Vatican City (AsiaNews) - "One of the fathers of Europe", who shows us where the continent's roots are "from which it can be reborn", and at the same time an example of "detachment from earthly goods, in view of an eternal inheritance", and of "rejection of compromise" with the powerful. Saint Colombanus, the Irish monk who was the author of a fundamental "Rule", is the "father of the Church" whose figure and work Benedict XVI illustrated today. To the 20,000 people present at the general audience, the pope explained in particular the work that the holy monk undertook to re-evangelise a continent that the barbarian invasions had to a great extent led back into paganism.
Born around 543 in Navan, in southeast Ireland, but he undertook liberal arts studies and became a monk in the monastery of Bangor (in the north), under the guidance of the abbot Comgall, a man of great religious zeal, extremely severe and a firm supporter of ascetic discipline. Colombanus "practiced with zeal the severe discipline of the monastery", where he matured his conception of monasticism. At the age of about 50, "following the ascetic ideal of being a pilgrim for Christ", he left the island to undertake an evangelising mission on the continent together with 12 companions.
In 590, he reached the British coast. After receiving permission to establish himself in a crumbling old abandoned Roman fortress, in a few months he built the first hermitage there, and "began to evangelise, above all through the testimony of his life". "The fame of those monks who lived a life of prayer and great austerity spread quickly", attracting pilgrims and penitents, and above all many young men who asked to be allowed to live as they did. A second monastery had to be founded, in Luxeuil, not far away. "This would later become the centre of Irish missionary and monastic life on the continent".
His moral rigor - which led to comparisons with John the Baptist - led over the years to problems with the bishops, some of whom criticised his practices, and with king Theodoric II, because of his extramarital relations. In 610, a decree of expulsion was issued for Colombanus and for all monks of Irish origin. The boat they left on got stuck, and the captain saw this as a sign from heaven, and brought them back to land. The monks decided to begin a new work of evangelisation among the Alamanni. Later Colombanus decided to cross the Alps with most of his monks, and arrived in Italy, where he was welcomed by the Lombard court.
But the life of the Church was torn by the Arian heresy and by a schism. Colombanus took part in these, writing a criticism of Arianism and a letter to Boniface IV, to convince him to take steps to restore unity. He founded a new monastery in Bobbio, similar in importance to Luxeuil, and died there in 615.
Benedict XVI emphasised Saint Colombanus's "firm call to conversion and to detachment from earthly goods, in view of an eternal inheritance", and "his ascetic life and uncompromising stance toward the corruption of the powerful". His was a rigor "not as an end in itself", but "only the means to open oneself freely to the love of God", in order to "repay the gifts received" and "against the dominant corruption of the earth and human society". The pope especially emphasised the importance that Colombanus attached to the first commandment: "First, love God, because he himself has loved us since the beginning of time".