Catholic pilgrims have once again returned to Iona, the coastal island where Saint Columba launched the evangelization of Scotland more than 1,400 years ago.
Sixty people walked dozens of miles from June 11-13 to pray for Scotland, for spiritual renewal amid the pandemic, and to bring back a relic of the Irish missionary saint to the site of his deeply influential monastic community.
“The route taken involved blistering winds and rain, as well as scorching sun,” pilgrimage director Jamie McGowan told CNA on June 15. “We also had to cross some bogs. But the beauty of it was knowing that such conditions were the conditions that Saint Columba himself would have had to face while preaching the Gospel to the surrounding islands.
The Brecbannoch Pilgrimage took place as pilgrims traveled on foot and by ferry from the Scottish west coast, through the Isle of Mull and to Iona Abbey. The walking portion of the trip was 50 miles long.
The pilgrimage takes its name from the Brecbannoch of St. Columba, a reliquary that has had major significance in Scottish history. The object containing the relics of the saint was brought to important meetings of the Church and government to request Columba’s intercession. The Scottish army would carry the Brecbannoch into battle.
“Now we wear it to pray for a revival of the Catholic faith in Scotland,” McGowan said of the replica Pilgrims’ reliquary.
The Pilgrims’ replica is modeled after a national treasure of Scotland: the Monymusk Reliquary, a house-shaped vessel for the relics of saints. The National Museums of Scotland said that many identify the Monymusk reliquary as the Brecbannoch, although this has not been confirmed.
The Pilgrimage Reliquary contains the relics of Saint Columba, Saint Andrew and Saint Margaret of Scotland, the country’s patron saints.
Pilgrims waved the flag of Scotland and other religious banners and took turns carrying the reliquary on the journey to Iona. Their relic of St. Andrew is a piece of the cross on which St. Andrew the Apostle was crucified, and this cross is depicted in the white saltire of the Scottish flag (diagonal cross).
Their destination was the Isle of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides on the northwest coast of Scotland. The island is only 3 miles by 1.5 miles wide, but it was here that in the 6th century Irish missionary St. Columba and his companions built simple monastic quarters and a church for themselves. They served the Irish settlers and evangelized the pagan Picts of the region.
“Iona has played a crucial role in Scottish history, where kings have been crowned, married and buried, and where pilgrims have brought their petitions for centuries,” McGowan said. “Today it retains that status as a key historical monument in Scottish history. But for us as Christian people it is of course more than a political monument: it is a sanctuary, not just of many saints who are buried there, but also of the faith of many generations of Scots who have traveled great distances to pray there.”
The final pilgrimage to Iona began on June 11 at St Columba’s Cathedral in the west coast town of Oban, where Bishop Brian McGee of Argyll and the Isles celebrated a 6 a.m. mass for the pilgrimage.
The pilgrims staged a procession to the harbor and then took a ferry to the Isle of Mull, the large island to the east of Iona. They camped overnight in a field, then walked to Kilvickeon Chapel, a ruined medieval church. After traveling and camping overnight, they took the ferry to Iona.
The group celebrated mass at the ruins of Iona Nunnery, a Benedictine convent founded in the 13th century. They then held a procession to Iona Abbey, rebuilt in the 20th century on the site of the community of Saint Columba.
The pilgrimage ended with the solemn blessing of the relics in the chapel of the abbey.
The relic of St. Columba is from the collection of relics at Carfin Grotto in Motherwell, Scotland.
“St. Columba’s relics were removed from Iona during the Reformation, so their return on Monday is the first time Saint Columba’s bones have returned to Iona since the Reformation,” McGowan said.
A staged life
Saint Columba, also known as Saint Colmcille, was born in Ireland on December 7, 521. He studied in several monasteries and became a priest. He spent 15 years in Ulster traveling, preaching and founding monasteries. He left Ireland in 563. An account of his life says he left simply to preach the Word of God. Another account says that he became an accomplice in a war between rival tribes, then repented of his sins, accepting foreign missionary work as penance.
He died on June 9, 597, which is now considered his feast day.
The monastic community he founded in Iona became deeply influential as a center of learning and devotion. He produced artistic manuscripts, possibly including the Book of Kells, and sculptures including many high Celtic crosses. Iona went into decline after Viking raids in the 9th century. Monastic communities would rise and decline on the island until the Protestant Reformation.
In the mid-20th century, an ecumenical Christian group sought to restore Iona as a place of prayer and gathering for Christians. A Catholic house of prayer opened on the island in 1997, the first permanent Catholic presence for 400 years.
Organizers announced the Brecbannoch pilgrimage on December 7, 2021, the 1,500th birthday of Saint Columba.
“St. Columba came to pagan Scotland with 12 men and brought the light of the Christian faith to every corner,” McGowan told CNA. “In a world increasingly steeped in materialism and utilitarianism , his holy example speaks of a neo-paganism that we face today in our evangelical mission – and through his intercession we can be sure that we can overcome the challenges facing any modern apostle. .”
McGowan said the need for the Church to come together after the great waves of the Covid-19 pandemic was a motive for the pilgrimage. He and friends from Knights of St. Columba Council at the University of Glasgow believed that “after the pandemic the Church in Scotland needed to pray for its mission of renewal, and the best way to do that was to prayer and penance with the saints who brought faith to our nation in the first place.
“Father Ross Campbell, the senior chaplain, was very supportive of the idea and agreed to help us lead a party to transport the relics with that intention in mind,” McGowan added, referring to the Catholic university chaplain.
Joss Brace, director of the Roman Catholic Cnoc a’ Chalmain house of prayer on Iona, told CNA that the house’s oratory received the relics overnight after the pilgrimage ended.
“We felt very privileged to have them there and to be able to pray in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and the relics of Saint Columba,” Brace said, adding that the relics will now return to Carfin Grotto.
The pilgrimage was sponsored by the Knights of St. Columba, a fellowship of Catholic men who work with Catholic bishops and clergy to support the Catholic faith and works of mercy. It is active in Scotland, England and Wales.
“Without their generosity, this event would not have been possible,” said McGowan, who said the organization is inspired by the Knights of Columbus.
Matthew Sheppard, a young member of the pilgrimage team and grand knight of a council of the Knights of St. Columba, designed the replica reliquary. Sancta Familia Media, a video production company in Lanarkshire, Scotland, took photos and videos throughout the pilgrimage.
The 1,500th anniversary of Saint Columba’s birth last year sparked celebrations and celebrations in Scotland and Ireland from government bodies as well as Catholics and other Christians, although some events were scaled back due to the pandemic.
To mark this anniversary, the Catholic Truth Society published a novena to Saint Columba. The novena, written by Jesuit Father Ross Crichton, was trilingual in Irish, Gaelic and English.