Speaking today in San Colombano Al Lambro, northern Italy, at a concelebrated Mass to mark the 1400th anniversary of the death of Saint Columbanus, Archbishop Eamon Martin preached the following homily.
Fourteen hundred years is a long time. It is difficult for any of us to imagine what life was like even one hundred years ago. But we can be certain that when Saint Columbanus set out to be a ‘pilgrim for Christ’ he was literally surrendering his future, his whole life, into the hands of God. Without the aid of modern maps, or compasses or navigational equipment, he relied totally on the guidance of the Holy Spirit to point him in the direction that God wanted of him and his band of disciples. What courage! What faith! Praise God for his marvellous deeds!
I find it difficult to imagine that this great Saint studied and lived not far from where I now live in Ireland. And I would never believe that, fourteen hundred years after the death of Saint Columbanus, God would bring me here, to this beautiful place, which is also approximately fourteen hundred miles from my home, to be with you today. What a joy! What an honour for me! Praise God for His marvellous deeds!
When Saint Columbanus left home in Ireland, it was like a kind of exile or martyrdom. Not only was his life in great danger on many occasions, but he must have felt a great loneliness, being so far away from home without the benefit of mobile phones, or Skype or email! To be a missionary meant letting go of so many things. It must have been like a kind of bereavement, to leave behind the beautiful shores of Ireland and strike out into the unknown. God wanted him to abandon himself into God’s arms and protection.
And everywhere he went, Columbanus preached that message. We must all be prepared to let go and let God lead us. His message was a call to conversion. During his Wednesday’s audience in Saint Peter’s Square on 11 June 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI summed up the message of Saint Columbanus in this way:
“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.”
It is important for all of us to realise that when we set out on the road to conversion, even though it will mean letting go of some pleasures or attachments, when we open ourselves up to God’s will and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it will also bring us happiness and the joy of the Gospel.
Columbanus did not call people to conversion and penance just to make them feel uncomfortable! He wanted them to experience the tremendous love and joy of being with God, partially in this world, but fully in the next world.
Pope Francis wants all of us to become heralds of the joy of the Gospel.
In Evangelii Gaudium he cautions us not to be ‘sourpusses’ or like people coming back from a funeral. He insists: ‘Let us not allow ourselves to be ‘robbed of hope’ (EG 83).
There is a definite temptation nowadays to rob the Church of hope. We often hear people speaking about the decline in Church practice, or the lack of vocations to the priesthood and religious life as signals that Europe has ‘lost the faith’. It is true that many people in Europe have drifted away from regular Church practice: there is an increasing loss of the ‘sense of the sacred’, and more and more people seem to be growing used to living their lives with little or no reference to belief and trust in God.
Pope Francis tells us that it is now, more than ever, that the world needs to hear the song of the Lord, ‘the joy of the Gospel’. He challenges us to get out there and to bring faith to life. A Church which does not come out of herself to evangelise, he said, becomes self-referential and then gets sick.
When I was ordained as a bishop last year I chose for my episcopal motto the verse from the psalms: Cantate Domino Canticum Novum [Sing a new song to the Lord]. I love the optimism and joy of those words. Surely this is the greatest challenge and opportunity facing our Church these days – our parishes, our homes and our Catholic schools – how to we become ‘missionary’ and get out there like Saint Columbanus did, singing the new song of the Lord to the world?
In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis asks us to put everything we do into a new key – a ‘missionary key’. He wrote:
‘I dream of a missionary option, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation’ (EG 27).
‘Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’. It invites everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelisation in their respective communities’ (EG 33).
I imagine that our patron Saint Columbanus would be very happy with these words of Pope Francis. And today, as we honour the memory of Saint Columbanus I invite you to reflect on three questions for your own life, your parish community and for the Church throughout the world:
– How can I be more missionary, like Columbanus, in my personal life, in my family and in my community?
– Who are the people around me who are thirsting to hear and experience the joy of the Gospel?
– Is there some one thing that I can let go in order to give God more room to work in and through my life?
Thank you for listening and for inviting me to be with you today.
- Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland
- Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, and Bishop Noel Treanor of Down & Connor, will concelebrate the main celebration on Sunday next, 23 November, in Bobbio where Saint Columbanus died in 615AD.