Homily of Bishop Noel Treanor at the opening Mass at the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian as part of Pilgrimage to Rome in Honour of Saint Columbanus

09 Oct 2014

We begin our pilgrimage ad catacumbas juxta vestigia apostolorum

We begin our pilgrimage in honour of St Columbanus here on the side of the Appian Way in the catacombs of Saint Sebastian, where, according to an oral tradition, the bodies of Saint Peter and Saint Paul were buried for a time.  Tradition has it too that on his death at the order of the emperor Diocletian, Sebastian’s body was thrown into the cloaca, whence it was taken by a Christian lady, Lucina, whom the dead Sebastian had visited in a dream and requested that his body be buried ad catacumbas in initio cryptae juxta vestigia apostolorum (Acta Sanctorum, Jan.. ii. 257-296, Bibliotheca hagiographica Latina, Brussels, 18 99, n 7543-7549)
Sebastian’s death took place around the year 298 AD.  Some 250 years would elapse before the birth of Columbanus around 543 in the province of Leinster. Massive political changes would take place in those years. The same centuries would give rise to heavy theological debates as believers in Christ struggled to give an account of their faith and put an agreed language on the mystery of God, revealed in Jesus Christ and on God’s plan of salvation for humanity. Bishops and theologians met in Council and Ecumenical Council as the language of our Christian faith was developed and forged.

Columbanus was introduced to that tradition and to its origins in the scriptures in monasteries in our native country. He may have spent time in Clonard by the Boyne in Co. Meath. He lived and studied in Cleenish, Co Fermanagh and at Bangor monastery, on the southern shore of Belfast Lough, whence he departed with disciples as a wanderer for Christ.

That peregrinatio pro Christo took him and his followers over water and land. From the start it was a risk laden journey into the unknown. From various sources including his own writings and from the Vita Columbani abbatis discipulorumque eius by Jonas of Susa, the trace of his work and monastic foundations are known to us. The names of places such as Annegray, Fontaine, Luxeuil, St Gallen, Bregenz, Milan, Bobbio and many other places resound with his memory.  Columbanus died in Bobbio in 615. He did not reach Rome. And so the this Jubilee Year of the fourteen hundredth anniversary of his death will be launched on Saturday evening in Saint John Lateran Basilica, caput et mater, the head and mother Church of the universal Church.
II  Pilgrimage, apostolic origins and renewal of the living Christian tradition  
Going on pilgrimage to the holy places, to places associated with the well-springs of faith, is an exercise in renewal. It is a time of personal renewal. Pilgrimage to Rome, ad limina apostolorum, takes us back to the apostolic origins, to the shrines of many of the early martyrs whose memory and witness we celebrate in this Mass.

We recall the phrase of Tertullian :  “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”  (Apologeticus, ch 20).  The readings of the liturgy of the Word signal the paradoxical, though in human terms incomprehensible and supremely costly dynamic at the heart of the kingdom of God : as St John puts it, only if a seed dies will it yield a rich harvest, or in St Paul’s words, (we Christians are)  “said to be dying and here we are alive, rumoured to be executed before we are sentenced” (2 Cor 6. 9).

Columbanus abandoned, indeed died to, the world he knew in Bangor and in Ireland. From the end of the then known world he set out to re-evangelise a world that had experienced the collapse of the Roman empire with the support that it had provided to Christian life since the Edict of Milan(313)  and the upheaval of invasions and movements of peoples from East and North that had undone earlier evangelisation.

His decision to set out on peregrinatio pro Christo required great courage. It effectively demanded the abandonment of self and the spiritual courage of the martyr.  His work and mission would encounter many difficulties and challenges, as you know. He did not shy away from engagement and debate with public authority, nor with Church authority, episcopal or papal.  In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, who dedicated his address at his Wednesday audience on 11 June 2008 to Saint Columbanus :

“Saint Columban’s message is concentrated in a firm appeal to conversion and detachment from earthly goods, with a view to the eternal inheritance. With his ascetic life and conduct free from compromises when he faced the corruption of the powerful, he is reminiscent of the severe figure of Saint John the Baptist. His austerity, however, was never an end in itself but merely the means with which to open himself freely to God’s love and to correspond with his whole being to the gifts received from him, thereby restoring in himself the image of God, while at the same time cultivating the earth and renewing human society”

In the language of our time, Columbanus’ monasteries were centres of excellence and hubs of progress in many areas of human endeavour, disciplines and trades as well as in the spiritual and religious realms.

For this reason, it is appropriate that we salute today from the catacombs of St Sebastian, for example:

  • The many academic, cultural and religious initiatives which will be undertaken in the course of the forthcoming year to mark and revive the memory of St Columbanus
  • The seminars, in the same vein, organised by the Columban Fathers at Dalgan Park, Navan
  • Initiatives launched by the North Down Borough Council aided by the EU Regional Development Fund
  • The initiatives and events being organised by the Network of the Friends of Saint Columbanus in France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy

III Re-discovering and re-launching the memory of Saint Columbanus 
As we begin this pilgrimage I wish to thank each one of you for choosing to take part and for making it happen.
In these days we shall join with fellow pilgrims from other countries where Columbanus lived, missioned and left his mark as monk, missionary, author, pilgrim and builder, as one who shaved and linked faith and culture.

Many of those fellow pilgrims will come from cities, towns and parishes where the memory of Columbanus has been revered for centuries.  In our diocese of Down and Connor and in Ireland there is need to introduce our children and our youth to this towering figure of the Christian heritage of Ireland and of Europe.  A monk and missionary who worked in many regions on this continent of Europe, it was he, Columbanus, who first used the phrase “totius Europae” – all of Europe – in his letter to Pope Gregory the Great (Epistula 1.1.), written around the year 600. For this reason Pope Benedict said of him that “with good reason he can be called a “European” saint”.

Let us pray that this 1400th Anniversary of Saint Columbanus birth to eternal life will serve to revive an awareness and appreciation of the rich religious and cultural heritage of Columbanus and that it will also serve to awaken a re-birth of an enlightened understanding of the meaning and significance of faith in Jesus Christ for personal life, for cultural endeavour and for the moral fibre of society.

Let us pray also in this Mass that our pilgrimage in honour of Saint Columbanus will refresh and renew our appreciation of the great Christian tradition to which we belong and that it will renew our faith in the Risen Christ, the source of hope in all the trials of life.


Notes to Editors

  • A Year to Mark the 1400th Anniversary of the death of Saint Columbanus in 2015, will be solemnly opened in Rome on Sunday 12 October 2014 with a Mass in St John Lateran Basilica. An ecumenical diocesan pilgrimage from Down and Connor led by Bishop Noel Treanor is currently in Rome for these celebrations. This ‘Year of Saint Columbanus’ will be marked by various celebrations and events both in Ireland and across Europe to mark the legacy and significance of St Columbanus.
  • Of interest, North Down Borough Council, the Columban Fathers and various European groups have already established a calendar of events throughout the year to mark this anniversary.
  • The Church of Ireland Rector, Canon Ronnie Nesbitt from Bangor Abbey will deliver the homily on Tuesday 14 October as part of a Liturgy of the Word in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome.
  • Below please see the full itinerary of the pilgrimage to Rome.

Thursday, 9th October 2014

Celebration of the Eucharist in the Basilica of San Sebastiano Mass from the Common of Martyrs
Celebrant: Most Reverend Noel Treanor, Bishop of Down and Connor

Friday, 10th October 2014

Celebration of the Eucharist in Saint Peter’s Basilica Votive Mass of Saint Peter
Celebrant: Most Reverend Kieran O’Reilly SMA, Bishop of Killaloe

Monday, 13th October 2014

Celebration of Eucharist in the Lower Basilica, Assisi Memorial Mass of Saint Francis
Celebrant: Monsignor Peter O’Reilly PP VG, Enniskillen

Tuesday, 14th October 2014

Liturgy of the Word, Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
Celebrant: Most Reverend Noel Treanor Bishop of Down and Connor
Homilist: Canon Ronnie Nesbitt, Rector, Bangor Abbey

Wednesday, 15th October 2014

Memorial Mass of Saint Benedict and Saint Columbanus, Montecassino
Celebrant: Very Reverend Joseph Gunn, PP Bangor

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