May 26, 2017

Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Bishop and Missionary Who Converted Pagan Britain

Saint Augustine of Canterbury

May 27th, is the optional memorial of St. Augustine of Canterbury. He was born in Rome and died in Canterbury, England. An Italian Benedictine monk, at the behest of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, he founded the See of Canterbury and preached the Catholic faith to Britain’s Anglo-Saxon pagans during the late 6th and early 7th centuries. St. Augustine was the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

St. Augustine of Canterbury, "Apostle of the English" (534 – 604)

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 such an idea. In 596, he dispatched 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. He was one of the few men in Gaul or Italy who, at that time, was prepared to give up everything to preach the gospel in a far country.

Adapted excerpt from The Saints edited by John Coulson.

Image source: Ordinariate News

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