St. Columbanus was one of those roving Irish monks who
wandered up and down Europe in the sixth and seventh
centuries. This love of the open road inspired the Rev. John
Oliver, an Anglican bishop and biker, to suggest St.
Columbanus as the patron of motorcyclists.
Columbanus was not always drawn to the religious life. He
came from a powerful, well-to-do family; he was well-educated
and very good looking, which attracted the attention of the
young women of Ireland. It was the kind of life most young
men dream of, but when a holy woman told him that his
freewheeling ways put the salvation of his soul at risk,
Columbanus, perhaps for the first time in his life, examined
his actions. Ultimately, he decided to give up all the
pleasures he loved and become a monk.
His decision caused an uproar in his family. They considered
it wasteful that such a promising young man should withdraw
from the world, but Columbanus would not be dissuaded. The
day of his departure, Columbanus' mother made one final
attempt to stop him by physically blocking the door. Somehow,
he got around his mother and headed for Bangor Abbey in
County Down. According to legend, about a century earlier St.
Patrick and his companions had a vision of angels on the
future site of the monastery. By the time Columbanus became a
monk, Bangor was renowned for its music and scholarship.
Typically, a monk spent his entire life in the monastery
where he had taken his vows, but Irish monks often overlooked
that tradition. The barbarian invasions destroyed what was
left of Greco-Roman civilization in Western Europe, so Irish
monks set out for what is now Britain, France, Germany and
the Low Countries, bringing both the Catholic faith and
classical civilization to the barbarian tribes. At age 42,
Columbanus asked his abbot to send him as a missionary to the
pagan tribes in Gaul. The abbot selected 12 monks and sent
them along with Columbanus.
The monks had great success in what is now the French
province of Burgundy, where they converted thousands,
including the king. They founded several monasteries, all of
which wanted Columbanus to serve as abbot, but Columbanus
realized he was not born for a sedentary life. Over the next
30 years he made missionary journeys through Germany and
Switzerland, then crossed the Alps into northern Italy where
he finally settled down at Bobbio. There he rebuilt a
dilapidated church dedicated to St. Peter, and built a new
monastery beside it. Even then he found it hard to stay put,
so he retired to a cave near the abbey where he spent his old
age living as a hermit. At his death, St. Columbanus was
buried in his abbey church. His relics are there still,
beneath the altar in the crypt.