Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Pope in Britain: Day One - St. Ninian of Scotland


When Pope Benedict arrives in the UK, he will visit Scotland where he will be received by Her Majesty The Queen in the Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh.

Having met the Queen, the Pope will travel to Glasgow where he will celebrate an open-air Mass at Bellahouston Park in the evening (

* * * * * *


Today's liturgical memorial in Scotland is the holy bishop St. Ninian. The feast is also observed in a good part of Nova Scotia, as he is the cathedral patron in the Diocese of Antigonish. This handsome church is also much-frequented by Catholic students of the nearby St. Francis Xavier University.

The Pope and the Scots will jointly fete St. Ninian's memory on this historic day.

Most of the information we have about St Ninian (c.360-432AD) comes from two main sources.

One is from Saint Aelred (Ethelred) of Rievaulx (c.1110–1167AD) who was a Cistercian monk, abbot and historian in medieval Briton and France.

The other is the Venerable Bede (673-735AD). Bede was an English scholar who wrote on early history and produced an encyclopaedia called the Ecclesiastical History of the English People which contained large excerpts from the writings of a man called Pliny the Elder (23-79AD). Pliny was a Roman scholar and encyclopaedist. His major work consisted of 37 volumes and contained a summary of ancient knowledge. Pliny’s works were widely plagiarized by later encyclopaedists. This has left the writings of Bede and Aelred open to question and debate.

We have however, much to thank Bede for as he was reputedly the first to date events from the birth of Christ. Historically, there is little doubt that St Ninian carried out his mission in Scotland, although there is some confusion about the areas which he visited. The evidence of his influence survives in the large number of churches dedicated to him throughout Scotland and in several locations in northern England.

St Ninian is often referred to as the apostle of the northern Britons and Picts. He was born in Galloway and educated in Rome. His manner and eagerness to learn brought him to the notice of the Pope, St Damasus, who decided to train the young man. After St Damasus died, his successor, St Siricus, consecrated St Ninian a Bishop and commissioned him to return to Britain to preach the Catholic faith.

Travelling back to Britain through France he heard of the great work being done by St Martin de Tours (c. 316 – 397AD) at his abbey in Marmoutiers. St Ninian stayed at the abbey for some time and was encouraged and helped in his work by St Martin who became his friend and left a lasting impression on him.

St Ninian returned to Scotland to begin an evangelical mission there. With the help of masons from St. Martin’s Monastery in Tours he began to build his church. The first church he built in Scotland (c.397AD) was the first Christian settlement north of Hadrian’s wall, and it was said to be a whitewashed stone building (Most churches of this time were wooden), which could be easily seen.

St. Ninian named it Candida Casa (The White House), and in the language of that time it became known as Whithorn. During recent archaeological excavations, remnants of a white plastered wall were found which could possibly be from this first church. He used this church for his base and from it he and his monks evangelized the neighbouring Britons and the Picts. He was known for his miracles, among them curing a chieftain of blindness, and these led to many conversions.

Following St Ninian’s death, the missionary foundation he helped to create, allowed Christianity to grow in strength and survive in Scotland. A Cathedral was built to house the Saint’s remains and his church and shrine became a centre of pilgrimage. His shrine at Whithorn has seen many pilgrims, – King James IV of Scotland, was said to be a regular visitor.

Today the Cathedral is in ruins, but pilgrimages are still made to Whithorn and St Ninian’s cave, to which it is said he retired when he needed peace to meditate and pray (

1 comment:

  1. PAX, here is a video of ST Ninians with Pope Benedict at the end.