Columban of Leinster

Columban of Leinster
Columban of Leinster

Also known as St. Columbanus, Columban of Leinster was born in West Leinster, Ireland, in 543. He died in Bobbio, Italy, on November 21, 615. Early in life, Columban entered religious life under Sinell, an abbot in Lough Erne. He then left for the monastery of Bangor and studied under St. Comgall. He embraced the Irish form of monastic life and undertook a life of fervor, regularity, and learning.

At the age of 40 Columban decided to leave the monastery and become a missionary, preaching the Gospel in foreign lands. In 585 he sailed with 12 companions and landed on the coast of Scotland, then moved on to France. The French people converted to Christianity in large numbers and clergy in that area were reformed from their worldly ways. The companions traveled together to Burgundy and with the blessing of King Gontram, settled in an old Roman fortress and began a monastery.

So many noblemen and peasants flocked to Columban, wishing to join his monastery, that the saint was forced to start a second monastery at Luxeuil in 590. Columban spent much of his time in solitary prayer and fasting in a cave, but superiors of both monasteries remained subordinate to him. He wrote his rule of monastic life for these two communities while living in the cave.

In 602 Columban was at the center of a controversy over the right of monasteries in Gaul to be independent of the area bishops. The bishops of Gaul had retained control over monasteries in their territories, unlike the bishops of Ireland, who allowed monasteries varying degrees of independence. In 602 the bishops of Gaul met to judge Columban and his control of monasteries. His appeals to successive popes went unanswered and the question was never definitively answered.

Columban also advised the nobility of Gaul. In one instance, he sought to keep Thierry, heir to Burgundy, steadfast in opposition to concubinage, a policy set forth by the queen-regent to prevent the possible influence of another queen over her minor son’s life. The queen-regent, Brunehild, had Columban and his monastic rules condemned by the Burgundian bishops.

Columban refused to conform to their decrees and was imprisoned, but escaped and returned to his monastery. Thierry, who had never followed the advice of the saint, conspired to have Columban and his Irish monks driven to the sea and sent back to Ireland.

Their ship never got far from shore and was driven back by a storm. Columban escaped to Neustria and then to Austrasia in 611. He proceeded to Mainz and went into the countryside to preach the Gospel to the Suevi and Alamanni tribes. His zeal did not convert the Swiss and he was persecuted. He converted some in other regions and established at least one more monastery but was again persecuted and crossed the Alps into Italy.

Once in Milan, Columban was befriended by the king and began to argue against the Arian heresy. All he wrote against them has been lost. He also fought Nestorianism with Gregory the Great and submitted the Irish church to the decisions of the papacy, saying the Irish were disciples of St. Peter and St. Paul, not of heretics.

For his efforts, the pope gave Columban a piece of land called Bobbio, near Genoa. On his way to settling this land, he preached so well at the town of Mombrione that the town changed its name to San Colombano. The monastery Columban founded at Bobbio was for centuries the center of Catholic orthodoxy in northern Italy. He died at Bobbio and his body is preserved in the church there.