This Virgin Alone in Ireland

The bishop (Mel) being intoxicated with the grace of God there did not recognise what he was reciting from his book, for he consecrated Brigit with the orders of a bishop.  “This virgin alone in Ireland”, said Mel, “will hold the Episcopal ordination.”  While she was being consecrated a fiery column ascended from her head.

— From an anonymous Life of St. Brigid, Bethu Brigte, Chapter XIX.

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Now, I must admit, this passage is a very hard one for me.  Unlike many, I take literally and historically many of the early Lives of Irish and Scottish saints.  In most cases, I see no reason not to.  For example, in St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, there is not a single episode that I find fantastic or chiefly allegorical; I read it as a recounting of true events in the lives of Columba and those who, through his intercession, were saved.  So the notion that St. Brigid received true episcopal ordination at the hands of St. Mel is a frightening prospect, as it is an act the Church now believes Herself unable to work.

At this time in Scotia and Alba, under the Columban monastic system, while there were bishops, they do not seem to have reigned over towns or dioceses and it was the great abbots and abbesses who had the primacy.

Now we are told in this passage that, not only did St. Brigid receive the outward signs of episcopal ordination, but that there was an heavenly approbation in the column of fire that rose from her head.  Further, Bishop Mel refers to the holy virgin as having received the order of a bishop.

So, what does this mean?  Is the passage simply an hyperbolic burst of enthusiasm on the part of the writer (or those who passed on the story)?  Did the event occur?  If it did, what spiritual effect might it have had on this woman?  Was she indeed consecrated bishop?

Published by Christian Clay Columba Campbell

Christian Clay Columba Campbell is a Roman Catholic of the Anglican Use. As Senior Warden of the Cathedral of the Incarnation (Orlando, FL), he organised the process by which the parish accepted the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, petitioning to join the Catholic Church. The Anglican Cathedral is now the Church of the Incarnation in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Personal queries should be directed to me at eccentricbliss dot com.

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  1. I accept this as fact, but I read it not as the Church ordaining her but heaven ordaining her through the ecstasy of St. Mel, that is, it was an event whose faculty was outside the normal nature of the Church or time or of life on Earth. Of course, such a view is problematical… to say the least. But you have hit on something important in that the Columban bishop did not possess primacy as the abbott or abbess did.

    Once in Ireland a very holy nun told me that St. Brigit will always be God’s bishop in Ireland guiding the flock even when no bishop of the Church is to be found alive or to be found true to Christ.

  2. This event, like much of the content of Bethu Brigte, is unhistorical, and as such need not trouble the consciences of the orthodox in relation to priestly/episcopal orders.

    I speak as one who once lectured in Early Irish History at University College Dublin, and has more than a passing familiarity with Early Irish hagiography. Most of the ‘Lives’ of Early Irish saints (particularly those in the Irish language) are late, in many cases being composed four or five centuries after the death of their subject. Not a few of these ‘Lives’ reflect the political (whether secular or ecclesiastical) concerns of the writer, and are clearly influenced by the cult of the hero prevalent in contemporary secular saga. Rather than regurgitate what I wrote three years ago on this subject, I will direct any interested parties to my blog post here.

  3. Pardon my manners, I had intended in closing to pay you a compliment on your very interesting and edifying commonplace book. I shall be returning!

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