The name of St Ninian is back in the news as a result of the visit by the Pope to the UK. The Pope’s first stop was in Scotland where he joined a parade in honour of Ninian, the first Scottish man to be declared a saint.
Details about Ninian are sketchy and rely on the Venerable Bede and Saint Aelred, both of whom lived many years after Ninian died. Despite this, Ninian was revered from very early and Whithorn, where he located his Episcopal see while preaching to the Picts in southern Scotland, soon became a thriving town as a centre of pilgrimage. Ninian’s cave is still visited and prayers and candles are placed there.
At our Thursday 2pm service I told the story of Ninian as far as we know it. The readings for the day were Psalm 67, Acts 13:46-49, Mark 16:15-end.
The focus of much of the news today is the beginning of the visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Britain. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the visit, particularly the fact that it’s a state visit rather than a visit by the Pope in his capacity as the leader of Roman Catholics worldwide. The visit is a state one as the Queen, rather than the church, invited the Pope to come. Surveys have suggested that for many in Britain this visit is of no interest at all to them.
Whatever the negative comments, it’s apparent that a lot of effort has gone into making this a special occasion. The Pope was welcomed by the Queen at Holyroodhouse when he arrived in Scotland on the first leg of his visit. The Queen expressed the hope that the visit would deepen the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Churches of England and Scotland. The Pope said he was extending the hand of friendship to all in the UK, not just those who are Roman Catholic.
About 125,000 people lined the streets of Edinburgh waving flags and cheering as the Pope travelled through the city centre in the famous Popemobile. He had joined in the annual St Ninian’s Day Parade. This parade honours the first man to be named as a saint in Scotland, about 1600 years ago. There were pipers and drummers leading the parade. Among those who were watching were pupils from every St Ninian’s school in Scotland who had been specially invited on this historic occasion.
We are dependent on the Venerable Bede and Saint Aelred, writing quite some time after Ninian’s life, for what biographical details are available. It seems that Ninian was born around the year 360 AD, perhaps in Cumbria in the north west of England. This is surmised due to a place name Ninekirks which is near Penrith. Ninian was born to royal parents who were Christian and was taught well when he was young. He learnt so much that he soon became better than those teaching him.
As he was tall and well built, his father hoped he would become a warrior but Ninian wanted to go to Rome so that he could learn more about the Christian faith than the local teachers could tell him. When he reached Rome the Pope heard about him and asked what the reason for his journey was. When he found out, the Pope summoned him and assigned him to teachers who taught him about the Christian faith and about how the Church worked. No one knows how long this time in Rome lasted but once he had finished his education he was called again to see the Pope and ordained as bishop in 394. He was given relics and sent to preach the Gospel in his homeland as the Pope had heard that the teaching was poor and sometimes heretical. Taking his charge seriously, Ninian paid a visit to St Martin of Tours and asked to borrow two masons to help him build stone churches when he reached his home.
Ninian is known as the Apostle to the southern Picts. He made Whithorn his Episcopal see. The name Whithorn is the Old English rendering of Candida Casa, Latin for White House, where he set up a community of monks. The name came from the stone church which was built by St Martin’s masons on the shore and was said to be the first of its kind in Scotland where churches were normally made of wood. It is likely to have been plastered and whitewashed. Recent excavations have found some remains of a whitewashed wall on the site of the church. When St Ninian heard of St Martin’s death in 397 he named the church after him. This date is usually accounted as the beginning of his mission to the Picts.
Ninian is said to have been greeted with joy by the population when he returned home. He is said to have preached so well that the Picts ‘abandoned idolatry and embraced the faith of truth’ according to Bede. It is not known precisely when or where Ninian died; some stories state the he is buried by the altar of his church and others that he died in Ireland. The date of his death is assumed to be around 432 AD.
Whithorn is known by archaeologists to have been an early centre of Christianity. From the 7th century onwards people made pilgrimages to visit the shrine of St Ninian as they believed he could cure illness and perform miracles. Aelred attributed ten miracles to Ninian, six of which happened in his lifetime. By the 12th century Whithorn had a huge cathedral and was a thriving town. The Scots royal family used to go there, with King Robert the Bruce going in the 14th century to pray for a cure from leprosy. King James IV, two hundred years later, walked to the shrine in eight days and distributed alms to the poor on his way. Mary Queen of Scots visited in 1563.
On the shore there is a cave which is thought to have been St Ninian’s retreat. I’ve been in the cave and have seen an ancient cross carved into the stone. A number of medieval crosses were found there in 1884 and taken to a museum. The cave is still a place of annual pilgrimage for the Catholics of Galloway. When I went there, I saw many crosses made of driftwood, prayers on pieces of paper and wood, and candles in the niches, which suggest that people still go and pray there regularly.
When I read the account that Aelred wrote of Ninian a section really struck me. He said that Ninian began to lay in the people the foundations of the true faith, building with the gold of wisdom, the silver of knowledge and the precious stones of good works. I find that quite a challenge both for our ministry here in SL and for each of us personally as we seek to walk the path of authentic faith.