Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Thursday, 12 June 2008 12:51 UK

Pope hails Irish role in Europe

Diarmaid Fleming
BBC NI Dublin Correspondent

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict praised St Columbanus in his weekly audience

The pope has timed a speech about the role of Ireland in European history to coincide with the eve of the Lisbon Referendum.

Pope Benedict has used his weekly audience to praise the central role of Irish missionaries in European history, a day before voters go to the polls to decide the future of the Lisbon Treaty.

Speaking to tens of thousands of pilgrims in St Peter's Square, the Pope gave a sermon about the life of St Columbanus, an Irish monk born in 543 who travelled to Europe to spread Christianity.

In his speech charting the saint's life, Pope Benedict said that Columbanus could be called a "European saint".

The Pope explained that Columbanus, who was born in Leinster, entered monastic life in Bangor aged 20, before leaving "with 12 companions to begin missionary work on the European continent, where the migration of peoples from the north and the east had caused entire Christian regions to lapse back into paganism".

He established three monasteries, including one built in Luxeuil which "became the centre for the expansion of monastic and missionary life of the Irish tradition on mainland Europe".

Columbanus and his Irish monks were expelled in 610 and "condemned to definitive exile" after a row with King Theodric over the monarch's "adulterous relationships," the Pope explained.

Unable to return to Ireland, they moved to Switzerland where they continued their work.

'Founding father of Europe'

The saint was an early advocate of European unity, at least in religious terms.

The church was split with schisms in northern Italy, prompting Columbanus to write "a letter to Pope Boniface IV to convince him to make certain decisive steps towards re-establishing unity".

Pope Benedict described Columbanus as one of the founding "Fathers of Europe".

"(Columbanus) spent all his energies to nourish the Christian roots of the nascent Europe.

"With his spiritual strength, with his faith, with his love of God and neighbour, he became one of the Fathers of Europe, showing us today the way to those roots from which our continent may be reborn," he said.

While the Pope did not urge a "yes" vote in Ireland, church sources said that the timing of his speech would not have been accidental.

He has frequently spoken about the need for European unity and for a Europe as a "community" which he has said must acknowledge its Christian heritage.

He also chose the name Benedict, as the last Pope Benedict was a vigorous advocate of European unity, striving to avoid the outbreak of World War.

While the Irish Catholic hierarchy has not taken a stance for or against the Lisbon Treaty, or directed its congregation on how to vote, a statement by Irish bishops last month was widely seen as supportive of the treaty.

It urged voters not to register a protest vote and condemned groups spreading "false information", a regular jibe by the "yes" campaign used against their opponents in the "no" camp.

"Those who seek to influence the outcome of the referendum either by offering misleading or patently incorrect advice or by introducing extraneous factors into the debate, ought to be condemned," the bishops said in their statement.

The bishops also said they believed the treaty would not change Ireland's constitutional prohibition on abortion, an argument put forward by some, including a number of clergy, against the treaty.

The Pope is close to the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmaid Martin, who was a senior figure and diplomat in the Vatican when Pope Benedict was cardinal.

Archbishop Martin presented the Irish Catholic bishops' statement on the Irish media, and is likely to have briefed the Vatican on the referendum.

Whether this inspired a speech by the Pope about Irish missionaries' historic role in Europe - just as the country's people determine the future shape of Europe in the referendum - is probably a Vatican decision likely to remain behind closed doors.



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