Thursday, December 13

St. Columba

Two centuries after Patrick had carried the Gospel of Christ to Ireland, Columba was born in the Irish town of Donegal on this day in 521. He was a member of the royal family—though his parents were devout Christians, and as a boy Columba attended what was said to be the first church established by Patrick.

Columba was ordained and apparently established several churches and monasteries in Ireland, but in 563 he left his native land (some say, under a cloud of controversy) and went on pilgrimage for Christ. With twelve companions he sailed to Iona, a rugged little island just off the west coast of Scotland. There he established a monastery which would eventually serve as a base of evangelism among the barbarian Caledonians and the Picts.

He and his cadre of pioneer evangelists courageously preached to the fierce Scots peoples who were still under the strong influence of the Druid religion. Brude, king of the Picts, was converted under Columba's influence, and Christianity began to spread quickly and have a strong influence on the region.

The monastery Columba founded at Iona also became a center of learning and piety. In a day when the Roman church was becoming more ceremonial and priestly, the school at Iona emphasized the Bible as the sole rule of faith. For these Celtic Christians, Christ alone was head of the Church—they did not follow the hierarchical authority or the liturgical ceremonies of the Roman church.

From Iona, a vast number of missionaries went out to the lands of Holland, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. As a result, the island became a favorite burying place for kings—more than seventy Irish, Scots, Norse, and Fleming kings sought to be interred within its holy confines.

By the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory tried to bring the movement Columba had begun under the authority of the Roman ecclesiastical see. He sent the missionary Augustine to Britain in 592 and established him as bishop at Canterbury. For a century there was a struggle between the British church and the Roman church for authority in the region. At last though, in the seventh century, at the synod of Whitby in 664, the authority of the Roman prelacy was affirmed and accepted by all but a few of the churches. Even those few recalcitrant parishes in the Highlands of Scotland eventually acceded to Rome’s control by the end of the eighth century and Columba’s vision seemed all but lost—until that is, as many later claimed, it was revived under John Knox and George Buchanan during the Scottish Reformation of the sixteenth century.

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