seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Death of Vergilius of Salzburg, Churchman & Astronomer

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virgilius-of-salzburgVergilius of Salzburg, also known as Virgilius, Feirgil or Fergal, Irish churchman and early astronomer, dies on November 27, 784, in Salzburg, Austria. He serves as abbot of Aghaboe, bishop of Ossory and bishop of Salzburg. He is called “the Apostle of Carinthia” and “the geometer.”

He originates from a noble family of Ireland, where his name is Feirgil, and is said to have been a descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages. Feirgil is likely educated at the Iona monastery.

In the Annals of the Four Masters and the Annals of Ulster he is mentioned as Abbot of Aghaboe, in County Laois, where he is known as “the Geometer” because of his knowledge of mathematics.

Around 745 Vergilius leaves Ireland, intending to visit the Holy land but, like many of his countrymen who seem to have adopted this practice as a work of piety, he settles down in France, where he is received with great favour by Pepin the Short, who is then Mayor of the Palace under Childeric III of Franconia. He serves as an adviser to Pepin. He probably uses a copy of the Collectio canonum Hibernensis, an Irish collection of canon law, to advise him to receive royal unction in 751, to assist his recognition as king Pippin III after the deposition of Childeric. After spending two years at Cressy, near Compiègne, he goes to Bavaria, at the invitation of Duke Odilo, where he founds the monastery of Chiemsee, and within a year or two is made Abbot of St. Peter’s at Salzburg. Among his notable accomplishments is the conversion of the Alpine Slavs and the dispatching of missionaries to Hungary.

While Abbot of St. Peter’s, Vergilius comes into collision with Saint Boniface. A priest, through ignorance, confers the Sacrament of Baptism using, in place of the correct formula, the words “Baptizo te in nomine patria et filia et spiritu sancta.” Vergilius holds that the sacrament has been validly conferred, but Boniface complains to Pope Zachary. The latter, however, decides in favour of Vergilius. Later on, Boniface accuses Vergilius of spreading discord between himself and Duke Odilo of Bavaria and of teaching a doctrine in regard to the rotundity of the earth, which is “contrary to the Scriptures.” Pope Zachary’s decision in this case is that “if it shall be clearly established that he professes belief in another world and other people existing beneath the earth, or in another sun and moon there, thou art to hold a council, and deprive him of his sacerdotal rank, and expel him from the church.”

Unfortunately we no longer possess the treatise in which Vergilius expounds his doctrine. Two things, however, are certain: first, that there is involved the problem of original sin and the universality of redemption; secondly, that Vergilius succeeds in freeing himself from the charge of teaching a doctrine contrary to Scripture. It is likely that Boniface, already biased against Vergilius because of the preceding case, misunderstands him, taking it for granted, perhaps, that if there are antipodes, the “other race of men” are not descendants of Adam and are not redeemed by Christ.

After the martyrdom of Boniface, Vergilius is made Bishop of Salzburg in 766 or 767. Until his death in 784, he labours successfully for the upbuilding of his diocese as well as for the spread of Christianity in neighbouring heathen countries, especially in Carinthia.

Vergilius is venerated as a saint in the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. In 1233 he is formally canonized by Pope Gregory IX. Aside from being personally associated with Abbey of Aghaboe and Salzburg Cathedral, a number of parishes around the world are dedicated to him, mostly being founded by small populations of far-flung Irish Catholics, like himself. There is a church still bearing his name dedicated to him in Broad Channel, Queens, New York. A parish in Morris Plains, New Jersey is also dedicated to him.

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