s ability to compromise well. He was able to engage with new cultures and languages and embrace multiple identities which crossed both race and nationality in a divided and restless landscape. He refused to engage in tribal allegiances or hold tightly to unhelpful barriers which prevented people from learning about the Scriptures. Instead, he remained true to his calling to spread the Christian message back into a Europe which had rejected it.

Speaking truth to power

However, Columbanus’s relationship with authority frequently made him enemies. The local bishops surrounding the monastery in Luxeuil became increasingly irritated by his refusal to acknowledge their authority above that of the abbots, and by Columbanus’s critique of the privileged life bishops led. There was also tension with the local King, Theuderic, when Columbanus criticised his decision to keep concubines and refused to bless his children. When the King didn’t change his ways, Columbanus threatened to excommunicate him, and consequently was expelled from the country, though managed to instead continue his pilgrimage further into Europe. Coming as a foreigner and a monk, he had no political, economic or military power, rather he had only his education and religious life as a means of speaking truth to power. Columbanus believed good leadership was crucial for society. Many of his letters hold to account the power structures in the Church and the state. He called for those in positions of power to be principled, building relationship with those they led with trust and hope and themselves being prepared to make sacrifices. In his letters he articulates a vision for unity among people which transcends politics, which is still relevant for the pluralist and secular Europe of today.

Columbanus passed away in Bobbio whilst on retreat in 625AD and he remains buried in Bobbio Abbey. The life and legacy of this Irish monk on pilgrimage remains important in the life of Europe today. In particular we should acknowledge the importance of good leadership in challenging times and his faithful adherence to sharing the Christian message with a Europe which was far from the knowledge of the Scriptures. There are many lessons to learn from the legacy of Columbanus which can help us to reframe our witness in Europe today.

Katherine Martin is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. She graduated from Trinity College, Dublin with a BA in Geography and Philosophy.

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