Feast of St. Flannan, December 18th, 2019, St. Flannan’s College, Ennis, Co. Clare
In any organisation there is invariably a founder, a woman or man of outstanding character, ability or charisma who is feted or celebrated from time to time. Someone who was a driving force and inspiration and who continues to be a presence as part of that group. It is good to revisit the ideals and and motivational force of that individual from time to time, so that one might continue to be enthused. We do this every year on this feastday of St. Flannan, the 18th of December, just one week before celebrating the birth of our ultimate founder in faith, Jesus Christ.
Life of St. Flannan
One of the interesting things about living in an old period house like Westbourne is that between two libraries, an archive and a myriad of nukes and crannies, interesting things can pop out from time to time and claim ones interest and attention. Such was the case recently with a gem of book came my way. It’s an old little black book called the Life of St. Flannanby Very Rev. S. Malone. The book is well over a century old, written in 1902 by the then Vicar General of the Diocese. That was back in the time when Vicar Generals had the time to be engaged in scholarly pursuits and other such matters.
It is interesting to note that the Malone’s were in the habit of being VG’s, a tradition that continued into recent times!
I loved the book not only for the background and stories of St. Flannan but also because of the beautiful and elegant writing style, so characteristic of the age it was written. In an age of sound bytes, abbreviations, and text-speak it’s interesting to view the old literary style that was light years away from where we are today.
History of St. Flannan
In general, there is not much available detail of St. Flannan and little enough reference to him in historical annals of the period of his ministry.
The book, Life of Flannan is a translation of a Latin manuscript, similar to the Confessions of St. Patrick or The Letter to Corroticus and it goes back, certainly into the early middle ages and some figure perhaps much closer to the time of Flannan, that golden age of Celtic Christianity in Ireland, which threw up many great founding saints of dioceses throughout our land.
Fr. Ignatius Murphy, the great diocesan historian who went to his eternal reward in 1993 would not have 100% confidence in the same Latin Manuscript from the pure historical point of view, but while taking that on board – don’t we always say that we never let the truth get in the way of a good story or legend!
An interesting aside that comes across in the said book is that Flannan’s father Theodoric or Turlough of the Kindgom of Thomond was nearly more of a hero than Flannan himself. He almost steals the show! Theodoric was a man of considerable stature, almost seven feet tall, a man who would give Fr. Pat O’Neill and Tom ‘fada’ Whelan a good run for their money. He was a noble and Christian King, was was full of concern for his fellow citizens under his control and their faith lives. In later life with the encouragement of his son, Flannan he, Turlough became a monk under the pastoral guidance of St. Colman.
As they say the fruit doesn’t fall very far from the tree and Flannan was placed under the spiritual care of St. Blathmet. Following that according to the work of Malone Flannan gaining quite a reputation for himself was “celebrated and honoured by all the holy people of Ireland or Scotia for his merits and miracles”, (and was) particularly well versed in “sacred Scripture and holy teachings of sanctity and humility”.
From there he was placed unter the care of guidance of the very saintly Molua. In the words of The Life of Flannan “from whom the paternal city derived and keeps to this day its name, that is, Killaloe or the Church of Lua.” … The account continues “the holy Abbot Molua, by reason of his great virtue, was held in the highest esteem not only by the chief prelates of the Irish Church and its saints, but even by those who lived in the Orcades and in foreign islands.”
St. Brendan of Birr
St. Brendan of Birr, according to Malone, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit made the prophetic utterance of Flannan who was rising to the fore around this time – he says:
“There shall arise a star from Jacob, a person of royal blood, on the banks of the river Shannon, who sall put to flight and defeat the rulers of darkness.”
His biographer says he learned how to “till, sow, harvest, grind, winnow, and bake for the monks.” The legend of the marathon of bread baking is well documented elsewhere as it is in The Life of Flannan and the miraculous rays of light and healing from the hands of Flannan which encouraged Molua to appoint him as successor is a well-known legend. Following that Flannan ventured to Rome, in a stone boat, we are told, where he was consecrated by Pope John and appointed Bishop of Killaloe. That’s where it all began. I thought my journey to Athenry to meet Charlie Brown was arduous, but not nearly as adventurous as the trip of Flannan in a stone boat, bound for Rome.
Back in West Clare the saintly Brecan was not only interested in being patron of football clubs but had an eye for good pastoral leaders and wished not only Flannan blessings and good luck, but also his successors, where we read:
“The austere holy Brecan said:
My son, I hope in the spirit of God that your successors as bishops will be prosperous, amiable, long-lived, eloquent, and, what is more precious, will enjoy eternal life.”
St. Flannan – the Preacher
St. Flannan was known as an outstanding preacher. Commenting on his orations in the presence of his father the king – the Latin manuscript remarks (and we just absorb the beautiful archaic literary style!):
“But St. Flannan while preaching to all the nothingness of this world in comparison to eternity was particularly impressive and constant in his exhortations to his kingly father. The Saint insisted on the incomparable advantage of bartering an earthly for an eternal kingdom, and closed every address to him by saying: “Illustrious father, view the skeletons even of kings, fleshless and marrowless, thus shalt thou be yet’. ”
A stark warning to us all of the shortness of life and our impending mortality. I’m reminded of the remark of Saint John Henry Newman in one of his homilies in Plain and Parochial Sermons where he tells us the duty of a priest is to remind people “that life is short, death is certain and eternity is long…”
St. Flannan – Man of prayer and Penance
Apart from being an outstanding preacher, utterly steeped in the word of God and the scriptures Flannan was a man of constancy in prayer and penance, typical of the age, perhaps. His penitential exploits (mentioned in today’s liturgical calendar) make our efforts in Ennis and Birr going on pilgrimage to Lough Derg pale into insignificance when we hear of him:
… He used to recite the Psalter, weeping and standing in the cold stream during the bitter Spring-time in order to subdue his body….
Lived an Apostolic Life
Above all St. Flannan stood out as a pastor and cared for his flock, like the Good Shepherd. We read:
“St. Flannan led a truly apostolic life. He did not treat himself to the use of silken garments, to the enjoyment of dogs, to the amusement of the chase, or to any royal indulgence. His clothing was of the coarsest sort, and when torn by briars or otherwise himself mended it. He employed himslf in hard labour with others on such useful works as hewing wood and making necessary roads. His manual labour would suffice to supply him with food and clothing; and on that account he devoted the revenues of his bishopric and whatever presents he received to the support of the pilgrims, the stranger, the lame, the sick; and he distributed them with his own hands. St. Flannan cherished with particular affection the pilgrims suffering from leprosy who followed him from Rome, and as a generous father relieved all who were in need.”
Towards the end of his life as a great gesture of humility, afraid that he was going to be given a significant temporal role because of his outstanding ability – Flannan prayed to God to be inflicted with a physical disease and it is said that he was inflicted with leprosy of the face, from which he later miraculously recovered before he died.
In terms of legacy we leave the final words to his Latin biographer and the peotic translation of Fr. Malone:
“St. Flannan’s life was devoted to making the restless quiet, to reconciling to each other those who were at variance, to the founding of churches for the devout and the pilgrim, and to providing for the poor, holy religious who followed him from Rome. And, when, according to the custom of the patriarchs, he had blessed his relatives who in tears made a lament over him, gave up his soul to his Creator”.
This is the colourful and inspiriational founding father that we remember today and we pray to him for a renewal of zeal, enthusiasm and courage as we proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the diocese of Killaloe in the year of Our Lord, 18th of December, 2019, the feast of our founding ancestor in faith, the venerable St Flannan. Amen.