September 16, 2017

Saint Ninian of Whithorn, Apostle of the Southern Picts (+ 432)

St. Ninian of Whithorn (Feast Day - September 16)

Regarding the evangelization of the Picts of Scotland, Saint Bede writes in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Bk. 3, Ch. 4):

In the year of our Lord 565, when Justin, the younger, the successor of Justinian, had the government of the Roman Empire, there came into Britain a famous priest and abbot, a monk by habit and life, whose name was Columba, to preach the word of God to the provinces of the northern Picts, who are separated from the southern parts by steep and rugged mountains; for the southern Picts, who dwell on this side of those mountains, had long before, as is reported, forsaken the errors of idolatry, and embraced the truth, by the preaching of Ninian, a most reverend bishop 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 Saint Martin the bishop, and famous for a stately church (wherein he and many other saints rest in the body), is still in existence among the English nation. The place belongs to the province of the Bernicians, and is generally called the White House, because he there built a church of stone, which was not usual among the Britons.

Remains of the Chapel of Saint Ninian in Whithorn

Saint Ninian was born in Cumberland of Britain around the year 360, about a half century after the Emperor Constantius Chlorus died in the British city of York, and his son Constantine, who was with him when he died, was proclaimed Emperor. Ninian was born of Christian parents of noble lineage, at a time when paganism was still strong in his native land. As a young man he went to Rome, where he spent many years in study and ascetical struggles. At Rome, Saint Ninian was consecrated some time after the death of Pope Damasus in 384, and was sent back to his native island about the end of the fourth century. On his return journey, it is likely that he passed through Tours and met Saint Martin; what is certain is that many churches and cells associated with Saint Ninian, including his own cathedral in Whithorn, were named in honor of Saint Martin.

Whithorn derives its name from the main monastery church whose walls had been built of stone covered with lime plaster, which was a great rarity in Britain at that time. The very name “Whithorn” can be translated as “lime washed church”, or “white house”, and throughout the medieval period this splendid church together with the whole diocese was known as “Candida Casa” (“White House” in Latin). The church was built in a Roman fashion and according to the best standards of the time.

Entrance to Cave of St. Ninian in Whithorn

When Saint Ninian returned to Cumberland, he established monasteries that fostered both the life of prayer and missionary labors. By his preaching, his godly life, and his miracles, he ministered to his own countrymen, the Britons, and also converted many of the pagan Picts, who inhabited the northern regions (in today's Scotland). He reposed in peace at his see of Whithorn in Galloway in 432.

During his life Saint Ninian worked many miracles, which continued through his prayers after his death. According to a legend, at the moment of Saint Ninian’s repose, a bell began to ring by itself, announcing the death of the righteous man and calling everybody to his deathbed. Saint 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 Reformation.

Cross of St. Ninian

Apolytikion in the Third Tone
As the equal of the Lord's Apostles, thou didst bring the grace of good tidings to the lands of the Scots, O wise Ninian. Thou art a lamp to our feet, who enlightenest our souls to walk in the path of God's commands. Hence, we honour thee and cry unto thee with fervent faith: Entreat Christ God to grant great mercy unto us.

Kontakion in Plagal of the Fourth Tone
To thee, our father, guide, and teacher in the Christian Faith, do we now offer fitting hymns of praise and gratitude, and, O godly boast of Cumberland, we extol thee. But since thou hast grace and boldness at the throne of God, do thou shelter and protect all who acclaim thy name, for we cry to thee: Rejoice, O Father Ninian.