Friday, August 26, 2016

Saint Ninian Bishop of Whithorn, Apostle to the Picts

“See in each herb and small animal, every bird and beast,
and in each man and woman, the eternal Word of God.” -St. Ninian

Bishop and confessor; date of birth unknown; died about 432 AD; St Ninian is the first Apostle of Christianity in Scotland. The earliest account of him is in Bede (Hist. Eccles., III, 4): “the southern Picts received the true faith by the preaching of Bishop Ninias, a most reverend and holy man of the British nation, who had been regularly instructed at Rome in the faith and mysteries of the truth; whose episcopal see, named after St. Martin the Bishop, and famous for a church dedicated to him (wherein Ninias himself and many other saints rest in the body), is now in the possession of the English nation. The place belongs to the province of the Bernicians and is commonly called the White House [Candida Casa], because he there built a church of stone, which was not usual amongst the Britons”. The facts given in this passage form practically all we know of St. Ninian’s life and work.


The most important later life, compiled in the twelfth century by St. Aelred, professes to give a detailed account founded by Bede and also on a “liber de vita et miraculis eius” (sc. Niniani) “barbarice scriptus”, but the legendary element is largely evident. He states, however, that while engaged in building his church at Candida Casa, Ninian heard of the death of St. Martin and decided to dedicate the building to him. Now St. Martin died about 397 AD, so that the mission of Ninian to the southern Picts must have begun towards the end of the fourth century.
St. Ninian founded at Whithorn a monastery which became famous as a school of monasticism within a century of his death; his work among the southern Picts seems to have had but a short lived success. St. Patrick, in his epistle to Coroticus, terms the Picts “apostates”, and references to Ninian’s converts having abandoned Christianity are found in Sts. Columba and Kentigern.
Some believe that shortly before his repose St. Ninian may have moved from Scotland to Ireland and died there, though there is no evidence to confirm this. According to a legend, at the moment of St. Ninian’s repose, a bell began to ring by itself, announcing the death of the righteous man and calling everybody to his deathbed. St. Ninian was buried in a stone coffin near the altar of the church that he had built on Whithorn. Pilgrims flocked to his relics up to the sixteenth century, when his relics were lost due to the Reformation.[1]


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