May 26, 2016

May 27th: Saint Augustine of Canterbury

Orthodox Icon of Pope St. Gregory the Great (left) & St. Augustine of Canterbury (right) pointing to Christ

Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Apostle of the English, was sent into England by blessed Gregory, and came thither in the year 597. At that time King Ethelbert held the chief power in Kent, and his sway reached even to the Humber. When this King had heard for what reason the holy man was come, he received him kindly, and bade him and his companions, who were all monks, to come to his own capital city of Canterbury ; being struck with astonishment the perfect blamelessness of their lives, and the power of the heavenly doctrine which they preached, and which God confirmed with signs following.

They drew nigh to the city in solemn procession, singing the Litany, and bearing before them for their standard a silver cross and a picture of the Lord our Saviour painted on a panel. Hard by the city, upon the east side, there was a church builded of old time in honour of Saint Martin, and wherein the Queen, who was a Christian, was used to pray. There they first began to meet together, to sing, to pray, to celebrate Masses, to preach and to baptize, until the King was turned to the Faith, and the most part of his people was led by his example, but not his authority, to take the name of Christian ; for he had learned from his teachers and his own soul’s physicians, that men are to be drawn, and not driven to heaven. And now, Augustine, being ordained Archbishop of the English and of Britain, lest he should leave unraveled any part of the Lord’s vineyard, asked from the Apostolic See a new band of labourers, among whom were Mellitus, Justus, Paulinus, and Rufinian.

By them Gregory sent hallowed vessels, altar-cloths, church vestments, and also relicks of the holy Apostles and Martyrs. He instructed them to turn the temples of the idols into places of Christian worship, by sprinkling them with hallowed water, building altars in them, and putting relicks therein. The Britons who, nearly an hundred and fifty years before, had been thrust into the uttermost part of the island, had some bishops, whom Augustine vehemently urged to lay aside their error concerning the keeping of Easter, and to labour along with him for the conversion of the English, but they left it all to him. He toiled much for the saving of souls. He was illustrious for his life. He made Mellitus Bishop of London and Justus Bishop of Rochester, and named Lawrence to succeed himself at Canterbury, and then finished his work in peace, and passed away to that life which is perfect blessedness, upon May 26th, in the year of our Lord 604, in the reign of Ethelbert.

From The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, St. Bede.

St. Augustine of Canterbury: Apostle of England

St. Augustine was the agent of a greater man than himself, Pope St. Gregory the Great. In Gregory's time, except for the Irish monks, missionary activity was unknown in the western Church, and it is Gregory's glory to have revived it. He decided to begin with a mission to the pagan English, for they had cut off the Christian Celts from the rest of Christendom. The time was favorable for a mission since the ruler of the whole of southern England, Ethelbert of Kent, had married a Christian wife and had received a Gaulish bishop at his court. Gregory himself wished to come to Britain, but his election as pope put an end to any such idea, and in 596 he decided to send an Italian monk following the comparatively new Rule of St Benedict. Augustine set out with some companions, but when they reached southern Gaul a crisis occurred and Augustine was sent back to the pope for help. In reply the pope made Augustine their abbot and subjected the rest of the party to him in all things, and with this authority Augustine successfully reached England in 597, landing in Kent on the Isle of Thanet. Ethelbert and the men of Kent refused to accept Christianity at first, although an ancient British church dedicated to St Martin was restored for Augustine's use; but very shortly afterwards Ethelbert was baptized and, the pope having been consulted, a plan was prepared for the removal of the chief see from Canterbury to London and the establishment of another province at York. Events prevented either of these projects from being fulfilled, but the progress of the mission was continuous until Augustine's death, somewhere between 604 and 609.

The only defeat Augustine met with after he came to England was in his attempt to reconcile the Welsh Christians, to persuade them to adopt the Roman custom of reckoning the date of Easter, to correct certain minor irregularities of rite and to submit to his authority. Augustine met the leaders of the Welsh church in conference but he unfavorably impressed them by remaining seated when they came into his presence. It is likely that in this he unfavorably impressed St Bede too. Augustine was neither the most heroic of missionaries, nor the most tactful, but he did a great work, and he was one of the very few men in Gaul or Italy who, at that time, was prepared to give up everything to preach the gospel in a far country.

Excerpted from The Saints, John Coulson, editor.

Patron: England.

Symbols: Banner of the crucifixion; King Ethelbert rising out of a font (Bishop baptizing a king); fountain; cross fitchée pastoral staff and book; cope, mitre and pallium.

Collect Prayer

O God, who by the preaching of the Bishop St. Augustine of Canterbury led the English peoples to the Gospel, grant, we pray, that the fruits of his labors may remain ever abundant in your Church. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

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