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Priest disguised as cattle-dealer led his monks to war-time tranquility

Leinster Leader 3 April 2008

Priest disguised as cattle-dealer

led his monks to war-time tranquility



The late Pope, John Paul II, was notable for the number of holy people who he elevated to the ranks of beatification or canonisation. Among them was an Irish born priest, monk and theologian who had Meath and Kildare connections. Joseph Marmion, known in religion as Dom Columba, was born 150 years ago this month in Dublin. His father’s people hailed from Enfield, Co.Meath. According to the Leinster Leader of 5 April 1958 which featured a special article on the 100th anniversary of his birth, his paternal grandmother was from Clane – her name was O’Rourke and her family had lived in the old Garda barracks in Clane.  Indeed the article relates how his grandfather married into the O’Rourke family in Clane and that a field behind the house (on the south side of the main street in Clane) was known as Marmion’s field.

In the next generation Joseph Marmion’s mother was French and as well as bringing him up with strong religious values, also no doubt imbued him with an affinity for the French language which was to prove useful in later life. Joseph Marmion studied at the Dublin diocesan seminary of Clonliffe for the priesthood and was ordained in 1881. He studied for some time in Rome and on his return was appointed as curate in Dundrum, Co. Dublin. It was here that he was to get the kind of pastoral experience which was to ensure that his great gifts of intellect were grounded in the realities of human experience. One of his duties in Dundurm was as chaplain to the central mental hospital. After a short time he was appointed professor at his former seminary in Clonliffe. This appointment also brought extra duties – as one biographer explained: ‘ He was chaplain to a convent of enclosed Redemptoristine sisters and to the equally enclosed if rather different residents of Mountjoy jail.’

There is no doubt that he would have had a long career in the diocesan church but felt a calling to a more contemplative live and received permission from Archbishop McCabe of Dublin to enter the great Benedictine monastery of Maredsous in Belgium. Over the following 35 years he developed a deep understanding of spirituality and gained repute as a theologian, writer, preacher and confessor. Cardinal Mercier of Belgium, a noted ecumenist, and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium were among those who sought his counsel. For a number of years he was prior of a monastery in the university city of Louvain but returned to Maredsous as Abbot where he had charge of the guidance and welfare of 100 monks as well as a humanities college. And in keeping with the earthier traditions of Belgian monasteries Maredsous was also famous for its cheeses and beers!. Over the following fourteen years Dom Columba gave weekly addresses to the monks and students which became landmarks in the field of spiritual studies. He published a number of books which became classics in the genre. Although a man of refined theological thought he also had to face the most practical of challenges not least when World War One broke out in 1914 and the monastic community was in the path of the German advance.  Disguised as a cattle dealer Dom Columba made his way through parts of occupied Belgium and eventually to Ireland where he found a peaceable haven for his monks at Edermine near Enniscorthy where they passed the war years.

He led them back to Belgium after the war and attempted to rebuild the fractured community. He is said to have maintained a continuing  interest in his native Ireland and felt deeply the sufferings which Ireland endured during the period from 1916 to 1923. According to the Leader account ‘when Ireland was racked with the Black and Tan terror, he offered solemn Pontifical Mass for his suffering country-men at home. It was later learned that as that Mass ended the Truce was signed – it was the forenoon of July 11, 1921.’  Dom Columba died in 1923 and while recollection of his priestly career may have diminished in Ireland it was kept alive by many scholars on the continent who mined his contemplative writings for new insights into faith and spirituality. Indeed reflecting the spirit of the times the Leader article noted that his writings had achieved converts to the Catholic church including ‘ some who were avowed communists who have declared that until they read him they had not dreamed of the riches of Christianity.’

The 100th anniversary of his birth drew high praise from Pius XII, the Pope of the time, who said: ‘ We cherish the ardent hope that the celebration of the Marmion centenary may be instrumental in making the writings of this noteworthy author better known and more widely read.’

This eulogy was echoed by Pope John Paul II  in 2000 when he conferred the honour of Blessed on the Benedictine monk. If the campaign t to promote Fr. John Sullivan, the Jesuit of Clongowes Wood College, to the ranks of the blessed is successful it will mean that Clane will be associated with two beatified members of the Catholic church.

Series no. 61

Liam Kenny in his regular feature, 'Nothing New Under the Sun,' in the Leinster Leader of 3 April 2008, explores the life of the Irish born priest, monk and theologian who had Meath and Kildare connections, Joseph Marmion, 1858-1923.  Our thanks as always to Liam.

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