The Norse invasions of Ireland in the ninth and tenth centuries caused not only social confusion but religious decline. St. Malachy of Armagh was the leader who came to the rescue.
Malachy O’More was his name, and he was born to an Irish schoolteacher in 1095. St. Celsus, Archbishop of Armagh, ordained him a priest and commissioned him to revive the faith and morals of the Irish people. By way of preparation, he took special studies in church law with the learned Bishop Malchus of Lismore.
As a start, Malachy took over and reformed the great abbey of Bangor in County Down. His reformist method was basically positive. He gave a strict personal example of how the monastic rule was to be observed. As St. Bernard would later write of him, Abbot Malachy was “a living rule and a bright mirror.” Next, he worked to reform the diocese of Connor, of which he was chosen bishop when only 30. This was no easy task. In 1127 a new invasion forced the monks of Bangor to flee to County Kerry. But his temporary stay in the South enabled him to jack up the Faith there, too.
St. Celsus of Armagh died in 1129. For years this primatial see had been passed down in the same family: Celsus, wishing to break such an abusive monopoly, designated Malachy, not a kinsman, to succeed him. It was a dangerous task that the archbishop-designate would rather have declined. But by moving slowly and laying his own life on the line, he succeeded in being accepted. Once he had broken the custom and restored discipline, he retired to his old see of Connor.
Malachy went to Rome in 1139 to seek confirmation of his reform policies. When en route through Burgundy he met the great St. Bernard at his Abbey of Clairvaux. The two became instant friends. Malachy so admired the monastic life at Clairvaux that he wanted to join the community. When the Pope Innocent II refused him permission, Malachy arranged for the establishment of the first Cistercian house in Ireland, Mellifont Abbey (1142). Wherever he went on this Roman trip, Malachy impressed people. He even worked miracles along the route.
Official business brought St. Malachy back to the continent once more in 1148. Again, he stopped at Clairvaux and was given a royal welcome. Unfortunately, while a guest there, he was stricken with a heavy fever. On All Souls Day 1148, he died in St. Bernard’s arms. When Bernard celebrated the funeral Mass, he made bold to take the prayer after communion from the Mass of a bishop-saint. Pope Clement III confirmed St. Bernard’s judgment in 1190 when he canonized Malachy. Bernard was later to popularize St. Malachy by writing the biography of this kindred soul who had unified the Church in Ireland.
In 1595 a French Benedictine monk published a “prophecy of the popes,” which he attributed to St. Malachy. The prophecy was a list of over 100 short Latin phrases, each of which was supposed to identify the popes from 1143 on to our own times. Many of these cryptic phrases, fitted in well with the successive earlier popes. In more recent times they have usually been as vague as the axioms of fortune cookies. It is now commonly accepted that this “prophecy” is a 16th-century forgery. Malachy was granted prophetic gifts, however. Perhaps the other prophecy that he is said to have pronounced about England is genuine. It foretells that Ireland would undergo oppression and persecution from England for a week of centuries, but it would stand fast in Catholic faith, and bring that Faith back to England. This did seem fulfilled in the last century when the Catholic Church was emancipated in the British Isles in 1829, and England, by then settled with thousands of Irish Catholics, was given its own hierarchy again in 1850.
The first Irish saint to be canonized through a papal process, St. Malachy O’More is one of the greatest of Ireland’s heroes and heroines.
–Father Robert F. McNamara