Pentecost Ecumenical Service, Sunday 24 May 2015, talk on St Columbanus given by Fr Billy Swan



24th MAY 2015

Talk on St. Columbanus given by Fr Billy Swan


Bishop McDaid, Bishop McDowell, Rev. Fathers, Sisters, ladies and gentlemen. It is an honour for me to be with you all here this afternoon for this ecumenical prayer service on this beautiful feast of Pentecost Sunday. I thank Msgr. O’Reilly for his kind invitation to speak here today in this year that marks the 14th centenary of the death of St Columbanus: one of Ireland’s most celebrated saints in Europe, one who pre-dates our divisions and who has much to teach us about how we as Christians can contribute to society and civilization today just as he did over 14 centuries ago. As I drove up from Wexford here this morning, I could not help but think of him as he left his home somewhere on the Wexford/Carlow border in the late 6th century, making his way north to the monastery on Cleenish Island in Co Fermanagh and later to Bangor. As I looked at the same mountains he probably saw, I wondered what must have been in his mind and heart as he embarked on this adventure of total trust in God that would take him on an epic journey to France, Germany, Austria and eventually to northern Italy where he died at Bobbio in November 615. As we reflect on his witness to the Gospel in this centenary year of his death, one aspect shines out with fresh vitality that I would like to speak about on this Pentecost Sunday is that of newness. Columbanus, along with many other saints of the Irish and Universal Church, teach us that to be alive in God is to live our faith with a constant sense of newness. In this sense, the life of Columbanus does not point away from the Gospel and to himself but rather in the opposite direction: the light that shines from his life leads us back to God who makes us and all things new by his Holy Spirit. Here is a message of freshness and vitality that is badly needed for our Church today.

In the Old Testament, Isaiah speaks about God ‘doing a new thing’ (Is. 43:19) and about creating ‘a new heavens and a new earth’ (Is. 65:17-22). Ezekiel speaks about the Lord giving us ‘a new heart’ and placing ‘a new spirit’ within us (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26). In response, God’s people will sing to him ‘a new song’ (Ps. 33:3) in worship and praise. In the life of Jesus, this newness is fulfilled in the eternal now of those who listen and believe. ‘This is being fulfilled today, even as you listen’ (Luke 4:21). Jesus spoke of the need for ‘new wineskins’ to accommodate the ‘new wine’ of his teaching (Matt. 9:17; Mk. 2:22; Lk. 5:37). He gave us a ‘new commandment’ to ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn. 13:34) and poured out his blood in the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ (Lk. 22:20). For St Paul, everyone who believes and is baptised becomes a ‘new creation’ (2 Cor. 5:17; cf. Gal. 6:15).


After his Ascension and empowered by the Spirit, Jesus’ disciples were commissioned by him to make disciples of all nations and make his kingdom present with his promise in their hearts: ‘Behold I make all things new’ (Rev. 21:5).

In the early Church, this element of newness was at the core of how Christianity understood itself and her mission to the world. There was a freshness, a vitality and a compelling edge to the new faith that engaged with the surrounding cultures and religions. Proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus was not just a private message of consolation but a radical message with social consequences for all humanity. It implied a new order, a new impulse and a new direction that was driven by a new hope. As St Irenaeus of Lyon put it ‘by his coming, Christ brought with him all newness’ (Adv. Haer. 4, 34, 1).

As the Gospel spread West, nowhere did this newness make itself felt more than here in Ireland. Not being Romanised, our culture, language and religion or lack thereof, made us even more removed from a way of life that Christianity offered. The Ireland to which St Patrick brought the faith was a very different landscape to what it became when it was Christianised. To a country divided along the lines of kingdoms, Patrick brought a message of unity. To a country of many gods, Patrick brought faith in one God. To a country that worshipped idols like the sun, Patrick brought faith in a God he called Father that brought with it the dignity of becoming brothers and sisters of Christ. About a century later with St Columbanus, we see that this element of newness was still very much in evidence as the adventure of his life and response to the Spirit brought him to new frontiers, new countries, new challenges and new growth in virtue both for himself and his monks. This newness was also seen in the spread of the Christian faith and the establishment of civilization in mainland Europe.

Fast forward seventeen centuries to our own time, it can be argued that this element of newness, so important in the Scriptures and in the preaching of the early Church, has lost its edge. All the Christian Churches appear to be struggling with how to present faith in Christ as a radically new and life-changing possibility. Re-proposing the Gospel can appear to be ‘Old Hat’ rather than ‘New blood’. I think we can all agree that we need a new confidence and a new language to speak of God in the modern world: a language that is matched with a life of authentic holiness. Here our minds return to the Lord in the Gospels and the reaction of those who heard him: ‘here is a teaching that is new and with authority behind it’ (Mk. 1:27).

In the last century, great leaders recognised the importance of re-igniting the fire of newness in the Church’s witness to the Gospel. As he was dying, Saint John XXIII was heard to pray for a ‘New Pentecost’ in the Church. A few years earlier at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, he argued that the Church ‘must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate’ (Gaudet Mater Ecclesia). Saint John Paul II summoned the Church to a ‘New Evangelization’ and a new missionary commitment by all members of the Church. It is a ‘New Evangelisation’ that is new in its ‘ardour, methods and expression’. In our day, Pope Francis has placed the theme of ‘eternal newness’ at the centre of his desire that all Christians know ‘The Joy of the Gospel’. The Pope states his conviction that (and I quote) ‘with the freshness of Christ he is always able to renew our lives and communities. Jesus can also break through the dull categories with which we would enclose him and he constantly amazes us with his divine creativity. Whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always new (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 11).

With these words, the Pope is calling the Church back to its youthful enthusiasm and away from a notion of Christianity that is stale or stuck in history. In the words of Oscar Romero who was beatified yesterday in El Salvador: ‘It makes me sad to think that some people don’t evolve. They think back to their school days and long for a static Christianity, one that preserves things, like a museum. Christianity is not like that and neither is the Gospel. It has to be the leaven of the present time (June 17th 1979).

So what then of Irish Christianity today? How can we recover this sense of newness, energy and vitality that comes with faith in Christ and mission in his name? Here I return to St Columbanus and identify three prophetic elements in his life that help point the way and remind us that the same Gospel that he lived can still be the leaven for our time as it was for his.

First, we need a new love for God, a new mystical heart that has been enflamed and seduced by the love of God for us, by his truth and by his beauty. Without this mystical foundation, all talk of renewal risks sounding like, in the words of St Paul, ‘a symbol clashing or a gong booming’ (1 Cor. 13:1). All renewal starts from the inside and moves out and starts with me. We see this in the Scriptural account of Pentecost where the Spirit utterly changed those who received it. They were like new people. Some say that the cure for the apathy that has set into the Western Church in particular is fervour but that is like saying the cure for sickness is health. Health is the opposite to sickness, but not its cure. The cure for apathy is the Holy Spirit that alone has the power to enflame, re-new and revitalise what has become sick, tired or has died. We recall here the famous passage from Ezekiel where ‘the dry bones came to life, stood up on their feet like an immense army’ (Ezek. 37:10). This happened because of the ‘breath of God’ and the fulfilment of his promise to ‘put my spirit in you’ (Ezek. 37:14). This is precisely what happened to Peter and the other disciples because of Pentecost. They came out of the upper room, fearful no more, changed, transformed. For Columbanus, his deep an intimate love for the Lord is tangible in all he writes. A series of homilies he wrote in Milan contain some of the finest examples of a soul possessed by the Spirit of God. In his own words: ‘let us request and pray for the unspeakable mercy of the righteous and good God from the bottom of our hearts through Jesus Christ His Son that he may deign so to inspire us with his love that he join us to him for eternity’ (Sermon XII, 2). In the same letter he prays: ‘Lord grant me I pray in the name of Jesus Christ Thy Son, my God that love which knows no fall’ (Sermon XII, 3). He begs God to reveal himself to us ‘so that knowing thee we may love thee only, love thee alone, desire thee alone, contemplate thee alone day and night and ever hold thee in our thoughts’ (Sermon XII, 3). He prays that ‘Thy love may own us all and thine affection fill our senses so that we may know no other love apart from thee…nothing is dearer to God than love, especially spiritual love’ for ‘the love of God is the restoration of his image’ (Sermon XII, 3; Sermon XI, 3, 1). Saints like Patrick, Brigid, Colmcille and Columbanus teach us that a deep and intimate union with God in the Holy Spirit is possible for all of us and that nothing is more important to God and to us than the beauty of holiness. It is where the personal and eternal love for God for each of us is accepted with joy and gratitude every day in a way that causes us to live the newness and blessedness of every moment. This is the newness and freshness we carry into our friendships, into our work and into the world. In this way we become, to use a phrase of Pope Francis in the Joy of the Gospel: ‘Spirit filled evangelisers’ (chapter 5).

Second, we need a new appreciation of how life in the Holy Spirit changes us and has the power to change the world. St Columbanus was utterly convinced of this truth as he observed the Gospel spread West from Jerusalem to Ireland as he puts it ‘riding over the sea of nations whose most high pilot and charioteer is Christ’ (Letter V, 11). From where we stand in history, we are tempted to think that the type of Christianity and monasticism practised by Columbanus and the Irish monks who once lived here in Clones and in monasteries all over Europe, was static and unchanging. Perhaps we think about the penance and prayer they practiced as being divorced from the adventure of becoming who God intended them to be. For Columbanus, the Christian life does not leave us unchanged. Rather we are called to growth and maturity: something that Tertullian taught about four centuries beforehand, that Christians are ‘made not born’ (Apologeticus adversus gentes pro Christianis, 18, 4). Concerning his own Christian formation Columbanus writes: ‘What I am I was not and shall not be and every hour I am different and never stay…thus what I am today, tomorrow I shall not be’ (Sermon VI, 1). He has an understanding of a person being trained as a Christian, and of God as the divine artist as he exhorts: ‘let Christ paint his image in us’ (Sermon XI, 2). Columbanus helps us move away from a static understanding of being Christian to one that is active and creative where both God and believers are partners along the journey towards perfection and eternity. External religious practise alone is not enough for in the words of the saint ‘what use is the religion of the outward man if there is not also shown an improvement in the inner?’ (Sermon II, 2). For us as Irish Christians, this means a return to virtue where the roots of the faith sink deep into the soil of the human condition and human existence. These virtues come from God and have been placed in the soul. Columbanus names them as ‘goodness, innocence, righteousness, justice, truth, pity, love, saving peace and spiritual joy’ (De Discretione). This teaching of Columbanus guards against any reduction of the Christian message to ‘be nice’ and grounds the Gospel in what he calls ‘ripeness of character’ (Sermon II, 3). As I wrote these words I recalled a hymn that we used to hear often that I’m sure many of you may be familiar with: ‘They will know we are Christians by our Love’. While we hope that statement will always be true, in the modern world it will probably be the case that they will also know we are Christians by what we respect and by what we reject. They will know we are Christians by what we affirm, what we resist and what we refuse. This is how we will work with God to change the world: seeking the Spirit of truth and rejecting the spirit of falsehood; seeking what is right and rejecting what is wrong. This approach of Columbanus to ‘root our vices and plant the virtues’ (Sermon II, 2) is echoed by Pope Francis in ‘the Joy of the Gospel’ where he dedicates a whole chapter to what we say ‘no’ to in order to say ‘yes’ to something even greater (Cf. Chapter 2). As Irish Christians, we may not see ourselves as ‘spiritual warriors’ like Columbanus. Yet he does point to a Christianity that does not preach pious platitudes but one that engages robustly with the issues of our time and that speaks to all aspects of life. It will require us to bring the Word of God to bear on every situation that arises with the utter conviction that the Word of God is the Word of truth and of life and not just an opinion.

Third, we need a new energy and a new commitment to Christian unity. With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, disciples from different parts of the ancient world who spoke different languages, began to understand each other. There was a coming together of minds and hearts. Columbanus also understood that the mission of the Church is to baptise ‘the whole human race…in the name of this God as one God’ (Sermon I, 2). For Columbanus, the call to unity is of primary concern not only within the walls of the monastery but also in the outside world. In his poignant fourth letter from Nantes as he prepared to leave his monastery following his expulsion by the King, Columbanus called on his monks to ‘look to it that you be one heart and one mind’ (Letter IV, 2). Immediately the saint links this unity to faith in ‘the common Father of us all’ (Letter IV, 2). This call to unity in the community was more than an guarantor of internal harmony in the monastery but as Columbanus points out, in the context of his letter from Nantes, it was to give united witness to wider society, in this case ‘in the neighbourhood of the Britons’ who inhabited Britanny.

This concern with unity beyond the monastery and in the Church is also seen in his letter to the French bishops in 603. Controversy forms the context of this correspondence as Columbanus is responding to a summons to appear before them, in order to answer to them about the date he and his monks celebrated Easter. Despite their differences, the Irish saint writes: ‘Fathers, pray for us as we also do for you, wretched though we be and refuse to consider us estranged from you; for we are fellow members of one body, whether Franks or Britons or Irish or whatever our race may be’ (Letter, II, 9). Columbanus is anxious that unity is maintained among them as Christians so that their witness to unity is not damaged: ‘Far be it then that I should maintain the need to quarrel with you so that a conflict among us Christians should rejoice our enemies…far be it indeed, far be it’ (Letter II, 7). Elsewhere he goes as far as to say: ‘For I cannot understand how a Christian can dispute the faith with a Christian’ (Letter V, 13).

A final example of Columbanus’ passion for unity is seen in his fifth letter to Pope Boniface IV written in 613 at the behest of the Arian king, urging him to act to preserve the unity of the Church as successor of St Peter. We do not know if Columbanus’ passion for unity that he expressed in his letter to the Pope was ever acknowledged by him. Yet it certainly was by later popes. In the last decade, Pope Benedict XVI said of him: ‘since he worked as a monk, missionary and writer in various countries of Western Europe with good reason he can be called a European saint. With the Irish of his time he had a sense of Europe’s cultural unity’ (General Audience, 11th June 2009). He also called him ‘a father of Christian Europe’. For this reason, the unique contribution of Columbanus to the universal Church has been rightly immortalised with an altar dedicated in his honour in the crypt of St Peter’s Basilica along with his feast being added to the general calendar of the Latin Church in 1969.

Columbanus’ passion for unity presents a compelling case that authentic Christian faith leads to a unity of worship among believers and bonds of communion to which all other differences are subordinate. Becoming Christian immerses us into the unity of the Trinity and calls for a collective witness to that unity in the world. Columbanus’ emphasis on unity is contemporary in that his vision extends beyond his own boundaries: that unity be maintained both in the Church and achieved in the wider society and civilization.

In this year that marks the fourteenth centenary of his death, may Irish Christians come to know and appreciate the life and witness of St Columbanus perhaps for the first time. May his work for and love of unity among Christians be an inspiration for modern Christians and fulfil the Lord’s desire that ‘they may be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (John 17:21). As we ponder his life may our own friendship with God in the Holy Spirit be made new today so that we can become new people like the disciples after Pentecost. And may his teaching wake us up to the reality that living the Christian life is not something dull or boring but an adventure of F-A-I-T-H: A Fantastic Adventure In Trusting Him: an adventure that leads us forward, that changes us and prepares us for eternal life with the God of love.

I conclude with a prayer that the Father may abundantly pour out his Holy Spirit upon all Christians on this Pentecost Sunday to make his Church new and re-new her from within with the gift of his own divine life:

‘Come Holy Spirit, renew the wonders of this our day as by a New Pentecost. That being one in mind and in heart and steadfast in faith with Mary the mother of Jesus, we may advance your divine kingdom of justice and peace, of truth and of love. Amen’. St Columbanus, pray for us.





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