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.
* * *
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?