St. Columban (543?-615)
Columban was the greatest of the Irish missionaries who worked on the European continent. As a young man who was greatly tormented by temptations of the flesh, he sought the advice of a religious woman who had lived a hermit’s life for years. He saw in her answer a call to leave the world. He went first to a monk on an island in Lough Erne, then to the great monastic seat of learning at Bangor. After many years of seclusion and prayer, he travelled to Gaul (modern-day France) with 12 companion missionaries. They won wide respect for the rigor of their discipline, their preaching, and their commitment to charity and religious life in a time characterized by clerical slackness and civil strife. Columban established several monasteries in Europe which became centres of religion and culture. Like all saints, he met opposition. Ultimately he had to appeal to the pope against complaints of Frankish bishops, for vindication of his orthodoxy and approval of Irish customs. He reproved the king for his licentious life, insisting that he marry. Since this threatened the power of the queen mother, Columban was deported to Ireland. His ship ran aground in a storm, and he continued his work in Europe, ultimately arriving in Italy, where he found favour with the king of the Lombards. In his last years he established the famous monastery of Bobbio, where he died. His writings include a treatise on penance and against Arianism, sermons, poetry and his monastic rule.
Writing to the pope about a doctrinal controversy in Lombardy, Columban said: “We Irish, living in the farthest parts of the earth, are followers of St. Peter and St. Paul and of the disciples who wrote down the sacred canon under the Holy Spirit. We accept nothing outside this evangelical and apostolic teaching.... I confess I am grieved by the bad repute of the chair of St. Peter in this country.... Though Rome is great and known afar, she is great and honoured with us only because of this chair.... Look after the peace of the Church, stand between your sheep and the wolves.”
The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (21.12-19)
Jesus said, But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life.
(Homily by Fr. E.J. Tyler)
Our Lord has just foretold the destruction of the glory of Israel, its Temple. Not one stone will be left upon another - and within a few decades, so it was. His disciples questioned him more, and his vision of the future broadens beyond the Temple to the world: Luke records that “the end is not so soon” (21:9). History would entail great upsets and disturbances: “nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. Great earthquakes will occur in various places and famines and plagues. There will be fearful sights” (21:10-11). And so it has been - so much so that philosophers have argued that there could not be a God, for there is manifestly no purpose, no order, no design in the world as it is. The world is a mess. On the night of November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall--the symbol of the Cold War division of Europe--came down. It was the culminating point of the revolutionary changes sweeping east central Europe in 1989. The collapse of communism in east central Europe and the Soviet Union marked the end of the Cold War. There was euphoria at the thought of peace - the two Germanys were united. Then suddenly as if out of nowhere - although there was a long background to it - the cyclone of Islamic terrorism appeared on the horizon. It is now a world threat and long-standing democracies are faced with numerous terrorist cells spawning in their own societies. Suicide bombers are being groomed across the globe. The very word “martyrdom” - meaning the ultimate witnesses with one’s life to goodness and truth - is now debased because of horrifying suicides being given that name. This is to say that there is a mysterious pattern in human history which our Lord describes in this chapter of St Luke, a pattern of unending conflict and turbulence. The refrain of Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth well describes it: “Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and caldron bubble.” Yet, as our Lord says, the end is not so soon.
This is the broad context of life for much of mankind. Is there any special word from Christ to the Christian, to his disciple? Yes - he says that there will be special and added difficulties for him. He will be hauled before authorities and persecuted because of faith in Christ his Lord. “Jesus said, But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name” (Luke 21: 12-19). So not only does the world rise up, as it were, and toss man to and fro, but the society of men will make the one who witnesses to the truth of Christ suffer. There is a strange rebellion at the heart of things. St John tells us in the Prologue of his Gospel that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He came unto his own, and his own did not receive him. He who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, was rejected. The pattern our Lord foretells to his own disciples was in the first instance exemplified in him. He was delivered to the leaders of the synagogues and cast into prison. He was brought before the governor, the representative of the Emperor on account of the truth he had revealed. Thus did he himself bear witness to his truth by his suffering and death. So it will be for the disciple of Christ, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on vocation and circumstances. The disciple of Christ can expect difficulties coming from the world because its condition is one of turbulent instability. He can expect difficulties coming from society because to one degree or another, in one sense or another, society is not disposed to accept testimony to Jesus Christ. Consider the vituperation Cardinal George Pell attracted from politicians in mid 2007. He had repeatedly insisted that no Catholic politician should vote for an expansion of embryonic stem cell research because of the destruction of the embryo that this entails. Again, consider the storm that erupted when Pope Benedict declared during a flight to Africa in 2009 that condoms were not the answer to AIDS.
There are many Christian positions which will attract persecution. But what does our Lord say of this persecution? He tells his disciples that this persecution constitutes an opportunity. It will be the opportunity to bear witness, and help will come from on high when the time comes. “This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” Let us resolve to use the little occasions of every ordinary day to follow in the footsteps of the Master, bearing witness to him and his truth in whatever way is appropriate and possible.