Columbanus, Penance and the roots of Military Chaplaincy

The principal speaker at this year’s Columbanus Festival in Bangor was Rev Andrew Totten. Ordained in the Church of Ireland, Rev Totten was an Army chaplain for 27 years. He was a padre on the ground in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and became an Honorary Chaplain to The Queen. His final post as Principal of the Armed Forces’ Chaplaincy Centre involved the creation of a new museum at the Defence Academy in Oxfordshire, in which Columbanus features prominently.

His talk explored the changing relationship between the Christian Church and the military in Europe. We learn about St Augustine of Hippo and Just War Theory; the important role of priests in blessing armies before battle; their carrying the sacred cloak of St Martin (his Cappa in Italian) into battle – thereby giving us the root of the word Chaplain.

He moves on to his central theme of how a soldier going into battle could be assured of his salvation through a doctrine of individual (and repeated) penance as derived from the penitential traditions of Columbanus and the Irish monks. This new doctrine contrasted with the previous idea of penance as a “one-off” reconciliation of a sinner to the church which once made could never be repeated. This new understanding led directly to the need for chaplains in every military unit to hear individual confessions. The role of the church, therefore, changed from simply the blessing of armies to the spiritual care of the individual soldier on the battlefield, or wherever their military service led them.

Watch the full talk via the YouTube link below:

Bangor Columbanus Festival 2022 – Rev Andrew Totten (talk 35 minutes)