Vergilius of Salzburg bigraphy, stories - Irish churchman, astronomer, bishop of Salzburg

Vergilius of Salzburg : biography

c. 700 - 784

Vergilius of Salzburg (also Virgilius, Feirgil or Fergal) (born c. 700 in Ireland; died 27 November 784 in Salzburg) was an Irish churchman, an early astronomer and bishop of Salzburg. His obituary calls him the geometer.

Veneration

In 1233 he was canonized by Gregory IX. His doctrine that the earth is a sphere was derived from the teaching of ancient geographers, and his belief in the existence of the antipodes was probably influenced by the accounts which the ancient Irish voyagers gave of their journeys. This, at least, is the opinion of Rettberg (Kirchengesch. Deutschlands, II, 236).

Biography

He originated from a noble family of Ireland, where his name was Feirgil, and was educated in the Iona monastery. It is controversial whether he is identical to Abbot Feirgil of Aghaboe Abbey in County Laois. He is said to have been a descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages. In the "Annals of the Four Masters" and the "Annals of Ulster" he is mentioned as Abbot of Aghaboe, in County Laois, where he was known as "the Geometer" because of his knowledge of geography.

Around 745 he left Ireland, intending to visit the Holy land, but, like many of his countrymen, who seemed to have adopted this practice as a work of piety, he settled down in France, where he was received with great favour by Pippin the Younger then Mayor of the Palace under Childeric III of Franconia. After spending two years at Cressy, near Compiègne, he went to Bavaria, at the invitation of Duke Odilo, where he founded the monastery of Chiemsee, and within a year or two was made Abbot of St. Peter's at Salzburg. Among his notable accomplishments was the conversion of the Alpine Slavs.

It was while Abbot of St. Peter's that he came into collision with Saint Boniface. A priest having, through ignorance, conferred the Sacrament of Baptism using, in place of the correct formula, the words "Baptizo te in nomine patria et filia et spiritu sancta", Vergilius held that the sacrament had been validly conferred, but Boniface complained to Pope Zachary. The latter, however, decided in favour of Vergilius. Later on, Boniface accused 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 was "contrary to the Scriptures". Pope Zachary's decision in this case was 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."MGH, Epistolae Selectae, 1, 80, pp. 178-9 ; translation in M. L. W. Laistner, Thought and Letters in Western Europe, pp. 184-5.; see also Jaffe, Biblioth. rerum germ., III, 191 Unfortunately we no longer possess the treatise in which Vergilius expounded his doctrine. Two things, however, are certain: first, that there was involved the problem of original sin and the universality of redemption; secondly, that Vergilius succeeded 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, misunderstood him, taking it for granted, perhaps, that if there are antipodes, the "other race of men" are not descendants of Adam and were not redeemed by Christ.

After the martyrdom of Boniface, Vergilius was made Bishop of Salzburg in 766 or 767 and laboured successfully for the upbuilding of his diocese as well as for the spread of Christianity in neighbouring heathen countries, especially in Carinthia. He died at Salzburg, 27 November, probably in 784, leaving a reputation for learning and holiness.

Sources

  • Laistner, M.L.W. Thought and Letters in Western Europe: A.D. 500 to 900, 2nd. ed. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Pr., 1955. ISBN 0-8014-9037-5
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