August 5 sees the commemoration of a saint Abel, who was appointed bishop of Rheims only to find himself the victim of some unholy politicking. I found Canon O'Hanlon's account of these events somewhat confused and, not for the first time, wished that he had enjoyed the services of a good editor. As always though, he brings together a wide range of sources for the life and career of the bishop, who may well not have been an Irishman at all, but an Englishman who had spent time in Ireland at a monastic school.
St. Abel, Bishop and Confessor, Belgium. [Eighth Century.]
As the law of nature has had its first Abel, on whom our Divine Redeemer has bestowed the title of Just, so hath the law of grace produced another Abel, in whom justice and holiness so abounded, that such perfections have procured through his ministry the salvation of many others. Because the present saint has been called a Scotus, there are some who contend that he was a native of Scotland; but, besides very ancient tradition and records all the circumstances of his career serve to assure us, that he was a native of Ireland, for in his day Scotia Minor had few missionaries available for missionary enterprises on the European Continent. However, while Bucelin sets Abel down as a German, Alford classes him as an Englishman, allowing him to have been a disciple of St. Boniface, the great Apostle of Germany, whom he assumes to have been a native of England. The very early account of St. Abel, and formerly to be found at Rheims before the tenth century, was even then lost, when the judicious and critical Fulcuinus or Folquin, who had personally inspected the records of that ancient church, declares he was a Scot, a bishop, and also an inmate of his own monastery, at Lobbes. Notices of this holy man find place in many collections of Saint history. The accomplished chronicler, Folcuin, mentions him with praise. A single paragraph only is devoted to his record by Molanus. He has been commemorated, likewise, by Father John Mabillon, by Mirreus, by Castellan, and by Ferrarius. At the 5th of August, the Bollandists have inserted the Acts of St. Abel, Bishop and Confessor, in a Historic Sylloge of three sections, containing twenty-nine paragraphs. In the sixth volume of the Acts of the Belgian saints, some account of St. Abel, Bishop and Confessor, may be found. This apostolic man is celebrated in the work of Abbe Destombes, and in Les Petits Bollandistes.
According to some accounts, when he was of an age to travel, following the example of Saints Fursey, Foillan, and Ultan, his compatriots, Abel went to France, in order to serve God in a more perfect manner. Other accounts have it, that Abel was one of the twelve priests that followed the illustrious St. Egbert, afterwards Archbishop of York, when by a Divine revelation he left that monastery in Ireland, over which he presided as Abbot, to go into Gaul, there to preach the Gospel to those idolatrous people who had not yet a knowledge of the true God. Afterwards, Egbert and his companions sought the court of Pepin d'Heristal, who then governed the country in quality of Mayor of the Palace. At that time, Radbod, who ruled over Frisia, had been subdued by him; but, the people there had not yet received the truths of Christianity. Admiring their zeal, that religious potentate sent them thither to preach the Gospel. This was a mission which required great courage and patience, as the inhabitants were very barbarous, and strongly prejudiced against the introduction of any form of worship that tended to overthrow their old superstitious usages and rites. Nevertheless, the fortitude of Abel was such as to brave the perils that there awaited him; for, his life was often in danger, but he feared not death, provided he could accomplish the will of his heavenly Father. He preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ with great force and eloquence, and for long he laboured to gain souls to the Church. It is probable, that Abel had been a religious for some time, in the Abbey of Lobbes; and, Father Mabillon states, that he flourished there while Erminus was Abbot. This latter holy man ruled for nearly twenty-five years, having departed this life on the vii. of the May Kalends, A.D. 737. Abel is regarded as the Apostle of the Belgic Provinces of Liege and of Hainaut. We are informed, moreover, that he was a man profoundly read in the Sacred Scriptures, and that he was remarkable for his many virtues....
While St. Rigobert was Archbishop of Rheims, one Milo, only a tonsured cleric, had been unjustly intruded there during his lifetime by Charles Martel. This usurpation was long maintained; even after the action taken by St. Boniface, in the council held at Soissons, in 744. After the death of St. Rigobert, St. Abel has been classed in the series of prelates connected with the see of Rheims, according to Fulcuinus. He declares, how he learned from the very erudite Archbishop Adalberon, that Abel had been a bishop of Rheims, while in that see he acquired and ordained in several instances, as had been stated in old records and in tradition. Notwithstanding, many have supposed that Abel was only a chorepiscopus in that city. Moreover, Archbishop Adalberon stated to Fulcuinus, that it was a custom prevailing to his own time in the Church at Rheims, to have the names of all his predecessors enrolled on the Dyptics, so that they should be prayed for among deceased persons during the solemn
celebration of Mass. Nevertheless, it was admitted, that Abel's name was not to be found on that list; but, Fulcuinus supposes, that being only for a short time in possession of the See, and for Christ's sake willing to relinquish it, the church records happened to be silent regarding him. That Abel was created Archbishop of Rheims has been stated by Flodoard, in his History of that See; and, as we are informed, when the great Council of Soissons, which opened on the 3rd of March, A.D. 744, assembled under the presidency of St. Boniface. Among the other decrees there passed, it was resolved to appoint suitable prelates to fill some sees which were then vacant, and that of Rheims among the rest. St. Boniface, then apostolic Legate for that part of Europe, knowing well the merits of Abel, whose reputation had been extended throughout all the Low Countries, greatly desired him to succeed in the great metropolitan See of Rheims. Also, Boniface made application to procure the Pallium for him, and at the same time for Grimon, Archbishop of Rouen, and for Hunebert, Archbishop of Sens. However, it seems probable, that the disturbed state of affairs then prevailing, afterwards caused Boniface to ask the Pallium only for Grimon. Besides, we have it on the authority of Flodoard, that certain charters belonging to the Church of Rheims had the name of Abel as a bishop inscribed in them. Some there are, who question if Abel had attained a higher rank than that of bishop or chorepiscopus; but, it is sufficiently manifest, from the letters of Pope Zachary to St. Boniface as also from the letters of Pope Adrian to Tilpin, that Abel had been in reality made an Archbishop. Divers opinions have been entertained, notwithstanding, regarding the length of time he remained in that See: one statement has it, that he was appointed in 743 , another gives 745; while it is said, again, that from the year 749, Abel was resident in the Church of Rheims, from which he was driven in the year 758. It seems pretty certain, that Abel was not long permitted to enjoy his ecclesiastical dignity in peace; for, the partisans of Milo, desirous of retaining in their possession the revenues of that See, which had been violently usurped, began to persecute the newly appointed prelate. Even his life was exposed to very great danger from that faction. He had hardly taken possession of his See when opposition commenced. If he be not more generally alluded to by writers as Archbishop of Rheims, it is because the persecution excited against his predecessor, St. Rigobert, still continued, and did not permit Abel to exercise freely the functions of his episcopate. To prevent a great scandal, and indeed to consult for his greater sanctification, the holy Archbishop resolved to retire from that state of confusion and disorder, which could no longer be retained without bloodshed. The old record relating to Abel, and formerly preserved at Rheims, does not furnish any account setting forth the closing period of his career. He is said to have assisted at the Council of Liptines, now Estines, in Hainault, A.D. 743, as also at that of Mayence, a.d. 745. In an Epistle, addressed to Ethelbald, King of the Mercians, from this latter synod, with that of St. Boniface, the name of Abel is added.
After withdrawing from his episcopal charge, Abel retired to the Abbey of Lobbes, where he practised all the exercises of an interior and of a monastic life. One account has it, that he arrived there, while St. Theodulf was abbot, and who succeeded St. Erminus, who died about 737. It is generally supposed, that the former prolonged his existence to A.D. 766, while others give him a little later period. Among the religious, none could be found more assiduous in prayer than the exiled Abel was, while he lived in great austerity and mortification, apparently under the rule of St. Theodulf. Although some writers have thought that St. Abel himself was in the list of Abbots over that house ; it seems more reasonable to suppose, that he was only assistant abbot there. This, however, did not prevent him exercising other great functions; on the contrary, his active zeal was afforded more frequent if not greater opportunities, for gaining souls to Christ. He continued to preach the Gospel with great fruit throughout the whole country of Liege and Hainaut.
In fine, when he was spent through apostolic labours, and exercises of penitence, in the Abbey of Lobbes, the term of his mortal career was reached on the 5th of August. He died about or a little after the middle of the eighth century. One account has it, that he departed in the year 751; another in 764; while another writer thinks his decease happened towards the year 780. Trithemias asserts, that his feast was observed on the ninth of the October Kalends, which correspond with the 23rd of September. There seems to be no other warrant, however, for such a commemoration of this saint's festival. His body was buried in the church of St. Ursmard; and the Canons of Lobbes for a long time religiously preserved the sacred remains. There his tomb was to be seen in the Chapel of St. James, and elevated over the ground, having an archiepiscopal cross described over it, while below are several fleurs de lis, which indicated the dignity attaching to his see. Many miracles were afterwards wrought at his tomb, especially in favour of persons who became frenetic. At Lobbes, in the Low Countries, St. Abel was specially venerated.
In 1409, his relics were transferred to Buich, in Hainaut, with those of other Saints reposing at Lobbes, to save them from desecration during a war then raging. Since that time, St. Abel's festival had been celebrated there, on the 5th of August, as likewise in the monastery of Lobbes. Charles of Lorraine, Due d'Aumale, having founded a convent for the Minimes of Andrelec, near Bruxelles, a considerable portion of St. Abel's arm was brought in 1615 to that religious house. The name of this saint has been added by Molanus to the Martyrology of Usuard, at the 5th of August. It is omitted, however, in the Roman Martyrology. But Trithemius and Ferrarius have placed him on their list of saints. He is also recorded by Wion, Dorgan, Menard, Bucelin, Mirseus, Saussay, Mabillon, Fisenus and Castellan; all of whom enter his festival at the present date. Henry Fitzsimons' list of Irish Saints includes him, as likewise the anonymous calendar, to be found in the work of O'Sullivan Beare. Owing to the loss of St. Abel's original acts, which seem anciently to have existed in Rheims, few other particulars can now be gleaned regarding him.
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