St. Columban

The Irish missionary St. Columban (ca. 543-615) traveled throughout Europe, preaching a strict, penitential version of Christianity. He founded influential monasteries in France, Switzerland, and Italy.

As a young student, Columban was so impressed by the dedicated Irish monks who introduced him to religion and literature that he decided to join their ranks. He entered a monastery at Bangor, County Down, not far from his home, and placed himself under the spiritual guidance of its founder, Comgall. For some 30 years he lived quietly in prayer, work, and study. Desiring greater self-sacrifice, Columban asked his abbot if he could go into voluntary exile, leaving his native Ireland to start a monastery on the Continent. Twelve other monks set out with him in 590 for the land of the Franks.

They settled for a while in Burgundy at the invitation of King Childebert, founding three monasteries. So many young men were inspired by their religious zeal that soon more than 200 monasteries were formed, looking to Columban as their spiritual father. The Irish monks with their new, forceful kind of Christianity, stressing self-discipline and purity of life, presented a striking contrast to the complacent churchmen already living among the Franks. Columban spoke out repeatedly against the cruelty and self-indulgence of the kings and royal families, stressing the necessity of penance and introducing a new custom of frequent personal confession.

Columban's Irish brand of Christianity proved so annoying that the local clergy looked for opportunities to discredit him. They seized upon his different method of calculating the date of Easter as an excuse for attacking his orthodoxy and were happy when King Theuderic in 610 expelled him from Burgundy after he had censured the King for living with a mistress.

Other kings welcomed Columban into their territories, and he eventually made his way into what is now Switzerland, founding a monastery near Zurich. Columban refused, however, to settle down into a quiet monastic life and again ran into trouble. He preached so vigorously against the pagan customs of the surrounding Alemani that he was asked to leave their territory. With considerable difficulty Columban and a few faithful followers crossed the Alps and started what was to be their most important monastery in Bobbio in northern Italy. From there the Irish influence spread still further, although in time the harsh personal life of the monks softened as they came in contact with the more moderate ideas of Benedict.

Columban died in his monastery in Bobbio in 615. Many of his letters and sermons were preserved. These, together with his poems and the rules he composed for his monks, influenced European life and culture well into the Middle Ages.


Further Reading on St. Columban

Of the several biographies of St. Columban available in English, the one by Francis MacManus, Saint Columban (1962), is helpful for its use of contemporary historical scholarship. Most church history studies present the effect of Columban's missionary efforts on the history of Europe, for example, John Ryan, Irish Monasticism: Origins and Early Development (1931).