St. Mungo

(518c.-603 A.D.)

The cathedral of Glasgow, in western Scotland, no longer in Catholic hands but begun in the 12th century, bears the odd-sounding name of “St. Mungo”. Actually, this saint’s name was Kentigern (meaning “head chief”). “Mungo” (meaning “dear one”) was a nickname given to him when he was young, and it stuck as an alternative. St. Kentigern/Mungo was the first bishop of Glasgow on the River Clyde. Today it is a large bustling city.

Although Kentigern was definitely the first prelate to rule the Glasgow district, his biography is a mixture of few facts and much legend. Considering that he was contemporary with the legendary King Arthur of Wales, it should be no surprise that Mungo, too, was a somewhat fabulous figure.

Kentigern was born, it is said, in the county of Fife, above Edinburgh, in eastern Scotland. The tale goes that his mother was of royal blood, but having been discovered to be with child by an unknown father, she was condemned to be thrown off a precipice. Having survived that supposedly lethal ordeal, she was put into a skin-covered coracle and set afloat in the Firth of Forth. Providentially, again, she landed safely at Culross, where her son was born. A saint called Serf who lived at Culross, took the mother and child under his protection.

On growing up, Kentigern/Mungo decided to become a hermit. He settled in a solitude called “Glasgu” on the banks of the River Clyde. As happened so often in history, other hermits joined him there so he founded a monastery. Soon layfolk came to build their homes around the monastery. Thus Mungo really can be said to have founded Glasgow. When the time had come for them to have a bishop, all the inhabitants of Glasgu insisted that he be the man.

Mungo was an apostolic bishop, though still a hermit monk in spirit. (He was true to the harsh Celtic penitential tradition. It is said, for instance, that he would recite all the psalms every day, often as he stood chest-high in the waters of a cold stream.) He trudged through all the Strathclyde area preaching the Gospel to both baptized and pagans.

Unfortunately, the story continues, the bishop had to take flight into Wales for a while because of the feuds between the chieftains of Strathclyde. He finally worked his way back to Glasgow around 581. It is said that on one occasion he met with the great Irish apostle of Scotland, St. Columba. Before taking leave of each other, the two holy men exchanged crosiers as a sign of friendship.

St. Kentigern all along had a reputation for miracle-working. One of the miracles recorded by popular tradition was that of the ring. King Rydderch, says the legend, had given a very special ring to his wife, but one time he found it on the finger of a sleeping knight. Suspecting his queen of infidelity, he took off the ring without disturbing its slumbering wearer, threw it into the sea, and then (like an early Othello) demanded that his wife show him his gift. The queen turned for help to St. Kentigern. Impressed by her claim of innocence, the bishop ordered one of his monks to go out and fish. This monk returned with a salmon; then when the fish was opened, lo and behold, the ring was found in its belly. Thus the queen was able to show it to her husband. Whether this tale is fact or fancy, it suggested the incorporation of a ring in the medieval coat-of-arms of the city of Glasgow.

For all the romantic fantasy that clouds his true life-story, it is certain that St. Mungo was a strict ascetic, a devoted bishop, and a man well loved of God. That is why he is still honored in Glasgow, in the Welsh diocese of Menevia, and in the English dioceses of Salford and Lancaster, and is co-patron saint of the Archdiocese of Liverpool.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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