Address of Bishop Kevin Doran to Knights of Saint Columbanus

Journeys of Faith, Hope and Love; The Inspiration of St. Columbanus
Address of Bishop Kevin Doran to Knights of Saint Columbanus, Saturday 19th Oct 2019

In these days we are entering into the last weeks of the liturgical year. The Church invites us to contemplate the end of time and the final establishment of the kingdom of God. In the supernatural order, as indeed in the natural order, every ending carries within it a seed of hope. As we mourn for what we have lost or left behind, God is already doing a new thing.

St. Columbanus was already fifty years old, when he left the monastery at Bangor and set off with his companions, on a mission to France.  By the standards of his time, he was quite elderly. As you know, he spent twenty years in France, where he established monasteries at Annegray, Luxeuil, and Fontaine.  These monasteries grew rapidly, attracted an abundance of vocations and became important centres of learning.

Columbanus was a holy man, a poet, and a fearless defender of faith and morals. He had no hesitation in challenging bishops, kings and even popes and his unwillingness to compromise meant that he made many enemies. This courage and fearlessness in challenging authority meant that he was twice expelled from different countries. But he simply moved on, founding other monasteries in present-day Germany and Switzerland. He was already in his mid-seventies by the time he established his last great monastery at Bobbio. Every ending, embraced in a spirit of faith, carried within it seeds of a new beginning.

When we read the Word of God, we notice very quickly that those who are called into relationship with God are often called to embark on a journey for the sake of the Kingdom of God. They set out in faith, leaving everything behind them. We see this in the first disciples of Jesus who left their boats on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We see it in the life of St Paul who sets out on four great missionary journeys. We find this same theme in the Old Testament. Moses leads the people out of Egypt into the wilderness. At the end of the Babylonian exile, the people return to build the temple. Elijah goes forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mountain of God.  The prototype of all these great men and women of faith is Abraham who, in response to the call of God, leaves his own land and his father’s house and sets out with Sarah and his family and his herdsmen and all his sheep in search of the land that God has promised him.

A Journey in Faith:

Columbanus reminds me of Abraham. Like Abraham, he sets out in faith, in response to God’s call. Like Abraham, he sets out without knowing where he is going. Looking back now, it is easier to see that the various monasteries Columbanus founded were never intended to be destinations. They were stages on the journey and, in keeping with the tradition of the Irish monasteries, this was first and foremost a penitential journey. Columbanus understood his own frailty and vulnerability. His constant moving on was motivated, among other things, by the desire to live a humble and simple life. In the spirit of St. Paul, he could say:

“What then is my recompense? That, when I preach, I offer the gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. ….. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some.” (1 Cor 19)

As he says in one of his sermons:

“If anyone wishes to become a dwelling place of God, he should strive to become humble and meek, so that his love of God may be recognized not by an outpouring of words and an obsequious mien, but by true humility: for the goodness of the heart has no need of a false religiosity made up of words alone.”[1]

Motivated by faith in Jesus Christ, he kept going, because he had not yet reached his destination. I think we can say, in the words of St. Paul that, like Abraham, “his faith was counted as justifying him”.

Over fifteen hundred years ago, in that period known as the dark ages Columbanus travelled from the North West, with a small group of monks to bring the light of faith to the Gauls, the Alemani and the Lombards alike. He made friends of strangers. It is astonishing to discover that, today, devotion to Columbanus is still so strong in communities all over Europe. An inscription on a statue in Luxeuil pays tribute to “the apostle with a soul of fire; tireless traveller, saviour of civilization”. Robert Schumann, founding father of what became the European Union, called Columbanus “the patron saint of all who now seek to build a united Europe”.

A Journey in Hope

When we think of the promise God made to Abraham, we tend to think of Isaac and Jacob and the twelve tribes of Israel. But Abraham had another son, Ishmael, whose mother was the servant girl Hagar. The Islamic people trace their roots back to Abraham through the descendants of Ishmael who, according to the Scriptures, went to live in the East. It seems to follow that most of the thousands of refugees who, in recent years, have travelled in hope from the opposite end of Europe, whether they are Christians or Muslims, are the spiritual children of Abraham. They have arrived by sea into Italy and they have walked for days to get to Germany, as if it were the promised land. Some of them have arrived here among us, together with migrants from other parts of e world. A Europe without borders has suddenly begun to question the very possibility of its continued existence. It is interesting to ask ourselves how Columbanus might view this. It strikes me that he would see the arrival of refugees in Europe as a challenge and an opportunity for the work of mercy and evangelisation.

Remember that most of the tribes among whom Columbanus lived and exercised his mission were, themselves, recent migrants into what was previously the Roman Empire. Some of them were violent and that is probably why the word barbarian has such a negative significance to our ears. But most of them, like the migrants of today, were simply looking for a place where they could live in peace and feed their families.

Columbanus might remind us that hope, like faith, is a virtue. He might remind us as Pope John XXIII did in Pacem in Terris, just fifty years ago, that:

every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own State. When there are just reasons in favour of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men”.[2]

Migration has been a feature of the history of Europe from its very origins. When I was a child at school, we learnt about how the Celts, travelling from the opposite end of Europe, were just one of many waves of migrants to reach Ireland in pre-Christian times. The Celts did not have television and St. Columbanus did not have access to the World Wide Web – and yet they embarked on voyages of faith and hope. Today, in remote and relatively undeveloped parts of Africa and Asia, there are millions of people with mobile phones and tablets. They are only a click away from our shopping centres, our restaurants and our sitting rooms. They may not want to leave their homelands but, when they experience poverty and hunger, unemployment and war, they already have an image, even if it is an exaggerated one, of how much better life could be in Europe. We should not be surprised when the trickle becomes a flood.

The arrival of so many de facto refugees in Europe poses a challenge to solidarity. Their presence may be an inconvenience in some respects, but they also bring with them many gifts which will be placed at the disposal of the nations where they are made welcome and allowed to participate. More important still, they are people like us, who laugh and cry, who love and bleed and feel hunger. I am very concerned at two different negative factors which I and my fellow bishops have identified in recent months.

  1. in communities around Ireland where the natural tendency is to welcome strangers, small numbers of activists  who appear to have a narrow nationalist and racist agenda have been stirring up resistance to the arrival of refugees and migrants. Some of them profess to be Christians.
  2. the state agencies which are responsible for the reception of asylum seekers and refugees have sometimes shown a certain disregard for local communities who should be properly briefed and orepared for the arrival of significan numbers of migrants and refugees, so that they can play their part in welcoming the new arrivals and helping them to integrate

When he addressed the European Institutions at Luxembourg in 1985, Pope John Paul II referred to the intention of the founders of the European Communities to restore the solidarity between the nations of Europe which had been so cruelly destroyed by two world wars. Solidarity is something organic. It either grows or it dies. In 1989, Pope John Paul welcomed President Mikhail Gorbaciov of the U.S.S.R. to the Vatican. The pope spoke of the possibility that a common concern for humanity might lead  “not only to the overcoming of international tensions and to an end of the opposition of blocs,” but could also  “give birth to a universal solidarity especially in relation to the developing countries. The Pope recognized that it is easier to be in solidarity with people who are naturally closer to us or more like us. But the value involved in solidarity is not the feeling of closeness, it is the human person, and every human person, irrespective of whether or not he gives rise to an experience of closeness. In that way, “continental solidarity is today a necessary step towards universal solidarity”.[3]

A Journey of Love and Solidarity

Columbanus lived in a world where borders didn’t really apply and where migration was simply a matter of moving from one place to another. In recent years as Europe began to question her vocation to be a community of nations and sought, instead to become a political union, the whole project has at time looked like going over the edge. Brexit is just the latest and perhaps the most serious crisis. We have heard more than enoug about deal or no-deal; back-stop or no back-stop. I don’t want to add to it.

St. Columbanus came in the name of Jesus who gathered people; who formed communities; who taugh his disciples to welcome the outcast and the stranger; who recognised difference but prayed that we might be one. In the name of Jesu, Columbanus and his fellow Irish missionaries brougt the light of faith to a Europe that had lost its way. To use the image of St. Paul, St. Columbanus knew that every member of the body has its own unique part to play. In recent months, I have often fel that, whether the UK were to leave or to remain, all of us would be in a better space if we could bring ourselves to engage with one another in the Spirit of Jesus, recognising that each person and each nation has gifts to bring and that none of us is or can be truly independent.

We who live in Europe today are called to embark on a journey of our own. It is a journey of the heart, which leads us to see the other person, not as an obstacle or an intruder, but as someone who is invited by God to share on an equal basis in the banquet of life”.[4] This inner journey from individualism to solidarity and from a closed solidarity to an open solidarity reflects the kind of conversion which was such an important part of the journey of St Columbanus.

Archbishop Piero Marini, speaking at the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, in 2012, commented:

Another characteristic of Columban and of his disciples, to which we have already briefly alluded, was the communion of goods: “everything was common to all.” This sharing of goods was not only spiritual, but also material: a sharing of faith and of life. The urgent evangelical call to the sharing of goods was applied by Columban not only to the brethren living the same monastic vocation, but also to every poor person knocking at the door.[5]

Our faith in Jesus Christ, like that of Columbanus, will be most effectively reflected in an attitude of welcome and respect to those who come to Europe seeking asylum. The Pontifical Council, Cor Unum, published a statement some years ago in which we read:

Progress in the capacity to live together within the universal human family is closely linked to the growth of a mentality of hospitality. Any person in danger who appears at a frontier has a right to protection. In order to make it easier to determine why such people have abandoned their country, as well as to adopt lasting solutions, a renewed commitment is needed to produce internationally acceptable norms for territorial asylum.(9) Such an attitude facilitates the search for common solutions and undercuts the validity of certain positions, sometimes put forward, that would limit acceptance and the granting of the right of asylum to the sole criterion of national interest. [6]

Pope Francis has taken a very personal interest in the plight of refugees and migrants and, as you possibly know, he personally directs the work of the Section for Migrants and Refugees in the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. In a document prepared in 2017, entitled 20 Action Points, and in a number of key addresses since, the Pope has identified four particular challenges for the Church and for civil society in order to respknd more justly and more effectively to the needs of migrants and refugees: to welcome; to protect; to “promote and to integrate” [7].

It is regrettable that so much energy these days is being devoted to talk of building walls and erecting fences; to establishing new restrictions on trade and on the movement of peoples. An authentic solidarity would inspire us instead to devote our energy to helping the countries of the third world to engage in trade on a basis of equality. It would ban, for once and for all, the sale of weapons and military equipment to governments and local militia groups who use them to attack their own people or their peaceful neighbours. In this way, rather than simply providing an emergency response to refugees, following a long and often dangerous journey to Europe, we would contribute to building a world in which people could live safely and in prosperity in the own countries, surrounded by their family members and friends.

In order for all of this to happen, a conversion of political and economic structures will be necessary. But, as we learn from history, structures only change when hearts change. This conversion of hearts, beginning with our own is, in the final analysis, why we are here. Today, it is our turn, to “announce the kingdom of God” and to be, as Columbanus was, a light that shines in the darkness.

To use the words of St. Columbanus himself:

Lord, grant me, I beseech you, in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son and my God, unfailing charity, so that my lamp may be ever lighted and never extinguished. May it burn for me and radiate light to others. Christ, dearest Savior, deign to light our lamps. May they shine for ever in your temple and receive constant light from you, everlasting Light, so that our darkness may be dispelled and that we may put the darkness of the world to flight.”[8]

[1]       Columbanus, Sermons 2,2, p. 161.163.

[2]       Pope John XXIII. Pacem in Terris. Vatican: 1963, 25

[3]       Address to the Diplomatic Corps, 11th January 1986

[4]       Pope John Paul II. Solicitudo Rei Socialis. Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1987, 39

[5]       Marini, Piero. “ ‘Come lampada che brilla’. San Colombano: la sua vita e il suo insegnamento”. Address delivered at the International Eucharistic Congress. Dublin, 2012

[6]        Pontifical Council Cor Unum. I rifugiati: una sfida alla solidarietà

[7]        Disastery for Integral Human Development.

[8]       «Institutions» of Saint Columbanus, abbot. (Istr. On compunction, 12, 2-    3; Opera, Dublin 1957, pp. 112-114)