early 6th century, Rome, Italy
26 May 604, Canterbury, Kent, England
Today, May 27, we celebrate the feast of Saint Augustine of Canterbury (sometimes referred to as “Saint Augustine the Lesser,” died 605), called the “Apostle of England,” and the eventual first Archbishop of Canterbury. Not to be confused with his namesake, Saint Augustine of Hippo, the work of Saint Augustine of Canterbury is widely regarded as the birth of conversion in England, beginning the slow process of conversion of Celtic tradition and reconciliation with Rome. Much of what is known of Saint Augustine of Canterbury is taken from letters written by Pope Saint Gregory the Great, and through the written ecclesiastical history of England written by Saint Bede. Little is known about Augustine’s early life.
When Augustine was finished, King Ethelbert said: “Your words and promises are very beautiful. But because they are new and uncertain, I cannot approve them and leave everything that I along with all my people have followed for so long a time. However, since you have traveled from afar and made a long journey in order to share with us what you deem to be truer and better, I will not place obstacles in your way, but will receive you well and offer what is necessary for your subsistence. Nor will I impede you from bringing to your religion all those whom you are able to persuade.” He allowed them to remain on the isle, providing them a place to live and land on which to build (in what would later become Canterbury), and the opportunity to preach as they wished. Eventually, impressed with the community under the direction of Saint Augustine, King Ethelbert converted and was baptized. Despite the fact that the king did not force his subjects to become Christian, and instead instituted a policy of religious choice, many of his subjects converted to Catholicism (sources place the number at “10,000” subjects). In the midst of this mild success, Pope Gregory cautioned him against pride, writing “fear lest, amidst the wonders that are done, the weak mind be puffed up by self-esteem.”
Augustine, following his initial success in England, traveled to France, where he was consecrated as a bishop, and subsequently returned to Canterbury to establish a vigorous community of religious life. With him he brought a priceless collection of illuminated manuscripts, still present and preserved today. He reconsecrated and rebuilt a church at Canterbury, and founded the monastery of Saint Peter and Saint Paul Outside the Walls (now sometimes known as Saint Augustine’s). He is further credited with founding the King’s School at Canterbury, the world’s oldest school. The remains of some of these early buildings remain near the now famous cathedral, built in later years at Canterbury.
Despite the spread of Christianity throughout England, progress was slow, and Augustine met with considerable failure along the way, reminding us that the lives of the saints are not always easy or joyous. He was met with much opposition and disappointment, and frequently turned to Pope Saint Gregory for encouragement and inspiration. Pope Gregory wisely suggested that Augustine work within the customs of the English people (much like Saint Patrick did in Ireland), purifying rather than destroying pagan temples and customs, transforming pagan rites and festivals into Christian feasts, and retaining local customs whenever possible and appropriate. Pope Gregory wrote:
“The temples of the idols among that people should on no account be destroyed... it is a good idea to detach them from the service of the devil, and dedicate them to the service of the true God. And since they have a custom of sacrificing many oxen to demons, let some other solemnity be substituted ... so that they may learn to slay their cattle in honor of God and for their own feasting . . . If they are allowed some worldly pleasures in this way, they are more likely to find their way to the true inner joys. For it is doubtless impossible to eradicate all errors at one stroke . . . just as the man who sets out to climb a high mountain does not advance by leaps and bounds, but goes upward step by step and pace by pace. It is in this way that the Lord revealed himself to the Israelite people.”
Augustine followed this directive, encouraging his monks to do the same. Even so, by the time of Saint Augustine’s death in 605, the work of evangelization of England had only just begun. It is believed, however, that he lay the groundwork for the eventual spread of Christianity throughout the kingdom.
Augustine was obedient and steadfast, despite meeting many obstacles. He lived the Benedictine doctrine of “presence, not confrontation” in preaching the Gospel. His perseverance, in the face of opposition and difficulty, is inspiring even today. He was a man of humility, who doubted his ability to make small decisions, seeking counsel and writing to Pope Gregory for reassurance and advice. He truly followed the advice of his counselor, who wrote: "He who would climb to a lofty height must go by steps, not leaps." Augustine died after just 8 long years, toiling in England. He was buried in Canterbury, at the monastery he founded. Throughout his life, Saint Augustine of Canterbury realized that he was but one man, who reported to a higher authority. He sought guidance from Pope Saint Gregory during his times of great difficulty, turning to God whenever he met obstacles (which were all too frequent!). The great pope sent many letters of support and spiritual counsel, including the one excerpted here: Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth, because the grain of wheat has fallen into the earth and has died. Christ has died in order to reign in heaven. Not only that: by his death we live; by his weakness we are strengthened; by his passion we are freed from suffering; impelled by his love, we are seeking in Britain brothers whom we do not know; through his help we have found those for whom we were searching, although we were not acquainted with them. Who, dear brother, is capable of describing the great joy of believers when they have learned what the grace of Almighty God and your own cooperation achieved among the Angles? They abandoned the errors of darkness and were bathed with the light of holy faith. With full awareness they trampled on the idols which they had previously adored with savage fear. They are now committed to Almighty God. The guidelines given them for their preaching restrain them from falling into evil ways. In their minds they are submissive to the divine precepts and consequently feel uplifted. They bow down to the ground in prayer lest their minds cling too closely to earthly things. Whose achievement is this? It is the achievement of him who said: My Father is at work until now and I am at work as well. God chose illiterate preachers and sent them into the world in order to show the world that conversion is brought about not by men's wisdom but rather by his own power. So in like manner God worked through weak instruments and wrought great things among the Angles. Dear brother, in this heavenly gift there is something which should inspire us with great fear and great joy.
For I know through your love for that people, specially chosen for you, that Almighty God has performed great miracles. But it is necessary that the same heavenly gift should cause you to rejoice with fear and to fear with gladness. You should be glad because by means of external miracles the soul of the Angles (English) have been led to interior grace. But you should tremble lest, on account of these signs, the preacher's own weak soul be puffed up with presumption; lest, while seeming externally raised aloft in honor, it fall internally as a result of vainglory.
We should remember that when the disciples on their joyous return from their preaching mission said to their heavenly master: Lord, in your name even devils were subjected to us, he immediately retorted: Do not rejoice about this but rather that your names are written in heaven.
The life of Saint Augustine of Canterbury reminds us that we all need the support of those around us, and more importantly, the grace of God to persevere in our daily lives. We are confronted each day with obstacles—many quite small—but some which seem insurmountable. We have ample opportunities to turn from our faith, to give up, to give in. Saint Augustine’s obedience and zeal for his work, accompanied by the patient counsel and encouragement of Pope Saint Gregory, remind us that the Lord provides the support we need to accomplish great things—both in heaven and on earth. We may not always seek that support. We may not even be aware that it exists. Or it may come from the most unlikely of places (like a pagan king intrigued by the Gospel!). When we are lost and confused, we are reminded that we are not alone, and have the Lord to assist us in taking our steps (not leaps) toward the achievement of His lofty goals for each of us!
God, Our Father,
by the preaching of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, you led the people of England to the Gospel. May the fruits of his work continue in your Church. Grant that through his intercession, the hearts of those who err may return to the unity of your truth and that we may be of one mind in doing your will.
Help us to work in a spirit of trust and love, as well as a spirit of prudence and understanding, so that we may grow as God’s faithful. May harmony reign ever among us. Because of your example in living the Gospel, we dedicate ourselves,through your intercession, to live that same Gospel.
Implore on our behalf the favor of an ever-deepening trust in God’s goodness and love. Obtain God’s grace for us that we may grow in faith, hope, love and all virtues. Grant that by imitating you we may imitate our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. Watch over us and help us to reach that place where you live with all the saints for ever and ever. Amen.
Text shared from 365 Rosaries Blog