Pope Calls Irish Monk a Father of Europe
Says He Nourished Continent's Christian Roots
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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 11, 2008 (Zenit.org).- An Irish monk -- "a tireless builder of monasteries" -- became one of the true fathers of Europe through his work of nourishing the Christian roots of the Continent, says Benedict XVI.
The Pope said this today during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square. He commented on the monk St. Columban, who he called "the most famous Irishman of the early Middle Ages."
"With good reason," continued the Pontiff, "he can be called a 'European' saint, because as monk, missionary and writer, he worked in several countries of Western Europe."
The Holy Father added that the monk, "along with the Irishmen of his time [...] was aware of the cultural unity of Europe." He said that the monk was the first to use the "expression 'totius Europae' (of all Europe) with reference to the presence of the Church in the Continent."
Born around 543 in Ireland, Columban entered the monastery around the age of 20, and later became a priest.
His mission to spread monasticism began at age 50 when he left with 12 companions to evangelize Europe.
"We must, in fact, keep in mind that the migration of people of the North and East had made entire Christianized regions fall back into paganism," Benedict XVI recalled.
The Pope said the monks built their first monastery in present-day France on the ruins of the ancient Roman fortress of Annegray, "demolished and abandoned, and now covered by forest."
"Used to a life of extreme renunciation," he said, "the monks succeeded in a few months in building the first hermitage on the ruins. Thus, their re-evangelization began to be carried out above all through the testimony of life.
"With the new cultivation of the land they also began a new cultivation of souls. The fame of those foreign religious, who, living on prayer and in great austerity, built houses and cultivated the earth, spread rapidly and attracted pilgrims and penitents.
"Above all, many young men asked to be received in the monastic community to live, like them, that exemplary life that renewed the cultivation of the earth and of souls."
Due to their growing numbers, the monks built a second and third monastery in the area, in Luxeuil and Fontaine.
The Holy Father recounted that Columban lived at Luxeuil for 20 years, and there he wrote Regula Monachorum, "the only ancient Irish monastic rule we possess today." The rule delineated "the ideal image of the monk," he added.
"By way of integration," added Benedict XVI, "he elaborated the Regula Coenobialis, a sort of penal code for infractions, with rather surprising punishments for modern sensitivity, explainable only with the mentality of the time and the environment."
He continued: "With another famous work titled 'De Poenitentiarum Misura Taxanda,' written also at Luxeuil, Columban introduced private and repeated confession and penance on the continent.
"It was called "tariffed" penance because of the proportion established between gravity of the sin and the type of penance imposed by the confessor.
"This novelty awakened the suspicion of the bishops of the region, a suspicion that was translated into hostility when Columban had the courage to reprimand them openly for some of their practices."
In 610, Columban was exiled from Luxeuil for having reprimanded King Theodoric for having committed adultery.
After several stops, the monks crossed the Alps and arrived to province of Lombardy, where they were received by King Agilulph.
"Columban met with a benevolent reception at the Lombard royal court," said Benedict XVI, "but he soon was faced with noteworthy difficulties."
He explained: "The life of the Church was lacerated by the Arian heresy still prevalent among the Lombards and by a schism that had removed the greater part of the Churches of northern Italy from communion with the Bishop of Rome.
Columban inserted himself with authority into this context, writing a libel against Arianism and a letter to Boniface IV to convince him to take some decisive steps in view to re-establishing unity."
Columban established his last monastery in Bobbio, in the valley of Trebbia, on a piece of land given to him by the Lombard king. He died there in 615.
"St. Columban's message is centered on a firm call to conversion and detachment from the goods of the earth in view of our eternal heritage," said Benedict XVI. "With his ascetic life and his conduct free from compromises in face of the corruption of the powerful, he evokes the severe figure of John the Baptist.
"His austerity, however, was never an end in itself, but was only the means to open himself freely to the love of God and correspond with his whole being to the gifts received from him, thus reconstructing in himself the image of God and at the same time cultivating the earth and renewing human society."
The Pope continued: "A man of great culture -- he also wrote poetry in Latin and a grammar book -- he proved himself to be rich in gifts of grace. He was a tireless builder of monasteries as well as an intransigent penitential preacher, spending all his energy to nourish the Christian roots of Europe, which was being born.
"With his spiritual energy, with his faith, with his love for God and for his neighbor, he truly became one of the fathers of Europe: He shows us even today the roots from which our Europe can be reborn."