From Saints of the British Isles by Andrew Bond and Nicolas Mabin
St. Ninian was born in Scotland about the year 360, the son of a Christian chieftain. Having been baptized as a child, before he was five years old, St. Ninian could read and write, and had learnt to fear God and honor his parents. Even in childhood he was renowned as being “sober in food, sparing in words, assiduous in study, agreeable in manners, not given to jocularity, he in all things subjected the flesh to the spirit.”
As a youth he desired to devote his life to Christ and so, spurning the riches and honor which were his by right, he went on pilgrimage to Rome, the Occidental Jerusalem. He went by ship to Brittany and thence to Lyons, where he visited the Tombs of the Martyrs, and from there across the Alps to Italy, reaching Rome in about the year 380. At Rome he was able to pray at the tombs of the Apostles and the Catacombs of Domatilla. St. Ninian was in Rome at the same time as St. Jerome who greatly influenced the young Briton, who eagerly sought education. At this time St. Ninian became a priest. After some years in Rome the Pope, Siricius, desired that St. Ninian, whose virtuous life and high learning were known to all, should return to his native land and evangelize his fellow countrymen who had not yet yielded to Christ. Before embarking on this mission the Pope consecrated St. Ninian Bishop and gave him several priests to assist hin, as well as relics, books, vestments and sacred vessels.
In about the year 390, St. Ninian and his companions left Rome and proceeded to Milan, where St. Ninian sought the advice of St. Ambrose and received his blessing, since Gaulish and British Christians held in equal honor the bishops of Rome and Milan. Whilst in Milan, St. Ninian learnt the antiphonal method of chanting the Psalms and subsequently introduced this method into Celtic worship.
From Milan, St. Ninian traveled to Tours in France, where lived the famous St. Martin, who became the greatest single influence on the work and life of St. Ninian. When St. Martin met St. Ninian at once he perceived the holiness of the British Bishop and so St. Martin took care to instruct him, so that St. Ninian’s apostolic labours should be as fruitful as his own.
Eventually St. Ninian returned to Britain, arriving first at Cumberland. Immediately the energetic “husbandman” of the Lord commenced preaching, teaching and establishing monasteries and churches. The virtue of his good work was confirmed by many and great miracles. But his work in Cumberland was only a preparation for his life’s main vocation: that of converting the Picts in Scotland.
By 394 St. Ninian and his companions entered the land north of the Solway Firth. They began by establishing a monastic settlement on the isle of Whithorn, where later developed a Cathedral Church and the famous “Candida Casa”. It was the first church to be built of stone in Britain. On learning of the repose of St. Martin of tours, St. Ninian dedicated his church to the memory of the person for whom he had the greatest love and respect. St. Ninian’s life consisted of alternating periods of missionary journeys and solitary retreats. He loved to retire from the world to gather strength in silence and in prayer.
An important feature of St. Ninian’s foundation at Candida Casa was the “university”. It was the only educational institution in northern Brain since all the Roman schools had been closed down following the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain. St. Ninian’s university was a shining light of Christian knowledge burning brightly in the gloom of heathen ignorance. St. Ninian himself was very learned and wrote several books.
So for thirty years and more St. Ninian laboured unceasingly for the conversion of northern Britain. Today Scotland contains dozens of sites which owe their fame to the fact that St. Ninian or one of his disciples built a church or a monastery or a school at that place. But the young Celtic church of North Britain was subject to the same temptations as those which tried the sister churches in other parts of Britain – in particular the temptation of the heresy begun by a Briton of sorry memory, called Pelagius or Morgan. The Pelagians were so successful that the Orthodox Christian Faith was nearly smothered by the stifling morass of the heresy of Pelagius. But a few years before his repose St. Ninian participated in the invitation sent by all the British Bishops to the Gallican church, asking for help in combating Pelagianism. As a result St. German of Auxerre and St. Lupus of Troyes came to Britain and through the grace of God were successful in their mission.
On September 16, 432 St. Ninian departed this world and was buried in the Cathedral Church of St. Martin of Tours, at Whithorn. For eleven centuries hundreds of thousands of pilgrims traveled from all over Western Europe to Candida Casa to pray at the tomb of St. Ninian, Metropolitan of northern Britain and Apostle of the Picts. The many miracles which were effected through the prayers of St. Ninian in his earthly lifetime did not cease afer his repose. His biographer records: “He was the glory of his people in their cavern of dread darkness, as he meditated with attentive heart on the heavenly wisdom. He pursued the path of a teacher, bestowing the gifts of salvation. He was able to understand books written in learned tongues and to derive rules of conduct from their words; and whatever he taught to others he first practised himself. By his eloquence the hearts of his readers were refreshed, marveling at the sweet sounding measures which he himself intoned. Telling his disciples of the true joys of eternal life, soaring to the stars, he made them alert to heavenly values. Since all races and nations are summoned alike to the heavenly kingdom, the holy man preached the true doctrines equally to them all, and when he had proclaimed such marvels with masterly tongue throughout innumerable peoples and nations, he joyfully ended his journey and was carried to the dwelling of his Lord, where he now praises Christ amidst the heavenly choir.”