Columbanus (as he is called in Latin) was a native of Ireland’s southern province, Leinster. He received a good education as a youth. But apparently he was very attractive, and all the colleens started to flirt with him. Not trusting himself, he asked the advice of a wise old hermitess. “Run away,” she answered firmly. So he ran away; and taking her counsel to mean entering the religious life, he studied at the school of St. Sinell at Lough Erne, and then joined St. Comgall’s monastery at Bangor, Co. Ulster. Bangor Abbey was noted for its rigorous rule and high learning.
After many austere and studious years at Bangor, Father Columban asked permission of Abbot Comgall to undertake missionary work among the Germanic invaders of Gaul. Comgall approved, and assigned a dozen monks to go with him.
Gaul (now France) was then in turmoil because of the barbarian invasions, constant warfare, and a listless Catholic clergy. When Columban and his fellows started preaching by word and example, they were given a generous welcome. Around 590, King Guntramnus of Burgundy, having learned of the Irish monks’ success, invited them to come to his country, and offered them land at Annegray in the Vosges Mountains on which to build a monastery, Once opened, Annegray Abbey attracted many native vocations, so the saint founded two other neighboring monasteries at Luxeuil and Fontaines. Luxeuil became the best-known of the three. Columban established in each a very strict rule of life, according to the Irish monastic tradition. The monks, collecting and copying manuscripts, made an important contribution to the education of the emigrant German peoples.
St. Columban, strict with himself and his monks, did not mince words with the laity either. Thus he rebuked King Theodoric II of Burgundy for having many concubines and no true wife. But the queen-grandmother, the redoubtable Brunhilda, because of this criticism of Theodoric, saw to it that Columban and his Irish companions were sent back to Ireland. Providentially, the monks’ Ireland-bound ship blew back to the coast of Gaul, so the “exiles” decided to return east, but in another kingdom. King Theodebert of Austrasia welcomed them to his capital, Metz, and gave them leave to preach and establish themselves to the present Switzerland. Once again, however, the saint encountered opposition from pagans and politicos, so he crossed the Alps into Italy.
Although professing the Arian heresy (which Columbanus, of course, strongly opposed), Agilulf, King of the Lombards, gave the saint a royal welcome and bestowed on him land at Bobbio on which to build a new abbey. Here Columban, now around 70, made his last foundation, and here in 615 he died and was buried.
The European apostolate of Columban and his friends was as fruitful as it was wide-ranging. By 700 AD, his disciples had founded more than 100 additional monasteries in France, Germany and Switzerland. Many Columbanian monks were elected bishops. Twenty-one are honored by the Church as venerables, blesseds or saints.
All of these “Irish” abbeys made a point of collecting libraries of choice manuscript books, secular as well as religious, and of producing handmade copies of them. Bobbio had one of the largest and most comprehensive collections in Europe. Its books were finally scattered after Napoleon Bonaparte confiscated the monastic buildings in 1803. But the Vatican and other important European libraries managed to secure some of the most valuable volumes. St. Columbanus’ own writings, reflecting the classical Latin tradition, were part of the valuable legacy.
The apostolate of this holy “man of iron” therefore symbolizes the great contribution made by the medieval Irish Church to the Christianization and acculturation of western Europe. No wonder his memory is held in reverence there.
–Father Robert F. McNamara