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Pilgrim and mission are related concepts

Leaving home and undertaking a journey at the behest of God has deep roots in the bible.

God called Abram to “leave your country and your father’s house and go to the land that I will show you... and I will make you a great nation and I will bless you” (Genesis12:1-2).

The notion of Peregrinatio (pilgrim or wanderer) can go right back to St. Patrick himself.

Father Aidan Larkin, in his book, Columban, Pilgrim for Christ, writes, “By returning freely to Ireland, Patrick undertook preregrinatio perennis exile in perpetuity.

He intended to stay in Ireland and die there... in his (Patrick’s) letter to Coroticus, “I have not laboured for nor has my exile (peregrinatio) been to no purpose.”

For Patrick and those who came after him, exile forever from their country is now considered to be white martyrdom.

Also, in the world of their time, it was a major decision to take, because technically, a peregrines had no rights. In fact, they could be killed with impunity. 

As we have seen, the idea of peregrination is rooted in the scriptures, but Larkin claims, “For these Irishmen (Colmcille, Columban and others), it derived much power from being a form of ascetical renunciation of particular social and political structures of Irish society, in which the position and the legal protection of the individual were closely linked to the family group (fine) and the local community.”

In this way, a monk imitated the self-emptying of Christ which St. Paul writes about in Philippians
2: 6-11.

Columban’s biographer, Jonas of Susa, tells us that a holy woman, who originally encouraged Columban to leave his home, expressed to Columban her own regret that she did not opt for portior peregrination (a more intense exile).

Presumably this advice remained with Columban as he lived his adult life at Comgall’s monastery in Bangor.

Jonas tells us that after many years in Bangor, Columban “began to long for exile.”

Jonas points out that, at first, Comgall refused permission, presumably because of the many important roles that Columban fulfilled in Bangor. Then in either 590 or 591, Comgall relented and gave Columban permission to leave.

The Oxford historian of early Christian Ireland, T. M. Charles-Edwards, claims that Columban is “the greatest of the perigrini who left Ireland for continental Europe.

Peregrinatio for Irish monks was not a choice for solitude. Colmcille, and later Columban, brought a community with them. In Columban’s case, the group was composed of 12 monks with Columban as the abbot—patterned on Jesus and the 12 apostles.

Furthermore, in Letter IV, which Columban penned from Nantes to the monks of Luxeui before he thought he would be deported back to Ireland, we learn that there is an added, missionary dimension to Columban’s peregrination.

“It was my wish to visit the pagan people and to have the gospel preached to them by us,” he told his  compatriot.

Larkin argues persuasively that peregrination is intertwined with mission or preaching the good news of the gospel.

Marie Thérèse Flanagan, from Queen’s University in Belfast, points out how successful Columban and his companions were.

When Columban arrived in Gaul in 590AD, the rural areas had only absorbed Christianity superficially.

She claims that the situation changed dramatically with the arrival of the holy men from Ireland, endowed with spiritual gifts, willing to travel, to run risks and prepared to face up to the paganism of the country people in their own rural dwelling places.

They succeeded in creating the conditions for conversions through a conscious choice of the Christian way of life.

The arrival of the Irish peregrine initiated a movement of spiritual renewal in Gaul which also showed itself in a wave of new monastic foundations, as it also did in Ireland, that were not directly subject to the bishops.

Around the year 600AD, Flanagan asserts that there were about 200 monasteries in Gaul, but with the Irish influence.

In the course of the seventh century, there were around 300 and 20 more were added, the majority of them in northern Gaul, an area which Pierre Riché has defined as a barbarous zone.

Larkin thinks the figure is high, but agrees that the impact of Columban and his monks was remarkable.


l Father Sean McDonagh