My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
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I recently stumbled across an Irish saint that caused me to pause in amazement.
I am thrilled when I get 30 people in a course. Yet recently I read of medieval Irish monk who attracted 3,000 students to his monastery – he was a veritable “rock star” professor. And that should certainly put things in perspective, as well as keep me humble.
St. Finnian (d.549), a bishop as well as a what we today would call a professor, taught at the monastic school Clonard Abbey in Ireland. The school was a hothouse for the training of Irish leadership. St. Finnian had hordes of students longing to hear his captivating and insightful lectures, and many of his students left to make their mark in Ireland, Scotland, and beyond by spreading the gospel, building churches, establishing monasteries, and so on. The most famous group of his students was coined the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland.”
What made him such a compelling professor?
It is hard to piece together his life, for the historical record is sparse and suspect due to the exaggerated nature of hagiography and the complexity of various textual variations. That said, we can get nevertheless a glimpse of a man who shaped subsequent centuries of the church. And there is much for a Protestant professor like me to learn from this man.
He is considered to be the Magister sanctorum Hiberniae, the Master of the Saints of Ireland. His life was marked by accounts of miracles and angelic guidance. Alban Butler writes that St. Finnian was “excellently qualified by sanctity and sacred learning to restore the spirit of religion among his countrymen, which had begun to decay. Like a loud trumpet sounding from heaven, he roused the sloth and insensibility of the lukewarm and softened the hearts that were most hardened, and had been long immersed in worldly business and pleasure.”
St. Finnian’s vibrant faith (“sanctity”) and engaging instruction (“sacred learning”) was just what was needed among the students who flocked to his monastery. The tasks facing the church as society slipped into what would later be coined the “Dark Ages” were immense, and what was needed in the classroom was not more anemic and irrelevant instruction. What was needed was a godly, compassionate, and compelling mentor who could help prepare them for the real-world problems they were facing.
He was famous for his knowledge of the scriptures, and the monastic school that he founded became renowned for its excellence in biblical studies. He established churches, other schools, and helped to spread monasticism in Ireland and beyond. He also wrote The Penitential of Finnian, a work detailing penance for the purpose of promoting piety.
His death is perhaps one of the most poignant examples of why he was so popular – his love for his students and those in the surrounding region was so compelling that he died taking care of the sick in the midst of a plague. As one summary states: “As Paul died in Rome for the sake of the Christian people, lest they should all perish in Hell, so Finnian died at Clonard for the sake of the people, that they might not all perish from the yellow pest.”
For those seeking to teach and train leaders for the church, his life is a compelling example of what to strive for – whether with 30 or 3,000 in the classroom.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnian_of_Clonard His feast day is December 12.
 Kathleen Hughes, “The Cult of St Finnian of Clonard from the Eighth to the Eleventh Century,” Irish Historical Studies 9 (1954): 13–27; Kathleen Hughes, “The Historical Value of the Lives of St. Finnian of Clonard,” English Historical 69 (July 1954): 353-372.
 For an excellent account and commentary on his life, see Elizabeth Hockey, The Irish Life of Saint Finnian of Clonard: Master of the Saints of Ireland with a Commentary for the General Reader (Meath Archeological and Historical Society, 1996). Thanks to Tom French and the Meath Archeological and Historical Society for copy of the book. Here is the link to their website: https://www.mahs.ie
 Butler’s Lives of the Saints (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2000), 108.
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