The life of St. Augustine of Canterbury serves as a wonderful inspiration and example for any mission parish whose task is the spread of the Gospel.
St. Gregory the Great, who before becoming Pope of Rome in 592 had a great desire to travel to Britain to convert the heathen Angles and Saxons, instead sent St. Augustine, an Italian-born monk of the Monastery of St. Andrew. Christianity had already been introduced in this land – to the Britons (Celts), who had been forced by war to retreat to the north and West – and by the Romans, during their occupation of the South. But the tribes of the Angles and Saxons, who now occupied much of Britain were still in ignorance of the Christian faith. It was time for a great missionary work in this land.
Augustine and a company of monks set out for England in 596 with letters of commendation to bishops in Gaul. Hearing stories of the savage barbarism of the Anglo-Saxons and the dangers of travel across the Channel, the monks, in their fear, decided to turn back and abandon their mission. They asked Augustine to go back to St. Gregory and explain their decision. Instead, St. Gregory gave Augustine the position of Abbot over the other monks and sent him back toward England with these words of encouragement: “My very dear sons, it is better never to undertake any high enterprise than to abandon it when once begun…Be constant and zealous in carrying out this enterprise which, under God’s guidance, you have undertaken and be assured that the greater the labor, the greater will be the glory of your eternal reward.”
In resuming their journey toward Britain, Augustine and his monks were given hospitality by Etherius, the bishop of Arles and were given the help of Franks who could act as interpreters with the Angles and Saxons.
The missionary party first landed on an island off the coast of Kent and sent word, through the interpreters, to King Ethelbert (the most powerful of the local rulers) that they had brought “glad news” and that “whoever would receive it would have eternal joy in heaven in an everlasting kingdom.”
The “ground-work” had already been laid with King Ethelbert – his wife, Bertha, a Frankish princess, was a Christian and had brought a bishop-chaplain with her as part of the royal marriage agreement. But Ethelbert was still a pagan and was cautious. When he finally agreed to meet Augustine – outside to prevent any “magic spell” which the monks might cast on him – he witnessed a procession of the monks, carrying a silver cross and an icon of the Savior. They sang a litany for the eternal salvation of themselves and those to whom they had come, and the king then allowed them to preach to him of their religion. Ethelbert offered them a house in Canterbury, the largest city in his realm. An old (even at this time!) church, dedicated to St. Martin, left over from the time of Roman occupation provided a place for prayers, Mass, and baptisms of new converts. On Pentecost of 597, the King and many of his household were baptized and the mission was well underway.
Augustine returned to Bishop Etherius in Arles where, at St. Gregory’s direction, he was consecrated bishop. More clergy, sacred vessels, and relics of the saints were sent to aid in the missionary effort. Books were sent, establishing learning as a high priority and singers who could lead and teach chanting came to emphasize the importance of music in Christian worship. From now until Augustine’s death in about 604, he continued the slow, steady work of an evangelist, always seeking the advice of his Patriarch on matters of particular concern in a largely pagan country.
One major question was what to do about pagan temples and idols. Gregory’s wise response was that only the idols should be destroyed but that “the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if those temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God.” Augustine was instructed to institute festivals of the saints or other church observances to replace those pagan celebrations that the people had formerly engaged in.
Augustine asked Gregory why, since the same faith is held, there were different customs and different ways of celebrating Mass in different parts of the world and what should be the way in Britain. Pope Gregory replied that Augustine was more familiar with Roman ways since that was where he had been brought up, but that he should “select from each of the churches whatever things are devout, religious, and right” and establish those things in the church of the English. On the question of marriages to close kin and other practices which the people had engaged in before their baptisms, Augustine was instructed to refrain from punishing the people for sins committed in their ignorance, but to teach them what is proper for life after their baptisms. “It is certainly impossible to eradicate all errors from obstinate minds at one stroke, and whoever wishes to climb to a mountaintop climbs gradually step by step, and not in one leap.”
The only real failure in Augustine’s mission was his inability to reconcile the British (Celtic) bishops with himself and the newly converted Anglo-Saxon Christians. Centuries of tribal distrust could not be overcome at this time.
May God grant us who have also been given the work of missionaries to labor with the zeal and dedication of St. Augustine and with the wisdom of St. Gregory, always praying for the intercessions of these two great fathers of the church on our behalf.
All quotations are from “A History of the English Church and People” by the Venerable Bede.