You May Not Know: St. Columbanus

Columbanus was born in Ireland in 543 AD and was handsome, rich, and extremely well educated. Not surprisingly, he was favored by all the women in his village, as well as nearby-towns. These females would literally throw themselves at him. For a while, Columbanus took full advantage of these offers. However as time passed, he sought the advice of a religious woman who suggested he remove himself from society and live with some local monks. No one wanted him to go. His own mother threw her body in front of the door of their family home in an attempt to get him to stay. Ultimately, her efforts were unsuccessful and Columbanus left to join the monastery.

ColumbanusDecades later when Columbanus was in his forties, he heard a persistent voice in prayer instructing him to become a missionary and preach the Gospel in foreign lands. Though his abbot initially refused to let him go, Columbanus and twelve companions were granted the necessary permission to leave and follow this calling. These 13 monks set sail for Britain, and then arrived in France in 585 AD.

In France, the Church was a mess. Within the Church, there was much corruption; outside the Church, their were constant invasions by barbarians. The humility and grace of these Irish monks were welcomed warmly by the local people– clearly they had been thirsting for truth! Having received such a hospitable welcome, as well as the support of King Gontram of Burgundy, Columbanus and his companions founded a monastery in an abandoned Roman fortress. Despite its remote location in the mountains, the community became a popular pilgrimage site and converted thousands. It also attracted so many monastic vocations that two new monasteries had to be constructed in order to have enough room for everyone!

Having roots in Ireland, their rules of life reflected Irish tradition. Thus, it wasn’t long before the Bishops of France began to take issue with them. Shortly after this falling-out, Columbanus also lost the support of the royalty. Though King Gontram had accepted the monks graciously, the son who succeeded him as King was unhappy when Columbanus admonished him for taking a woman as his mistress instead of his wife. Furious, this young king had the abbot thrown in jail. Columbanus managed to escape, but he and his Irish brothers were banned from their own monasteries. Although the French brethren who had joined the monastery were permitted to remain.

The Irish monks traveled and evangelized throughout Germany, even establishing a fourth monastery there before crossing the Alps into northern Italy. At the time, the Italian Church was troubled by heresy and schism. Though he and Pope Boniface had public disagreements, Columbanus always obeyed his superior, and they worked together to combat the Church’s issues.

Having received a warm welcome by the ruling family, the Lombards, the monks were given a grant of land on which they built another monastery in 614 AD.  Columbanus died the following year in the cave where he lived nearby. This monastery in the town of Bobbio became a major source for evangelization throughout northern Italy for centuries to come.

The influence of Columbanus continued long after his death, as those he converted handed on the faith, the brothers he taught continued to evangelize thousands, and his brother monks founded over one hundred monasteries to protect learning and spread the faith.

Kinda crazy to think about the impact of one man’s conversion…

The feast of St. Columbanus is celebrated on November 23


Though he founded many monasteries, Columbanus preferred even more seclusion. He often lived in caves and hermitages outside the monastery walls. He always enjoyed being in the forest and as he walked through the woods, birds and squirrels would ride on his shoulders.

Due to his love for the “open road,” St. Columbanus was named the patron saint of motorcyclists. I think it’s also somewhat ironic considering his “bad boy” lifestyle during his younger years…

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By Susan Iles

St. Columbanus– pray for us who read this post!

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