On Sunday, a group of around 60 people arrived in Luxembourg to participate in the annual dancing procession in Echternach on Tuesday as part of their overall ecumenical pilgrimage which includes people from both Protestant and Catholic communities in south-east Ireland.
The pilgrimage is led jointly by the Right Rev’d Michael Burrows, Church of Ireland Bishop of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory, and the Most Rev’d Denis Nulty, Roman Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin.
After participating in a Roman Catholic mass in Trier on Sunday afternoon, many of the group staying in Luxembourg city – some of the younger members are stayign in Echternach itself – participated in a Church of Ireland (Anglican) Holy Communion led by Bishop Michael Burrows.
There is a historical link between that part of Ireland and St Willibrord, the patron saint of Luxembourg and founder of Echternach Abbey. Willibrord was born in 658 AD in Northumberland, in the North-East of England. His father had been converted to Christianity. That part of England, as well as much of southern Scotland, had recently been Christianised by Irish missionaries. During the 6th and 7th Centuries Ireland experienced a period of exceptional missionary zeal. The island had been converted peaceably to Christianity by St Patrick and his followers in the 5th Century.
The absence of martyrs for Christ was a source of shame for many ardent Irish Christians. Some sought to expunge this ignominy through “white martyrdom”, exiling themselves on remote islands in the Atlantic or on near-inaccessible mountains. Others sacrificed themselves by leaving their homeland to serve Christ as missionaries to the non-Christian parts of Europe. These included such notable figures as St Colmcille (521-597 – Iona), St Columbanus (543-615 – Luxeuil and Bobbio), St Gall (551-615 – St Gallen) and St Cillian (640-689 – Würzburg).
The young Willibrord joined a Northumbrian monastery founded by Irish monks while in his teens. Between the ages of 20 and 32 he studied in Ireland in a place called Rathmelsigi. This is generally taken to be the monastery of Rathmelsh, in Co. Carlow (though some claim that it refers to Mellifont in Co. Louth). Having completed his studies and been ordained priest, Willibrord returned to Northumberland. He then spent a short time in Iona before going with 11 Irish and English companions to the land of the Frisians (the Netherlands). In 695 he was consecrated bishop by Pope Sergius I. His mission to the Frisians was largely successful and he was responsible for building the first cathedral in Utrecht.
He moved on to what is now Luxembourg and continued his work of conversion in the country around the rivers Sûre and Moselle. At first he worked with Irmina of Oeren, widow of the local ruler, herself a Christian. It is said that through Willibrord’s help and prayers the religious house that Irmina had established near Trier was protected from a devastating plague. In gratitude, Willibrord was granted land in Echternach on which he founded the abbey and continued his work of conversion. Willibrord died in 739 and is buried in Echternach Abbey.
On Monday, the group is undertaking a sightseeing tour of Luxembourg city before travelling to a reception in Echternach, with the dancing procession on Tuesday.
The organisation of the Ecumenical Pilgrimage to Echternach is headed by Mr Dermot Mulligan, Curator of the Carlow Museum.