The Irish Church of the fifth century was full of life. Its founder, Saint Patrick and the people he won to Christ soon carried the Gospel to all four corners of the “Emerald Isle,” but they didn’t stop there. As one writer describes them, “There was a passion for foreign missions in the impetuous eagerness of the Irish believers, a zeal not common in their day. Burning with love for Christ, fearing no peril, shunning no hardship, they went everywhere with the Gospel” (Edman). These bold Celtic believers became known as the Peregrini.
Columba Goes to Iona
One of these valiant missionaries was Columba (521-597). Born of royal lineage, he was blessed with great physical strength and a powerful voice. He also had a hot temper which frequently got him into trouble. His combined gifts of scholarship and preaching, vision for evangelism and church growth resulted in the founding of 35 monasteries in Ireland alone (Vess; Loughridge). For reasons still debated by historians, he left his country in 563 and with twelve companions crossed the Irish Sea to Iona, “a small bleak, barren, foggy island battered year-round by the pounding waves of the sea. Here he established a monastery that both fostered the more typical monastic life of prayer, fasting, meditation, Bible study, and manual labor; but in addition, provided training for evangelists who were then sent out to preach the gospel, build churches, and establish more monasteries” (Tucker).
From Iona, Columba made trips to Scotland where he brought the Good News to the Picts, in spite of the same kind of opposition from the Druids that Patrick had previously encountered when he went to Ireland. Those who knew him speak of his noble example of prayerfulness, self-discipline, and pastoral care.
The Peregrini, like Columba, journeyed to the nearby northern islands, the Orkneys and Faroes. Then on to Scotland, England, the forests of Germany, the rugged hills of Gaul, the foothills of the Alps, the valleys of the Rhine and the Danube, and to the cities and remote valleys of Italy. Some went singly, as hermits, others, in small groups, often numbering 13, to imitate Jesus and the Twelve.
A Feature of Western Europe
They shared Jesus with lost pagans who knew nothing of Him, and sought to bring renewal to many nominally Christian populations. Their numbers multiplied so greatly that they became a characteristic feature of Western Europe through most of the period from 500 to 950 (Latourette).
E.H. Broadbent describes their work in these words:
Their method was to visit a country and, where it seemed suitable, found a missionary village. In the centre they built a simple wooden church, around which were clustered school-rooms and huts for the monks, who were the builders, preachers, and teachers. Outside this circle, as required, dwellings were built for the students and their families, who gradually gathered around them. The whole was enclosed by a wall, but the colony often spread beyond the original enclosure. Groups of twelve monks would go out, each under the leadership of an abbot, to open up fresh fields for the Gospel. Those who remained taught in the school, and as soon as they had sufficiently learned the language of the people among whom they were, translated and wrote out portions of Scripture, and also hymns, which they taught to their scholars.
They were free to marry or to remain single; many remained single so that they might have greater liberty for the work. When some converts were made, the missionaries chose from among them small groups of young men who had ability, trained them especially in some handicraft and in languages, and taught them the Bible and how to explain it to others, so that they might be able to work among their own people. They delayed baptism until those professing faith had received a certain amount of instruction and had given some proof of steadfastness.
They avoided attacking the religions of the people, counting it more profitable to preach the truth to them than to expose their errors. They accepted the Holy Scriptures as the source of faith and life and preached justification by faith. They did not take part in politics or appeal to the State for aid (cited by Tucker).
Another well known example of the Peregrini, was Columbanus (543-615), who ventured into Europe and founded three monasteries in France. Like a vibrant hub of a living wheel, these centers of training and evangelism sent their “spokes” throughout the territory and founded 53 other centers in that region, while Columbanus himself moved on down into northern Italy. Through his peregrinations a large part of Europe was introduced to Christianity and to monasticism (Vess). The monk Jonas, writing in the 7th Century, said of him, “He preached the Gospel. And it pleased the people because his teaching was adorned by eloquence and enforced by examples of virtue,” such as patience, love, and mildness. He also had the gift of healing, and illustrated the power of God through many miracles (Munro).
In 633, King Oswald of Northumbria (England) requested that the monks of Iona send someone to teach his people the Christian faith. Aidan responded and founded a monastery at Lindisfarne, off the eastern coast of northern England, now known as the “Holy Island.” He established a training school for missionaries and made many evangelistic trips. His work was so effective that J.B. Lightfood calls him “The True Apostle of England” (Nixon).
A prayer attributed to Aidan has come down to us. It illustrates two of the passions of these Irish Peregrini—a deep love for God and a compassionate involvement in the needs of those about them.
Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart, alone with you, God, holy to you.
Then with the turning of the tide,
Prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
The world that rushes in on me till the waters come again and fold me back to you. (cited by Vess)
Broadbent, E.H., The Pilgrim Church (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1974, pp 34-35), cited in Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Zondervan, 2004, p. 41.
Edman, V.R., Light in Dark Ages, cited in Tucker, op.cit.
Loughridge, Adam, Columba, Columbanus, in J.D. Douglas, Dictionary of the Christian Church, Zondervan, 1978
Latourette, K.S., A History of Christianity, Harper, 1953
Munro, Dana C. (ed) Medieval Sourcebook: The Life of St. Columban by the Monk Jonas. (Internet)
Nixon, R.E., Aidan, in J.D. Douglas, op.cit.
Tucker, Ruth, op.cit.
Vess, Deborah, Celtic Monasticism, History, and Spirituality (Internet)