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Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin
January 25, 2002 Issue

Bringing about wreck and ruin

St. Gildas worried human error would ruin society

By Tony Staley
Compass Editor

Gildas the Wise

When: about 500-about 570

Where: Scotland, Wales and Brittany

What: Author, missionary and hermit

Feast: Jan. 29

One of the constants of life is that someone is always deriding the current situation and culture as sinful and warning that this generation of young people is somehow going to make things even worse.

It's hard to dispute the first point, given that sin started with the first humans. As for the second point, that allegation can be found in print at least as far back as the ancient Greeks.

One saint who lent his voice to those decrying moral corruption in his era was St. Gildas the Wise, who wrote De Excidio Britanniae, a harsh criticism of conditions in Britain.

While some have criticized De Excidio Britanniae, Gildas' defenders point out that he was not trying to write a history. Instead, he was trying to point out the "miseries, the errors and the ruin of Britain" and contrast these to what the Bible as well as early church scholars had to say about the proper human condition.

His defenders note that he seemed well-acquainted with both Scripture and saints such as Ignatius of Antioch. They also say that he was motivated by moral and religious zeal.

Gildas was born in Scotland on the lower part of the River Clyde -- Scotland's most important river -- before St. Columba brought Christianity to Scotland in 563.

Eventually, probably while fairly young, he went to Llanilltud, Wales, where he lived under St. Illtud, whose monastery became the center of missionary activity in Wales.

He possibly lived at the monastery with St. Samson, who later became an abbot and bishop. He also may have lived as a monk with Ss. Finnian of Clonard (who later founded numerous monasteries and taught St. Columba) and Cadoc (who founded a monastery in Wales).

Gildas then lived for a while on Flatholm Island in Bristow Channel, where he copied a missal for St. Cadoc and it may have been where he wrote De Excidio Britanniae.

For the last years of his life, he lived in Brittany, in northwestern France. That included spending time as a hermit on an island in Morbihan Bay, near Rhuys. While there, he attracted a group of followers. Although he said he wanted solitude, he apparently traveled around Brittany.

(Sources: Butler's Lives of the Saints and Dictionary of Saints.)

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