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One of the Church’s missionary saints: Ninian

I have promised before to include occasional excerpts from the Ordinariate’s resource for the Daily Office, the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham. In this way, Covenant can serve as a site for its reception.

Today is a good day to do so. It is the feast of St. Ninian, one of those British saints who exhibits some important features: missionary zeal, Catholic identity, and (thus) internationalism.

He first appears in the historical record with a mention in Bede’s Ecclesistical History of the English People, as a missionary bishop who preached to the people living in what is now Southern Scotland. There he also appears as a figure with a certain international flavor: he left his home; he traveled to Rome for education; he then went to the Southern Picts; and he dedicated his cathedral church to St. Martin of Tours, that famous saint of France.

In other words, his Christian identity was tied to that of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, not merely to a kind of localism. He traveled and learned for his own conversion; he traveled and preached for that of others.

Below is an excerpt from Ælred of Rievaulx’s Life of Saint Ninian, appointed for today’s feast in the Ordinariate’s Customary. I should note also that Ælred figures St. Ninian as a pilgrim on the earth, like Abraham. In this way, he is also a model for those who travel or immigrate for the sake of the Lord — those who give up lands, house, family, and possessions for the gospel and the love of God, on pilgrimage to an inheritance that is unfading in the heavens (Matt. 19:29; Mark 10:29-30; Luke 18:29-30; cf. 1 Pet. 1:1-5).

(The first sentence is also appropriately florid for a saint’s life.)



Divine authority, which from the beginning is acknowledged to have constituted the holy patriarch Abraham a father of many nations, and a prince of the faith predestined from ancient times by such an oracle as this — “Get thee out of they country, and from thy kindred, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I shall show thee, and I will make of thee a great nation” (Gen. 12:1) — recommends to us the glorious life of the most holy Ninian, on this wise, that this most blessed one leaving his country, and his father’s house, learnt in a foreign land that which afterwards he taught unto his own, “being placed by God over the nations and kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:10).

Of this most holy man, the Venerable Bede, calling attention in a very few words to the sacred beginnings of his life, the tokens of his sanctity, the dignity of his office, the fruit of his ministry, his most excellent end, and the reward of his toil, thus writes concerning him:

In the year after the incarnation of the Lord 565, at the time when Justin the Less, after Justinian, had received the government of the Roman Empire, there came to Britain out of Ireland a presbyter and abbot, remarkable for his monastic habit and rule, by name Columba with the intention of preaching the word of God in the provinces of the Northern Picts; that is, to those who were separated from the southern regions by lofy and rugged ranges of mountains. For the Southern Picts themselves, who dwell on this side of the same mountains, had long before abandoned idolatry, and embraced the faith in the truth, by the preaching of the word by bishop Ninian, a most revered and holy man, of the nation of the Britons, who had at Rome been regularly instructed in the faith and mysteries of the truth; the seat of whose episcopate — dedicated to Saint Martin and a remarkable church, where he rests in the body along with many saints — the nation of the Angles now possesses. That province, appertaining to the provincesof the Bernicii, is vulgarly called “At the White House,” for that there he built a church of stone in a way unusual among the Britons.

On the trustworthy testimony of this great author we have been made acquainted with the origin of Saint Ninian, inthat he states that he was of the race of the Britons, trained in the rules of the faith in the Holy Roman Church; with his office, in that he declares him to have been a bishop and a preacher of the word of God; with the fruit of his labours, in that he proves that the Southern Picts were converted from idolatry to the true religion by his toil; and, with his end, in that he witnesses that he rests along with many saints in the church of Saint Martin.



I think it might also be interesting to set some collects for Saint Ninian’s day side-by-side. They have different emphases.

The Customary and the Church of England have the same collect.

Almighty and everlasting God, who didst call thy servant Ninian to preach the gospel to the people of Northern Britain: raise up, we beseech thee, in this and every land, heralds and evangelists of thy kingdom, that thy Church may make known the immeasurable riches of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

The Episcopal Church’s collect in Lesser Feasts and Fasts differs in wording. I rather like the beginning better (“the light of the Gospel to shine”). Notably, however, it focuses more on the effort of today’s individuals to proclaim the Gospel, inspired by Ninian’s example, rather than on the power of God to “raise up heralds and evangelists.”

O God, by the preaching of your blessed servant and bishop Ninian you caused the light of the Gospel to shine in the land of Britain: Grant, we pray, that having his life and labors in remembrance we may show our thankfulness by following the example of his zeal and patience; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

One might also note, of course, the steadfast insistence of the collects to describe the land of the Southern Picts as part of “Britain.” Perhaps that will change, if the Scottish have a new referendum.


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