Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Confessor, Apostle of the English

Author: Lives of Saints


Feast: May 28

When Pope Gregory began to plan for the evangelization of England, the land was still largely pagan, although in the southwest there were remnants of earlier missionary efforts. To lead this important mission, Gregory chose Augustine, prior of St. Andrew's monastery in Rome, of which Gregory had been the founder. Nothing is known of Augustine's life until the year 596, when, with a party of Benedictine monks, he set out northwards from Rome. He carried letters of commendation to various Gallic bishops. On reaching Provence, the monks accompanying Augustine grew fearful of the dangers that lay ahead. Alarming stories were told of the ferocity of the pagans and the hazards of the Channel crossing. They persuaded Augustine to return to Rome to ask the Pope's permission to abandon the whole enterprise. Meanwhile the Pope had received word that the common people of England and also some of their chieftains and kings were ready to welcome Christian missionaries. After Pope Gregory had told Augustine this news and had discussed the situation with him further, Augustine rejoined his companions and inspired them with his own courage. Taking with them several Franks to act as interpreters, the party crossed safely over to the Isle of Thanet, in the domain of Ethelbert, King of Kent, whom they formally notified of their arrival and of their purpose in coming.

Ethelbert was still a pagan, but his wife Bertha, daughter of King Charibert of the Franks, had been converted to Christianity. Sitting under a spreading oak, Ethelbert received the missionaries. After listening carefully to their words, he gave them permission to preach to his subjects. He also made over to them a house in Canterbury, with the use of the little stone church of St. Martin, which had stood there since the period of Roman occupation. This had formerly been the oratory of Queen Bertha and her confessor Liud hard. Ethelbert was converted and baptized at Pentecost, 597. After this promising start, Augustine went back to Provence to be consecrated bishop by Vergilius, metropolitan of Arles and papal legate for Gaul. On his return some ten thousand of Ethelbert's subjects were baptized in the Swale River.

Augustine, greatly heartened by the success of his mission, now sent two of his monks to Rome to report to the Pope, and to ask for more helpers. Also he wished to have the Pope's counsel on various problems. When the monks came back to England with a fresh band of missionaries, they brought the pallium for Augustine. Among the new group were Mellitus, Justus, and Paulinus, who was afterwards archbishop of York. With these "ministers of the Word," wrote the Venerable Bede, "the holy Pope sent all things needed in general for divine worship and the service of the Church, viz. sacred vessels, altar cloths, ornaments for churches, and vestments for priests and clerks, and also many books." The latter item was especially important, for the books helped to inspire the great love of learning which characterized the English Church.

Gregory sent to Augustine a plan for developing an ecclesiastical hierarchy and establishing a working organization for the whole country-a plan which was not fully carried out in Augustine's lifetime. There was to be a northern and a southern province, with twelve suffragan bishops in each. In a letter to Mellitus, which is presented earlier, following the life of <St. Gregory>, he gave instruction on other points, showing his administrative ability as well as considerable psychological insight. Pagan temples were, as far as possible, to be Christianized and retained. Consecration rites and feasts of martyrs were to replace the heathen festivals, for, Gregory wisely writes, "he who would climb to a lofty height must go by steps, not leaps."

In 603 Augustine rebuilt and reconsecrated the Canterbury church and the house given him by King Ethelbert. These structures formed the nucleus for his metropolitan cathedral. They were destroyed by fire in 1067, and the present cathedral, begun by the great Lanfranc in 1070, stands on their site. A converted temple outside the walls of Canterbury was made into another religious house, which Augustine dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. After his death this abbey became known as St. Augustine's.

With the King's support, the Christianization of Kent proceeded rapidly, but Gregory's charge had stated, "All the bishops of Britain we commend to your Fraternity." The survivors of the ancient British or Celtic Church and their bishops had been driven westward and southward into Wales and Cornwall by the Saxon conquerors of the fifth century. Here they had persisted as Christian communities, cut off from the outside world. Although they were sound in fundamental doctrine, some of their usages were at variance with those of Rome. Now, in virtue of his archiepiscopal jurisdiction, Augustine invited the Celtic bishops to meet with him at a spot outside the confines of Wessex, which has since come to be known as Augustine's Oak. In long conferences with the representatives of the Celtic Church Augustine urged them to comply with the customs of the rest of Western Christendom, in particular in the method of determining the date of Easter, and to aid him in converting the pagans. Loyalty to their own local traditions, however, and bitterness against their Saxon conquerors, made them unwilling to agree, even though Augustine performed a miracle of healing in their presence to prove the supernatural source of his authority. They consented to attend a second conference, held in Flintshire, but it too proved a failure. Augustine did not rise to greet his Celtic brothers when they arrived and they felt that he lacked Christian humility. They refused either to listen to him or acknowledge him as their archbishop. It was not until 664, at the Synod of Whitby, that their differences were resolved and ecclesiastical uniformity was established.

Augustine's last years were spent in spreading and consolidating the faith in Ethelbert's realm, which comprised large sections of eastern England south of Northumbria. Sees were established in London and Rochester, with Mellitus appointed bishop over one and Justus over the other. Seven years after his arrival Augustine died, leaving the continuation of his work to others.

Correspondence with Pope Gregory I

<On his return to Britain he (Augustine) sent Laurentius the> priest and Peter the monk to Rome to inform Pope Gregory that the English nation had accepted the faith of Christ and that he himself was made their bishop. At the same time he requested his solutions to some problems that had occurred to him. He soon received satisfactory answers to his questions, which we have thought suitable to insert in this history.

<First question of Augustine, Bishop of the Church of Canterbury>: As regards bishops, how are they to conduct themselves towards their clergy? In how many portions should the gifts of the faithful to the altar be divided? How is the bishop to act in the church?

<Answer of Gregory, Pope of the City of Rome>: Holy Writ, with which doubtless you are familiar, has instruction for you, in particular, St. Paul's Epistle to Timothy, wherein he endeavors to explain to him how he should behave himself in the house of God. The Apostolic See is accustomed to prescribe rules to bishops newly ordained, that all revenues that accrue should be divided into four portions: one for the bishop and his household for purposes of hospitality and entertainment, another for the clergy, a third for the poor, and a fourth for the upkeep of churches. But since you, my brother, were brought up under monastic rules and should not live apart from your clergy in the English church, which by God's help has lately been brought into the faith, you will follow that course of life which our forefathers led in the time of the primitive church, when no one called anything he possessed his own but all things were common among them....

<Augustine's Second Question>: Whereas the faith is one and the same, why are there different customs in different churches? And why is one custom at masses observed in the holy Roman church and another in the Gallican church?

<Pope Gregory answers>: You know, my brother, the custom of the Roman church in which you remember you were trained. But if you have found anything in either the Roman or the Gallican or any other church which may be more acceptable to Almighty God, I am willing that you carefully make choice of the same and diligently teach the English church, which is as yet new in the faith, whatever you can gather from the several churches. For things are not to be loved for the sake of places but places for the sake of good things. Select, therefore, from every church the things that are devout religious and upright, and when you have, as it were, combined them into one body, let the minds of the English be trained therein.

<Auqustine's Third Question>: I beg you to tell me what punishment to inflict if a man takes anything away by stealth from the church.

<Gregory answers>: You may judge, my brother, by the person of the thief how he is to be corrected. For there are some who having plenty commit theft, and there are others who sin in this way from poverty. Wherefore it is right that some be punished in their purses, others with stripes, some with more severity, others more mildly. When severity is greater, it must proceed from charity, not from anger, because he who is corrected is thus treated in order that he may not be delivered over to hell- fire... You may add that they are to restore the things they have stolen from the Church. But God forbid that the church should make profit from earthly things it seems to lose or seek gain out of such vanities.

<Augustine's Fourth Question>: Whether two brothers may marry two sisters who are of a family far removed from them?

<Gregory answers>: This may lawfully be done, for nothing found in Holy Writ appears to forbid it...

(Bede, <Ecclesiastical History of England>, ed. by J. A.)

Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Confessor, Apostle of the English. Celebration of Feast Day is May 28. Taken from "Lives of Saints", Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.