Our Patron Saint
Saint Augustine, our patron saint, was entrusted with the mission
of the evangelisation of the English. Although the Christian faith
of England dates from the era of the Apostles and we read that
about 200AD British districts were inaccessible to Roman
arms but subdued by Christ the Saxon conquest of England
had forced these Christians into refuge in Wales, Cornwall and
parts of Scotland. Augustines mission was to bring these
Christians back into the fold and convince the Saxons to become
Augustines Early Life
Nothing is known about Augustines family but his name might well
have been taken after he entered the monastic life. Many later English
writers described Augustine as a very tall man. He was a pupil of Felix
bishop of Messana. Augustine reached the level of assistant to the abbot,
a monastic position that was usually obtained after some years. Leo
III described Augustine as holding the office of companion in the cell
or private room to St. Gregory. Gregory described Augustine as having
a wonderful capacity for business, with his wide, various and minute
Mission to England
When Gregory became Pope, he chose Augustine and about forty monks from
the monastery of St. Andrew on Mount Coelius in Rome to make the unexpected
and dangerous journey to England. Bede wrote: Gregory, prompted
by divine inspiration, sent a servant of God named Augustine and several
more God-fearing monks with him to preach the word of God to the English
race. In obedience to the popes commands, they undertook this
task. Most of our information about Augustines journey is
deduced from the letters of St Gregory to Augustine recorded in Bedes
They started their journey in 596AD but were soon disheartened and
afraid when rumours reached them about the savage Anglo Saxon race and
their barbarity. They began to contemplate returning home rather than
going to a barbarous, fierce, and unbelieving nation whose language
they did not even understand. They all agreed that this was the safer
course and so they sent back Augustine, (who had been appointed to be
consecrated bishop in case they were received by the English,) that
they should not be compelled to undertake so dangerous, toilsome, and
uncertain a journey. The pope, in reply, sent them a letter persuading
them to proceed in the work of the Divine word, and rely on the assistance
of the Almighty:
Gregory, the servant of the servants of God, to the servants
of our Lord. Forasmuch as it had been better not to begin a good work,
than to think of desisting from that which has been begun, it behoves
you, my beloved sons, to fulfil the good work, which, by the help of
our Lord, you have undertaken. Let not, therefore, the toil of the journey,
nor the tongues of evil speaking men, discourage you; but with all possible
earnestness and zeal perform that which, by Gods direction, you
have undertaken; being assured, that much labour is followed by an eternal
reward. When Augustine, your chief, returns, whom we also constitute
your abbot, humbly obey him in all things; knowing, that whatsoever
you shall do by his direction, will, in all respects, be available to
your souls. Almighty God protect you with his grace, and grant that
I may, in the heavenly country, see the fruits of your labour. Inasmuch
as, though I cannot labour with you, I shall partake in the joy of the
reward, because I am willing to labour. God keep you in safety, my most
Augustine in England
The monks resumed their journey and when they eventually landed in Kent
in 597, they sent a message to King Ethelbert that acquainted him of
their arrival and as Bede says signified that they were come from
Rome, and brought a joyful message, which most undoubtedly assured to
all that took advantage of it everlasting joys in heaven and a kingdom
that would never end with the living and true God.
King Ethelbert, whose wife Bertha was a Christian, assured them that
all their needs would be provided for and that he would meet with them.
Some days later, at Ethelberts command, a meeting was held in
the open air. The monks arrived in procession, bearing aloft a silver
cross and an icon of Our Lord. They sang a litany of salvation to the
Lord and then they preached the Word of Life to the King and his attendants.
Ethelbert wished to deliberate for a few days: Your words and
promises are very fair, but as they are new to us, and of uncertain
import, I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have
so long followed with the whole English nation. But because you are
come from far into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous to impart
to us those things which you believe to be true, and most beneficial,
we will not molest you, but give you favourable entertainment, and take
care to supply you with your necessary sustenance; nor do we forbid
you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion.
He gave them permission to reside in the royal city of Canterbury,
which was the capital of his domain. Here Augustine and his monks made
a great impression on the king and his people by the way in which they
lived their monastic life and soon there were many converts.
The King and People are Converted
There was at that time in Canterbury a little church dedicated to St
Martin built in the times of the Romans. This had become the private
chapel of the Christian Princess Bertha. The church was made over to
Augustine and the new converts, whose numbers were rapidly increasing
and it was not long before the king himself was baptised in this little
ancient church at Pentecost 597AD. The greater number of his nobles
and people followed his example. The king insisted that no one should
be forced to accept Christianity; he knew that true service of Christ
must be accepted freely, in faith.
Under the wise orders of Gregory the Great, Augustine aided the growth
from the ancient traditions to the new life by consecrating pagan temples
for Christian worship and turning pagan festivals into feast days of
Augustine sent two of his monks to Pope Gregory with news of their
success and a request for more help. Gregory responded by sending more
missionaries and stores of ecclesiastical furniture such especially
as could not be obtained in England. Among these treasures was
a copy of the Gospel of St Luke, which can still be seen.
Augustine travelled to France for his consecration as Archbishop of
the English nation and on his return set about building a larger church
and monastery in Canterbury, very little of which now remains.
He now began to turn his thoughts towards those Christian communities
that were in these islands before his arrival. These Christians had
kept aloof and refused to have any communion with him. As we have seen,
most of the ancient Celtic Christians were at this time settled in Wales,
Cornwall and in parts of Scotland and some had moved to Ireland. The
main cause for contention was the date for the observance of Easter.
So Augustine with Ethelberts co-operation invited the chief Doctors
and Bishops of the Welsh to a conference in 602 but no agreement could
be found. A second meeting was arranged, but this was to no avail. Augustines
efforts to reconcile the British Christians met with no success.
The Death of St Augustine
Not long after this Augustine was taken to his rest; few particulars
are given of his death not even the exact year but it was possibly 604AD.
Bede only tells us After this, the beloved of God; Father Augustine,
died, and his body was deposited without, close by the church of the
apostles, Peter and Paul, above spoken of, by reason that the same was
not yet finished, nor consecrated, but as soon as it was dedicated,
the body was brought in, and decently buried in the north porch thereof.
On the tomb of St Augustine is written this epitaph Here rests
the Lord Augustine, first archbishop of Canterbury, who, being formerly
sent hither by the blessed Gregory, bishop of the city of Rome, and
by Gods assistance supported with miracles, reduced King Ethelbert
and his nation from the worship of idols to the faith of Christ, and
having ended the days of his office in peace, died the 26th day of May,
in the reign of the same king.
St Augustines Legacy
Augustine was only in England for eight years before he died but in
those years he laid the foundations of a reviving English Church. When
Christians were to suffer persecution again the Archbishopric would
remain in Canterbury and thus form a base for later re-evangelising
missions. It is for us to continue Augustines work. As Cardinal
Hume said What Augustine did in his day, we must do again in ours.
We as a parish must try to follow the example of St Augustine in bringing
the Gospel of Jesus to all those around us.
ST AUGUSTINES ABBEY
(Extract from Grace-filled Days for the Friends of
St Annes Cathedral to commemorate the visit to Leeds
of His Holiness Pope John Paul in May 1982)
Tread softly oer this sacred ground
as evening shadows lengthen so
and in the fading light remember
another Spring so long ago.
Nigh fourteen hundred years have passed
as Winter gave way to Spring
from across the sea came a holy man
who would keep counsel with Kings.
To this quiet corner of England
blossom-clad neath a deep blue sky
the gambol of lambs and bird-song
would greet him as he passed by.
With his band of forty shaven men
a silver cross borne on high
to peasants in their wattled homes
a strange procession passes by.
They hear an even stranger chant
in tongues they cannot understand
a King obeys the Voice of God
as many follow throughout the land.
Outside the walls of the city
journeys end on this Pilgrim Way
Augustine built his Abbey Church
there rests his tomb today.
We owe what happened in England
to a Saint both holy and wise
who kept faith long ago with his angels
with the searching look in their eyes.
Tread softly still in the twilight
upon these hallowed lawns and pray
for another holy man who came
within our midst in the month of May.
To this noble city of Cantuar
as in days of yore St Augustine trod
his Blessing gave neath the same blue skies
a man who brought the Peace of God.