If you don’t think God has a sense of humor, think of this: He chose April Fool’s Day of 1858 to give us a man who would help many avoid a foolish path toward sin. That day, in Dublin, Ireland, Joseph Aloysius Marmion was born. We know him today as Blessed Columba Marmion, beatified in the year 2000 by future saint, Pope John Paul II.
Priesthood was no surprise to Joseph Marmion’s family; his parents had intended that for him all his life. Little did they know that their simple intention would lead to some of the most brilliant writing on the spiritual life the world has ever known.
Father Marmion, parish priest
Joseph did become a priest of the Dublin arcdiocese, but that was only the beginning of his journey. He wanted to be a missionary priest and travel to Australia, but a funny thing happened on the way. During a visit to the Abbey of Maredsous in Belgium, Joseph’s missionary leanings became suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to enter monastic life.
The young priest asked his archbishop for permission to become a monk but did not receive it. The Holy Spirit was certainly at work in the archbishop’s decision because Father Joseph’s time as a parish priest helped him develop the spiritual insight into people that led to producing works that would provide guidance to millions.
Father Marmion also spent time as a professor, winning the respect of academics as well as the people he served as a parish priest.
A change of path and name
Permission to enter monastic life came along several years later, leading Joseph into the next phase of his priestly journey…and to a new name, Columba (after the famous Irish saint). In one sense, Joseph’s journey started all over again, as he went from being a well-known figure in Dublin to being a novice like any other at Maredsous Abbey.
Among his more immediate tasks was the learning of French (what with being in Belgium, and all). Apparently, he didn’t do all that well according to abbey standards. When a local priest needed an emergency preacher for a big feast day, he went to the monks of Maredsous (who regularly sent preachers to local parishes). They didn’t have anyone but Joseph available at the time, but offered his services with the caveat that his French wasn’t very good.
Happy to have his pulpit filled, the pastor in need accepted. When he brought Joseph home to Maredsous a few days later, he told management that the Irishman, whose French wasn’t very good, was a preacher the like of which his parish had never before heard. It wasn’t long before all of the local parishes were clamoring for a preaching visit from Dom Columba.
From lowly novice to monastic leader
The spiritual leadership that seemed Columba’s birthright from God continued to blossom over the years, leading him to be one of the founders of a new monastery and its first Prior. It was during this time that his mastery of the spiritual life, which began with his ministry to the parishioners in the Archdiocese of Dublin, developed into the rich and enriching approach to spirituality that still leads people closer to Christ today.
Coming full-circle, Joseph eventually became abbot of the abbey at Maredsous, the place that first ignited his desire for monastic life.
But life wasn’t all just one success after another. There were hardships, too. During World War I, Columba feared that the novices of Maredsous would be called up for military service. He decided that strategic action was in order, so he devised a plan to take his novices to Ireland; it was a plan that included traveling through war zones disguised as a cattle dealer.
As the Blues Brothers might have put it, “He was on a mission from God.”
A spiritual guide en route to sainthood
It’s near impossible to encapsulate the life of a man such as Blessed Columba into the space of a blog post, so let’s simply fast-forward a bit.
Among his many undertakings over the years was spiritual direction and retreats for religious communities. Notes from a retreat he gave to a group of nuns in 1895 proved to be the basis of teaching he would develop over the next twenty years, culminating in an immensely successful book—Christ, the Life of the Soul.
More recently, Blessed Mother Teresa said that Blessed Columba's book, Union with God, was one of her favorite books.
The year 1923 led to another change of path for Columba’s ministry. After succumbing to a flu epidemic, the beloved monk and teacher passed away and took on the role of intercessor with the same dedication and energy he had shown in life. Many people have come forward with news of help and healing received through the intercession of a Dublin-born boy who grew into a spiritual thinker whose work continues to draw people closer to Christ.
Blessed Columba, pray for us!
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