Well-born, handsome and educated, Columbanus 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. Monk at Lough Erne. He studied Scripture extensively, and wrote a commentary on the Psalms. Monk at Bangor under abbot Saint Comgall.
In middle age, Columbanus felt a call to missionary life. With twelve companions (Saint Attala, Columbanus the Younger, Cummain, Domgal, Eogain, Eunan, Saint Gall, Gurgano, Libran, Lua, Sigisbert and Waldoleno) 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 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 Columbanus 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. Columbanus, 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 over-crowded 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. Columbanus served as master of them all, and wrote a Rule for them; it incorporated many Celtic practices, was approved by the Council of Macon in 627, but was superseded by the Benedictine.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 to years, with Columbanus appealing to multiple popes for help, but was only settled with Columbanus abandoned the Celtic calender when he moved to Italy.
In addition to his problems with the bishops, Columbanus 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 nobilty against the abbot; Thierry ordered him to conform to the local ways, and shut up. Columbanus refused, and was briefly imprisoned at Besançon, 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 evangelization work there was unsuccessful, and the group passed on to Arbon, then Bregenz, and then Lake Constance. Saint 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 Columbanus 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 Saint Peter, and around it he founded an abbey that was to be the source for evangelization throughout northern Italy for centuries to come.
Columbanus 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 evanglized untold numbers more, and his brother monks founded over one hundred monasteries to protect learning and spread the faith.
Miracles ascribed to Columbanus include
- to obtain food for a sick brother monk, he cured the wife of the donor
- once when he was surrounded by wolves, he simply walked through them
- at one point he needed a cave for his solitary prayers; a bear lived there; when Columbanus asked, the bear left
- when he needed water in order to live in the cave, a spring appeared nearby
- when the Luxeuil Abbey granary ran empty, Columbanus prayed over it and it refilled
- he multiplied bread and beer for his community
- he cured several sick monks, who then got straight out of bed to reap the monastery‘s harvest
- gave sight to a blind man at Orleans
- he destroyed a vat of beer being prepared for a pagan festival by breathing on it
- when the monastery needed help in the fields, he tamed a bear, and yoked it to a plough
- 21 November 615 in a cave at Bobbio, Italy of natural causes
- interred at the abbey church of Bobbio
- miracles reported at his tomb
- relics re-interred in a new altar there in 1482
- altar and shrine were refurbished and the relics re-interred in the early 20th century
- bearded monk in the midst of wolves holding a book and Irish satchel
- bearded monk taming a bear
- bearded monk with sunbeams over his head
- Benedictine monk holding an abbot‘s staff, a missioner‘s cross, and wearing the sun on his chest
- Benedictine monk with a missioner‘s cross with a bear nearby
- monk in a bear’s den with a fountain springing while he prays
- Seventeen short Sermons
- Six Epistles
- Latin Poems
- A Monastic Rule
A man more holy, more chaste, more self-denying, a man with loftier aims and purer heart than Columbanus was never born in the Island of Saints. – Archbishop Healy
All we Irish dwelling on the edge of the world are disciples of Saints Peter and Paul and of the disciples who, under the Holy Spirit, wrote the Sacred Canon. We accept nothing outside this evangelical and apostolic teaching. There was no heretic, no Jew, no schismatic, but the Catholic Faith, as first delivered to us by you, the successor of the apostles, is kept unshaken…. We, indeed, are, as I have said, chained to the Chair of Saint Peter; for although Rome is great and known afar, it is great and honored with us only by this Chair. – Saint Columbanus
- “Saint Columbanus“. CatholicSaints.Info. 2 July 2015. Web. 28 July 2015. <>