New history of Columbans is “an invaluable work of reference”

The brisk sales for Fr Neil Collins’ new history of the Missionary Society of St Columban on the Feast of St Columban is confirmation of Fr Cyril Lovett’s description of the book as “an invaluable work of reference”.

In his address to officially launch ‘A Mad Thing to Do’, the retired editor of the Far East told the packed hall in Dalgan, “This work is particularly valuable for us, Columbans, as a concise work of reference on the Society’s first one hundred years”.

He highlighted how for the first time, a trained historian, who is a Columban, “has accurately summarised the story of Columban ministry in a huge variety of different contexts”.

The book’s contents, he said, show the similarities of development, and the distinct differences, and this in turn enabled Columbans to appreciate more fully what has been accomplished over the years in each region and mission unit.

Fr Lovett described ‘A Mad Thing to Do’ as “an extraordinary achievement, the result of 13 years of disciplined application and endless toil”.

It is the very first attempt at a detailed but compact history of all the Society’s Regions and Mission Units, by someone who has had access to the Society’s archives.

He underlined that it will be useful to relatives and friends of Columbans who wish to get an accurate and detailed account of a particular mission, of its history, its socio-political context, and the various phases of Columban ministry through which it has passed.

“If one of you looks up the Region/mission unit in which you served, do not be surprised if every development that you considered important does not receive specific mention. Just consider for example the inevitable limitations of covering eighty years of work in the Philippines, by more than 250 men and women, and expressing it all in little more than fifty pages.”

One feature of the book which appealed greatly to Fr Lovett is the book’s coverage of “the regions in which Columban Sisters worked with us, their particular contribution is clearly described and acknowledged.”

In his tribute to Fr Collins’ work, Fr Lovett highlighted two regions for special mention, Japan and Peru.

He also noted what had befallen the effort to implement consensus decision-making early in the life of the Society and compared it to a similar effort in 1986 by the first eleven members of the Brazil Mission Unit to make all their decisions by consensus.

But the difficulty with that approach was that all it needed was one dissenting vote to paralyse the process and so it had to be abandoned.

In his address Fr Lovett said, “There is not an exact parallel between the two situations. What they have in common is a desire to be as democratic as possible in reaching decisions. Had we in Brazil been aware of the earlier history we might perhaps have avoided an unnecessary impasse.”

Emphasising that the Society now has “an invaluable work of reference for the younger members,” Fr Lovett commented, “Any of you who have been involved in formation with students from the Pacific Ring countries, will know that their initial schooling places very little emphasis on their own history. For this reason, they often think that our emphasis on the importance of history is exaggerated. However, I really think that familiarity with Columban past experience is of huge importance for our young priests and lay missionaries of the future.”

“In all probability, our young priests and lay missionaries must expect to serve in two or three different missions during their lifetime. They need to know what has been tried in the past. Thanks to Neil Collins, we now have an accurate text that enables them to access this information: but they need to be thoroughly acquainted with this book.”

Fr Neil Collins’ striking title, ‘A Mad Thing to Do’ came from a comment which Bishop Edward Galvin made to Fr Dan Fitzgerald as he reflected on the inspiration to found the Society and its early history.

Fr Lovett concluded by praying “that we would continue to be afflicted by a similar madness”.

‘A Mad Thing to Do – A Century of Columban Missions (1916-2016)’ is published by Dalgan Press and costs €15. It can be bought online at or by telephone: 00353 46 9098275 or by emailing