9 October 2014 Pilgrimage to Rome in Honour of St Columbanus

Pilgrimage to Rome in Honour of St Columbanus
Homily by Bishop Noel Treanor at the Opening Mass at the
Catacombs of St Sebastian, Rome
Thursday 9 October 2014

I) We begin our pilgrimage ad catacumbas juxta vestigia apostolorum
We begin our pilgrimage in honour of St Columbanus here on the side of the Appian Way in the catacombs of St Sebastian, where, according to an oral tradition, the bodies of St Peter and St Paul were buried for a time. Tradition has it too that on his death at the order of the emperor Diocletian, Sebastian’s body was thrown into the cloaca, whence it was taken by a Christian lady, Lucina, whom the dead Sebastian had visited in a dream and requested that his body be buried ad catacumbas in initio cryptae juxta vestigia apostolorum (Acta Sanctorum, Jan.. ii. 257-296, Bibliotheca hagiographica Latina, Brussels, 18 99, n 7543-7549)

Sebastian’s death took place around the year 298 AD. Some 250 years would elapse before the birth of Columbanus around 543 in the province of Leinster. Massive political changes would take place in those years. The same centuries would give rise to heavy theological debates as believers in Christ struggled to give an account of their faith and put an agreed language on the mystery of God, revealed in Jesus Christ and on God’s plan of salvation for humanity. Bishops and theologians met in Council and Ecumenical Council as the language of our Christian faith was developed and forged.

Columbanus was introduced to that tradition and to its origins in the scriptures in monasteries in our native country. He may have spent time in Clonard by the Boyne in Co. Meath. He lived and studied in Cleenish, Co Fermanagh and at Bangor monastery, on the southern shore of Belfast Lough, whence he departed with disciples as a wanderer for Christ.

That peregrinatio pro Christo took him and his followers over water and land. From the start it was a risk laden journey into the unknown. From various sources including his own writings and from the Vita Columbani abbatis discipulorumque eius by Jonas of Susa, the trace of his work and monastic foundations are known to us. The names of places such as Annegray, Fontaine, Luxeuil, St Gallen, Bregenz, Milan, Bobbio and many other places resound with his memory. Columbanus died in Bobbio in 615. He did not reach Rome. And so the this Jubilee Year of the fourteen hundredth anniversary of his death will be launched on Saturday evening in St John Lateran Basilica, caput et mater, the head and mother Church of the universal Church.

II) Pilgrimage, apostolic origins and renewal of the living Christian tradition
Going on pilgrimage to the holy places, to places associated with the well-springs of faith, is an exercise in renewal. It is a time of personal renewal. Pilgrimage to Rome, ad limina apostolorum, takes us back to the apostolic origins, to the shrines of many of the early martyrs whose memory and witness we celebrate in this Mass.

We recall the phrase of Tertullian : “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Apologeticus, ch 20). The readings of the liturgy of the Word signal the paradoxical, though in human terms incomprehensible and supremely costly dynamic at the heart of the kingdom of God : as St John puts it, only if a seed dies will it yield a rich harvest, or in St Paul’s words, (we Christians are) “said to be dying and here we are alive, rumoured to be executed before we are sentenced” (2 Cor 6. 9).

Columbanus abandoned, indeed died to, the world he knew in Bangor and in Ireland. From the end of the then known world he set out to re-evangelise a world that had experienced the collapse of the Roman empire with the support that it had provided to Christian life since the Edict of Milan(313) and the upheaval of invasions and movements of peoples from East and North that had undone earlier evangelisation.

His decision to set out on peregrinatio pro Christo required great courage. It effectively demanded the abandonment of self and the spiritual courage of the martyr. His work and mission would encounter many difficulties and challenges, as you know. He did not shy away from engagement and debate with public authority, nor with Church authority, episcopal or papal. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, who dedicated his address at his Wednesday audience on 11 June 2008 to St Columbanus :

“St Columban’s message is concentrated in a firm appeal to conversion and detachment from earthly goods, with a view to the eternal inheritance. With his ascetic life and conduct free from compromises when he faced the corruption of the powerful, he is reminiscent of the severe figure of St John the Baptist. His austerity, however, was never an end in itself but merely the means with which to open himself freely to God’s love and to correspond with his whole being to the gifts received from him, thereby restoring in himself the image of God, while at the same time cultivating the earth and renewing human society”

In the language of our time, Columbanus’ monasteries were centres of excellence and hubs of progress in many areas of human endeavour, disciplines and trades as well as in the spiritual and religious realms.
For this reason, it is appropriate that we salute today from the catacombs of St Sebastian, for example:
• The many academic, cultural and religious initiatives which will be undertaken in the course of the forthcoming year to mark and revive the memory of St Columbanus
• The seminars, in the same vein, organised by the Columban Fathers at Dalgan Park, Navan
• Initiatives launched by the North Down Borough Council aided by the EU Regional Development Fund
• The initiatives and events being organised by the Network of the Friends of St Columbanus in France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy
III) Re-discovering and re-launching the memory of St Columbanus
As we begin this pilgrimage I wish to thank each one of you for choosing to take part and for making it happen.
In these days we shall join with fellow pilgrims from other countries where Columbanus lived, missioned and left his mark as monk, missionary, author, pilgrim and builder, as one who shaved and linked faith and culture.

Many of those fellow pilgrims will come from cities, towns and parishes where the memory of Columbanus has been revered for centuries. In our diocese of Down and Connor and in Ireland there is need to introduce our children and our youth to this towering figure of the Christian heritage of Ireland and of Europe. A monk and missionary who worked in many regions on this continent of Europe, it was he, Columbanus, who first used the phrase “totius Europae” – all of Europe – in his letter to Pope Gregory the Great (Epistula 1.1.), written around the year 600. For this reason Pope Benedict said of him that “with good reason he can be called a “European” saint”.

Let us pray that this 1400th Anniversary of St Columbanus birth to eternal life will serve to revive an awareness and appreciation of the rich religious and cultural heritage of Columbanus and that it will also serve to awaken a re-birth of an enlightened understanding of the meaning and significance of faith in Jesus Christ for personal life, for cultural endeavour and for the moral fibre of society.

Let us pray also in this Mass that our pilgrimage in honour of St Columbanus will refresh and renew our appreciation of the great Christian tradition to which we belong and that it will renew our faith in the Risen Christ, the source of hope in all the trials of life.
Amen.