Those of us who live in the Washington area are accustomed to seeing careers rise and fall with changes in the political climate, and it is not surprising to us when someone who was in favor is suddenly sent packing with a change in administration. What we may find surprising is that some of the saints of the Church have experienced these same situations. One such saint was Mellitus of Canterbury, whom the Church honors on April 24.
We read of St. Mellitus in the pages of the chronicle of English Church history which St. Bede the Venerable wrote in 731. Bede tells us that the progress made by the first group of missionary monks sent by Pope Gregory to the Anglo-Saxons in Britain under the leadership of St. Augustine was so great that St. Gregory had to send additional help.
Mellitus was St. Gregory’s choice to lead a new group. He was an abbot, probably from the monastery dedicated to St. Andrew which Gregory had founded on his family estate in Rome. While Mellitus and the other monks were still en route to Britain, the pope wrote a letter describing a change in his directions for their missionary work. His earlier instructions had been to destroy all the pagan shrines and altars and then convince the people of the truth of Christianity. Gregory had now come to a wiser approach and directed the missionaries to leave the pagan buildings standing and to respect the cycle of festivals and celebrations which they were accustomed to. The monks should instead destroy only the idols and “baptize” the buildings and customs into the Christian Church. They should permit the people, for instance, to have a harvest festival but to render their thanks to God, the Creator of all life, instead of a pagan earth god or goddess. This more charitable and pastoral approach proved to be of much greater value in the conversion of people all over the world.
The newly-arrived monks were helpful in continuing the work begun by the first missionaries. In 604, Augustine consecrated Mellitus to serve as the bishop for the East Saxons, with London as the see city, and he consecrated Justus to be the bishop of the city of Rochester.
Archbishop Augustine died soon after the consecrations and was succeeded in office by Laurence, who also tried to exert his authority over the British and Irish who had accepted Christianity long before the Anglo-Saxons. In contrast with the steady progress in converting the Anglo-Saxons which the missionaries had experienced so far, conflicts arose with the British Christians, primarily over the date for the celebration of Easter. The age-old animosity between these races of people could not be overcome by their common religion when the practices of that religion were very different.
Then, in 616, King Ethelbert, who from the beginning of this endeavor had protected and zealously supported the missionaries, died. His son and successor, Eadbald, had never accepted Christianity and he immediately changed the climate for the practice of the faith. He began by taking his father’s wife for himself and effected a return to pagan practices by the people.
Soon Saeberhrt, Ethelbert’s nephew who had served as the local ruler over the East Saxons, also died, leaving three pagan sons to take control of his territory. These sons made life extremely difficult for Bishop Mellitus and his monks. On one occasion, they came into the church when the bishop was celebrating the Divine Liturgy and demanded the he give them the “white bread” he was giving to the faithful who were in attendance. The bishop told them that they could receive the bread only if they would be cleansed in the font of baptism as their father had done. They refused, expressing no need for such a thing, and they expelled the bishop from the kingdom.
What a sad turn of events in the life of the Church! Mellitus consulted with Archbishop Laurence and Bishop Justus and they mutually agreed that they should all go to Gaul to await more favorable times for the Anglo-Saxon mission.
But God’s plan did not allow the holy bishops to give up on these people. Mellitus and Justus went to Gaul, but Laurence, preparing to join them, had a dream in which St. Peter appeared to him, scolded him harshly for attempting to leave his flock to the wolves, and flogged him severely. In the morning, with the marks of this supernatural flogging clearly visible on his back, the bishop went to King Eadbald. He told him of the dream and said that St. Peter’s actions were done out of concern for the king’s salvation. Much moved by this event, King Eadbald had a change of heart. He gave up his unlawful wife, received instruction and was baptized, promising to allow the missionaries to continue their work among the people.
Laurence sent for bishops Mellitus and Justus to return from exile and, when it was apparent that the East Saxons were still not ready to return to the fold of the Church, Bishop Mellitus assisted Laurence in Canterbury. When Archbishop Laurence fell asleep in the Lord in 619, Mellitus was elevated to follow in his place as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Despite suffering the infirmities caused by gout, Archbishop Mellitus’ care for the Anglo-Saxon people extended beyond concern for the condition of their souls to temporal matters as well. At times, he exhibited miraculous powers in coming to the aid of his people. On one occasion, Canterbury was ablaze with a fire which had been carelessly set. Seeing the people in danger and unable to put the fire out with water, the bishop asked to be carried into the midst of the flames. Standing before the Church of the Four Crowned Martyrs, with the fiery blaze all around, the archbishop prayed fervently that God would save the people and the city. Very soon, the direction of the wind changed and then it became calm and the flames died away. God had heard the prayers of his faithful servant, Mellitus.
St. Mellitus reached the end of his earthly pilgrimage on April 24 in the year 624 and was buried in the Church of St. Peter in Canterbury near his predecessors, Augustine and Laurence. Thirty years later, the people of London, who had expelled St. Mellitus many years before, returned to the Christian faith, and eventually the whole island of Britain was converted, fulfilling the work begun by the missionaries which Pope St. Gregory had sent out in 592.
We give thanks to God for the perseverance of St. Mellitus who, despite changing circumstances and even exile, was faithful to the task before him. We give thanks that, due to his efforts and that of his companion missionaries, Christianity was brought to the English people. May he intercede for us as we continue to preach Christianity to English-speaking people.