Fergal served as Abbot of Aghaboe, Bishop of Ossory and later, Bishop of Salzburg. He was called ‘the Apostle of Carinthia’ and ‘The Geometer’. He originated from a noble family of Ireland, where his name was Feirgil, and is said to have been a descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages. Feirgil was probably 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 Co 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, who was then Mayor of the Palace under Childeric III of Franconia. He was an adviser to Pippin. He probably used 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 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; he also sent missionaries to Hungary.
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” (instead of “Baptizo te in nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti”), 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.” 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 784.
Sources | Canisius, Ant. Lect. tom. iii. pt. ii. p. 273; Mabillon, Act. Bened. sæc. iii. pt. ii.; Harris’s (Ware) Writers at ‘Virgil;’ Ussher’s Sylloge, epist. xvi. xvii. (Works, iv. 461–5); Lanigan’s Eccles. Hist. iii. 179–90, 205–7; Todd’s St. Patrick, pp. 64, 65; Alcuin, Poem No. 231; Book of Leinster, p. 348 a; Lebar Brecc, p. 14 a; Annals of the Four Masters, A.D. 784.
Image | Statue of Saint Fergal at the Salzburg Cathedral | Karin Rager/GFDL