St. Columban: 1,400th Anniversary of a Patriarch of Europe

Br. Columba Maria

Early Life

St. Columban was born in east Ireland in 543 (the year St. Benedict died). For fear of losing his virginity he took advice from a pious woman and fled to the monastery of Bangor to the north and so broke the heart of his mother.

Religious Formation

In Bangor, he came under the abbacy of St. Comgall. Less than a hundred years after St. Patrick, Irish monasteries were then enjoying their golden age and could be equalled neither in holiness nor learning throughout Europe. Some years later, like many of his compatriots, at the estimated age of 30, St. Columban developed a yearning to spread the Gospel in foreign lands. Reluctantly, St. Comgall let him go, and gave him twelve companions. It was in a Europe that had entered those “dark ages”, known for the invasion of Barbarian and Scandinavian tribes, with only a flicker of faith still burning, that they landed, in northern France.


Sigibert, King of Burgundy and Austrasia, gave him land near Lyon, and it was there that St. Columban founded the monastery of Anegray, and later Luxeuil and Fontaines. In the peace of the cloister, and often in a cave in the mountains, St. Columban gave himself to prayer. His diet and sleep were only enough to keep him alive.

St. Columban’s Rule

What he sought from his ever-increasing number of monks was obedience, poverty, chastity and silence which were the normal requirements of the religious life. His Rule (inspired by the rule at Bangor, which in turn was inspired by the rule of St. Patrick, who had brought it with him from his uncle, St. Martin of Tours) expresses this adequately. “You won’t form a body, if you don’t form one sole heart,” he admonishes another abbot.


Many are the miracles he wrought to attain this unity. A famous one is that of the many monks in sickbay with a fever. Columban sent them an obedience to go back to work. Some promptly obeyed while others thought it more prudent to remain in bed. The prudent ones remained ill for over a year while the obedient ones received an instant cure. On another occasion, wet weather threatened the yearly grain harvest (essential for the monk’s daily pint)! Columban sent 4 monks to a corner each of the field and himself to the middle, and began to reap. The sun beat down all day amidst the surrounding rain and the harvest was completed.

Not surprisingly, the local people heard of his power with God and came by the score to meet him and obtain help. Miraculous cures were commonplace, childless couples became families, souls dead to grace were restored.

Austerity and Conflict

In these times, rude by all accounts, many grave sins were commonplace and he drew up a penitential code which prescribed an appropriate penance for the contrite sinner. A lent or two on bread and water would be typical for adultery or theft of livestock. Clerics and monks would receive a bigger penance, or stripes from a rod for a lesser offence.

On two occasions, St. Columban came into conflict with local bishops. The first was to do with the date of Easter and the second with the Arian heresy. In both cases his problem was an inability to grasp an apparent contradiction of a pope by one of his successors. His letters to Rome seeking clarification show his native fiery temperament, and he is, to be sure, telling rather than asking. He did not receive a reply on either occasion. To his credit, he discreetly confined his untimely celebration of Easter to his own cloisters, while the Arian controversy receded from his view by his passage to the next life.

King Sigisbert was succeeded by his two grandsons, Theuderich and Theudebert, and his wife Brunhilda. St. Columban admonished Theudebert to leave his concubines. This roused the ire of Brunhilda who feared playing second fiddle to Theudebert’s queen. She at length succeeded in banishing St. Columban from their territories. A short time later, all of these vicious monarchs died violent, disinherited, deaths, as he had foretold.

In exile again, St. Columban spent his few remaining years at Bobbio in Lombardy where he died on 21 November 615 and where his tomb remains. By many, he is considered a patriarch of Europe alongside St. Benedict.

St. Columban, Pray for us.

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