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Feast of Saint Mungo, Patron of Glasgow

St. Mungo ( died, 614) did not exactly have an illustrious start in life. He was the illegitimate child of a princess and her cousin who was a king. St. Mungo’s grandfather, King of the area of Lothian at the time, was furious when he found out his daughter was pregnant out of wedlock and had her tied to a chariot and thrown off a cliff. But she survived unscathed. The people of Lothian concluded that she was also a witch and cast her adrift in a coracle without oars. She drifted up-river and landed at Culross, on the other side of the Forth. That’s where Mungo was born.

St. Serf was evangelising that area at the time and Mungo was soon taken under his wing. St. Serf was the one who gave him the name Mungo, which means “my dear one” or “darling.” Mungo proved to be a fervent Christian and was soon a monk and a priest. At the age of 25 he began evangelising in Strathclyde and in particular on the banks of the Clyde, in what we know today as our beloved Glasgow. Some Christians were already there as the result of the preaching of St. Ninian some 200 years previously.

Mungo lived an austere life, spending most of his time preaching the Word, praying and living in his very simple cell. He attracted many to the faith not only because he preached it well but also because he lived it well. As so often happens, though, the successful preacher becomes the object of suspicion by anti-Christian civil authorities. The local King threw him out of Strathclyde. He went to Cumbria and Wales, where he met St. David; by this time he had been ordained a bishop by an Irish bishop. At some point in this period, Mungo made a pilgrimage to Rome. He eventually returned to Scotland but settled in Hoddom, Dumfriesshire, where excavations have recently shown there existed a stone baptistery. In all the places he was, there are churches and areas named after him (Mungo or Kentigern).

Eventually, a new king of Strathclyde invited Mungo to return. He went back to the Clyde and built a church once he had gathered around him a strong community of monks and other Christians. As has been the case with monasteries throughout history, eventually an organized community and social structures began to form around it. Monastic communities became the source especially of schooling and health care, as well as culture, art and history. There is no doubt in Mungo’s case that his person and his preaching were the inspiration in the founding of Glasgow (“dear family”). It was he himself who coined the original motto of the city: “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the Word and the praise of His Name.” Since 1699, alas, that has sadly been shortened to “Let Glasgow flourish.” Glasgow City Council in its earlier incarnation clearly decided that the flourishing of Glasgow would now depend on the wisdom of politicians and administrators.

Last week, I mentioned how important it is to know your roots if you are to know yourself. So, it’s important for Glaswegians to know where Glasgow came from if the original inspiration and vision for the city is to survive. Mungo did not begin to build Glasgow with the City Chambers, industrial estates or strings of hotels. He began by gathering people together, not so much around himself, as around the Word he preached and the Mass he celebrated: that is, around Christ. His first building was a church. The “dear family” of Glasgow, as its name means, was born from the grace of the Truth and of the Sacraments. It was these which gave impetus and purpose for people to form community, to care for one another and to expand outwards into the arts and sciences of the time. The Christian inspiration of culture is an incontrovertible fact. European civilization until the Reformation grew out of the monastic communities of the Middle Ages. The flourishing of Glasgow certainly needs social and political organization, but it will be an empty flourishing, possibly even decay, if it is not rooted in the values which gave it birth. The legendary warmth and friendliness of Glasgow people, their easy and straightforward manner, their down to earth awareness and care for basic human needs and decency, their hard work ethic and sense of justice: these cannot be sustained merely by ideology or money, because they were never rooted in ideology or money. The culture and manner of this city are the fruit of centuries of authentic Christian living rooted in Word and Sacrament.

Mungo faced expulsion from Strathclyde by an anti-Christian king. It is no secret that there are other anti-Christian forces at work in Glasgow today. They are more subtle perhaps, but they are organized and determined. They rejoice at the troubles of all of the Christian Churches at this time. They want an end to Catholic schools and to any role of Christians in the public square as Christians. What is troubling about them is that they deny history, or deny that history should have any say in either the present or future of Glasgow. Yet there is something pathological about wanting to reinvent yourself on the basis of ideas and desires that have no source or justification other than your own preferences. None of us is the origin or destiny of ourselves. We are a given, we have been given to ourselves, we receive ourselves. Certainly, it’s then our task to develop what we have received, but not to truncate our present from our past. This would entail violence to self and violence towards the past. And what if tomorrow we no longer want the self we have invented today?

There certainly has to be openness to what is new, to the future, but without considering the past as all negative. Any negative chapters in the history of Glasgow are certainly to be lamented, but they stand as lessons for the present and the future so that mistakes are not repeated. Surely one of the greatest mistakes Glasgow could make would be to forget its origin, the brave and courageous people who built the City on the foundations of the Gospel? Surely the sometimes shrill anti-Christian voices of today need to be challenged respectfully and rationally?

Perhaps your heart sinks at what might seem an impossible task to re-found Glasgow as Mungo founded it. Peter considered impossible the chances of finding fish after an unsuccessful night’s fishing. But, at the request of Jesus, he again throws out the nets into deep water. We know the result. We, too, like Peter may feel too weak or sinful before Jesus and even before Mungo to catch men again for God. We must not. The same powerful Word that gave Peter a catch and made Glasgow flourish is as potent today as it was when Mungo began his preaching on the banks of the Clyde. The same sacraments of salvation, especially the Eucharist, by whose power the “dear family” of Glasgow was first formed, are available to us.

It would be good if God sent us a new Mungo. He might do that, if we ask Him. In the meantime, however, we can at least ask the Lord to liberate our hearts and minds from the shackles and torpor with which modern living and its easy but empty values assail us. Each of us, in his or her own personal situation in life, is called like Mungo to witness to true values, the values of the Gospel, and to the One who is the source of them. It will be a struggle. There will be opposition. There will be failure. But what truly worthy cause is not worth all these and more? Are we to resign ourselves to the alternative, the decline of Glasgow, the decline of the Church in Glasgow into oblivion through mediocrity and indifference?

Through Mungo, Christ built Glasgow on the rock of Word and Sacrament. Through us, may Christ rebuild Glasgow on that same rock and may the shifting sands of anti-Christian ideology subside so that Glasgow may once more flourish by the preaching of the Word and the praise of his Name.

Saint Mungo, pray for us.