Diocese of Derry


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Homily - Launch of Columban Year - Bishop McKeown


Monday, 7 December 2020 

We have been suffering cold, wet, windy weather over the last few days. There will be many more such days ahead. And it is great that most of us have a home in which to stay warm and dry. Today we begin a year of celebration for the birth of a man who lived in times when there was no insulation and many draughts. And after time spent in Derry, he went to the isle of Iona where the wind hardly ever stops. So, despite pictures of St Columba in nice white robes with a smile on his face, in reality he lived a tough, disciplined life. We do his memory no justice if we think only of a holy man, floating around in some boring monastery. Columba was a man who grappled with the realities of life – the cold winds of winter and the harsh words of others, friends and enemies, faith and doubt.

But what lessons might we take on board as we live with the realities of life in the coming Columban year when we celebrate his birthday 1500 years ago?

Firstly, saints leave the world a better place because of their time here. Speaking to a huge crowd of three million young people in Poland in 2016, Pope Francis said, "we didn't come into this work to "vegetate", to take it easy, to make our lives a comfortable sofa to fall asleep on. No, we came for another reason: to leave a mark. It is very sad to pass through life without leaving a mark. But when we opt for ease and convenience, for confusing happiness with consumption, then we end up paying a high price indeed: we lose our freedom. We are not free to leave a mark. We lose our freedom."[1] Columba would tell us that if we pamper ourselves, we lose any sense of the greatness to which we are called. Comforts are great, but in a world where it is all about me, no-one thrives.

He had many challenges to face. Life was not easy, and disease was widespread. There were lots of little local wars between families and clans. We understand that he got involved in a conflict over a book and that others were killed. Columba did not live in a cosy bubble. He lived and worked with imperfect people – and he knew that he, too, was flawed. Can we remember Columba as a real human being who grappled with the human problems of his day and would challenge us to do the same in this generation? Heroes face reality. They don't run away or complain.

Secondly, we can ask what gave him strength. He did not merely get angry and seek revenge or avoid blame for his faults or the faults of others. He took responsibility for the past and sought to give his life and talents in the service of building a better future. His strength of character brought him across the sea to Iona. There he built up a community of others who dedicated their lives to study and to bringing good news of mercy to the people of Scotland. That will not have been easy. Living with others in community is always a challenge. Living with the truth about yourself can be very demanding. When you do not have very much, you know that there is little to boast about. Columba grew in his belief that he was loved by God and that forgiveness was always available for our mistakes. That enabled him to go out to the Scots, talking about both forgiveness from God and reconciliation between people, no matter how painful the past was. There is a lot of that healing work to be done today in a time when there is much pain and fear. Real saints get their hands dirty.

Thirdly, this Columban year is not just a Catholic celebration. The main Christian churches in Derry and Donegal are working together so that we can remember one who is part of our shared history. Our past contains more than wars, death and division. It also contains stories of great saints and wonderful people of learning. And it is a civic celebration involving both those who are believers and those for whom faith means comparatively little. Columba is part of the history of this city and its surrounding areas.

A community that is honest about the faults and proud of the good things in its past is a place, able to move forward. We have many stories of pain and loss from the past. But we also have memories of great people who created beauty and offered great example. Some of them are remembered. Many are forgotten but their legacy lives on in our faith communities and other institutions. I hope that, in this year of Columba, people of faith can rediscover his call to heroism and to leaving the world a better place because of his life. This is a chance to reconnect with the Celtic spirituality that left an indelible mark on Europe. And I hope that all of us in society can celebrate the rich traditions that we belong to and can find ways to build bridges that will offer hope to our young people. And when we get to this date next year, we will not just look back and be glad of a rest, but will look further forward because were inspired by the past that we have celebrated. And it will be with pride that, from his place in heaven, St Columba will look down.

+ Donal McKeown

[1] Apostolic Journey to Poland: Prayer Vigil with the young people in the Campus Misericordiae (Kraków, 30 July 2016) | Francis (vatican.va)

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St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302

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