Nov 23 – Memorial for St. Clement I, pope, martyr; Memorial for St. Columban, abbot
St. Clement (d. 101) was the fourth pope, and an apostolic Father. The Basilica of St. Clement in Rome is one of the earliest parish churches in the city, and is probably built on the site of Clement’s home. He is the author of the ‘Epistle to the Corinthians’. His name occurs in the Canon of the Mass. Origen and St. Jerome identify him as working with St. Paul the Apostle.
- Patron Saint Index
St. Columban (543–615) was well-born, handsome, and educated. He was torn between a desire for God and easy access to the pleasures of the world. Acting on advice of a holy anchoress, he decided to withdraw from the world. His family opposed the choice, his mother going so far as to block the door. He became a monk at Lough Erne. He studied Scripture extensively, and wrote a commentary on the Psalms. He became a monk at Bangor under abbot St. Comgall.
At middle age, Columban felt a calling to missionary life. With 12 companions, he travelled to Scotland, England, and then to France in 585. The area, though nominally Christian, had fallen far from the faith, but were ready for missionaries, and they had some success. They were warmly greeted at the court of Gontram, and the king of Burgundy invited the band to stay. They chose the half-ruined Roman fortress of Annegray in the Vosges Mountains for their new home, with Columban as their abbot.
The simple lives and obvious holiness of the group drew disciples to join them, and the sick to be healed by their prayers. Columban, to find solitude for prayer, often lived for long periods in a cave seven miles from the monastery, using a messenger to stay in touch with his brothers. When the number of new monks overcrowded the old fortress, King Gontram gave them the old castle of Luxeuil to found a new house in 590. Soon after, a third house was founded at Fontaines. Columban served as master of them all, and wrote a Rule for them; it incorporated many Celtic practices, and was approved by the Council of Macon in 627, but was superseded by the Benedictine.
Problems arose early in the 7th century. Many Frankish bishops objected to a foreign missionary with so much influence, to the Celtic practices he brought, especially those related to Easter, and his independence from them. In 602, he was summoned to appear before them for judgment; instead of appearing, he sent a letter advising them to hold more synods, and to concern themselves with more important things than which rite he used to celebrate Easter. The dispute over Easter continued for years, with Columban appealing to multiple popes for help, but was only settled when Columban abandoned the Celtic calendar when he moved to Italy.
In addition to his problems with the bishops, Columban spoke out against vice and corruption in the royal household and court, which was in the midst of a series of complex power grabs. Brunehault stirred up the bishops and nobility against the abbot; Thierry ordered him to conform to the local ways, and shut up. Columban refused, and was briefly imprisoned at Besancon, but he escaped and returned to Luxeuil. Thierry and Brunehault sent an armed force to force him and his foreign monks back to Ireland. As soon as his ship set sail, a storm drove them back to shore; the captain took it as a sign, and set the monks free.
They made their way to King Clothaire at Soissons, Neustria and then the court of King Theodebert of Austrasia in 611. He travelled to Metz, France, then Mainz, Germany, Suevi, Alamanni, and finally Lake Zurich. Their evangelisation work there was unsuccessful, and the group passed on to Arbon, then Bregenz, and then Lake Constance. St. Gall, who knew the local language best, took the lead in this region; many were converted to the faith, and the group founded a new monastery as their home and base.
However, a year later, political upheaval caused Columban to cross the Alps into Italy, arriving in Milan in 612. The Christian royal family treated him well, and he preached and wrote against Arianism and Nestorianism. In gratitude, the Lombard king gave him a tract of land call Bobbio between Milan and Genoa in Italy. There, he rebuilt a half-ruined church of St. Peter and around it, he founded an abbey that was to be the source for evangelisation throughout northern Italy for centuries to come.
Columban always enjoyed being in the forests and caves, and as he walked through the woods, birds and squirrels would ride on his shoulders. Toward the end of his life came word that his old enemies were dead, and his brothers wanted him to come back north, but he declined. Knowing that his time was almost done, he retired to a cave for solitude, and died as he had predicted. His influence continued for centuries as those he converted handed on the faith, the brothers he taught evangelised untold numbers more, and his brother monks founded over one hundred monasteries to protect learning and spread the faith.
“…the time will come when not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed.”
Today’s readings have a sombre consistency in their focus on how everything will eventually be destroyed. They remind me of a book I read earlier this year, which touched on the history of ancient civilisations which flourished and fell; they also seem grimly relevant in today’s context where we regularly hear about regimes and/or figures of authority being toppled and, more recently, how our planet itself is under threat. On a personal level, the passages also remind me of the transience of our own lives, something I used to think a bit about every November when we mark All Souls’ Day, but perhaps increasingly more often, as I see my family and friends ageing. It is a bit difficult not to feel overwhelmed with fear and despair, especially since we are still in the midst of a pandemic that has upended much of life as we know it.
However, the readings also made me recall instances when signs of God’s kingdom remained standing, when everything else fell into ruin. Probably the most striking example I can think of now is the golden cross of the Notre Dame Cathedral, shining intact amid the destruction wrought by the massive fire which ravaged the cathedral in 2019. Nonetheless, there have been other churches which remained largely unscathed after natural disasters, and the saints — both known and unknown — whom we celebrated earlier this month, are shining examples of how ordinary people’s acts of love, courage and devotion live on through the ages.
Perhaps these readings ultimately bring us back to this week’s overall theme — that Christ is our true King, whose kingdom is already among us right now, if we keep our minds and hearts open to His gentle call. This also brings to mind a homily I recently heard about how we need to remember that we are accountable to God, not because He is keeping track of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we are, but because He wants a genuine relationship with us. This is a truth we can hold on to always.
(Today’s OXYGEN by Jaclyn Lam)
Prayer: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Thanksgiving: Lord, thank you for keeping us close to you always. Strengthen our faith and grant us the grace and wisdom to discern Your ways amid the ways of the world.