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St Columba – converting Ireland, England and the Scots

Features

Mgsr John Broadbent
10 June 2011

We have seen in the lives of the saints, the martyrdom of some of the early Christians in the almost three centuries after Jesus. The final and most bloody of these was under Diocletian as Emperor during the early years of the fourth century (300s). One of the principal reasons for Diocletian’s persecutions of Christians was to restore the old Roman culture and religion to reinvigorate the Roman Empire now becoming decadent and corrupt. It did not succeed.

When Constantine pushed back the pagan armies in 312 AD and became Emperor, he wanted Christianity to restore the Roman Empire and, for the first time, it became a tolerated religion. However, in the first decade after Constantine’s victory, Christianity began to split into two main divisions, Catholic Christianity and Arianism.

This we saw in the life of St Athanasius last month. Diocletian had divided the Empire into West, based on old Rome and then Milan and Ravenna, and the East, based on Constantine’s city, Constantinople. The East was more prone to Arianism (the belief that Jesus was not God) with Arian or Arian-leaning emperors. Catholicism was so busy defending itself that it could not give the moral boost Constantine hoped for.

In 381 when the second General Council which declared Jesus and the Holy Spirit second and third members of the Trinity, was called under the strong emperor, Theodosius, the two empires were teetering on the brink of moral, economic and political decay.

Each empire had allowed limited settlement of barbarian tribes on the borders. These tribes were nomadic and marauding and the first of them were pushing the tribes already on the borders over other imperial boundaries.

As Rome withdrew its soldiers from Britain in 406 these wild tribes, the Goths (Visigoths and Ostrogoths), Tuetons, Saxons, Vandals and many others, swept across the Rhine and sacked Rome in 410.

The whole world was shocked to see the once mighty city and capital of a vast empire fall to the Goths. Barbarian hoards swept into Eastern Europe for the next five centuries forming kingdoms all over Western Europe and North Africa. The tribes were pagan and some few semi-Arian. Europe had now to be evangelised again with a substratum of conquered Roman citizens.

The evangelisers
St Patrick converted the Irish from 432 and the English, whose conversion was begun the year St Columba died. Pope St Gregory the Great sent St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and his Benedictine monks from Rome to the seven now Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that constituted Britain.

altSt Columba, born about 521, is regarded in Ireland as one of the distinguished band called Twelve Apostles of Erin. Through his father he was descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, overlord of Ireland and, through his mother, from a King of Leinster. At his baptism he was christened Columba sometimes named Colmcille. He is not to be confused with St Columban, the great Irish missionary to Europe who died some 18 years after Columba.

Columba studied under great masters like St Finnian and in the monastery of Clonard and returned to Ulster a priest in 543. The newly converted Irish swarmed in their hundreds and thousands to a very strict monasticism which Columba exemplified in his life. For the next 15 years he went around Ireland preaching and founding monasteries, the chief among them, Derr, Durrow and Kells.

In one of the many internecine wars in Ireland, Columba sheltered an enemy of Diarmaid, King of all Ireland. The king dragged the man from Columba’s monastery and slew him, breaking the canon law of sanctuary. Columba’s clan fought the king and more than 3,000 men were killed. Columba was blamed and it was only St Brendan at the Synod of Telltown that prevented Columba being excommunicated. He felt great remorse of conscience and determined to expiate his offence by exiling himself from his own country.

In 563 Columba embarked with 12 companions to attempt to convert Scotland and chose the beautiful isle of Iona for his monastery. This was strategic because on the opposite shore of the mainland was the boundary of the Southern Scots and the Northern Picts. Columba preached the gospel to both distinct nationalities but concentrated more on the Picts as far north as Aberdeen and Loch Ness. People flocked to Iona desiring spiritual and bodily help, some attracted by his reputation for sanctity, his miracles and prophecies. Despite his austerity, he mellowed in old age. The great monastic historian Montalembert remarked that, ‘Of all qualities, gentleness was precisely the one in which Columba failed the most’. He died in 597 with his monks reciting the night office around him in church.

Today, after the Scottish reformation drove the monks out of Iona, the Presbyterians have founded another monastic ecumenical community with married couples and single people. Thousands make a spiritual retreat here annually.

Image: A former church believed to have been built on the site of the sixth century St Columba’s monastery on the Isle of Iona perhaps as part of the Benedictine Abbey established in the 1200s. This was closed during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century but the Iona Community set up in 1938 is gradually restoring the earlier complex. Photo: Ray Byrne.

More in this series:
St Athanasius: helping Catholicism’s official status

Ss Agape, Chionia and Irene: killed for hiding the scriptures

The martyrdom of St Perpetua, Felicitas and companions