Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Bishop, Apostle of England

May 28

Today is the feast day of Saint Augustine of Canterbury.  Ora pro nobis.

by Fr. Prosper Gueranger 1870

Four hundred years had scarcely elapsed, since the glorious death of Eleutherius, when a second Apostle of Britain ascended from this world, and on this same day, to the abode of eternal bliss. We cannot but be struck at this circumstance of our two Apostles’ names appearing thus together on the Calendar: it shows us, that God has His own special reasons in fixing the day for the death of each one among us. We have more than once noticed these providential coincidences, which form one of the chief characteristics of the Liturgical Cycle. What a beautiful sight is this which is brought before us today, of this first Archbishop of Canterbury, who, after honouring on this day, the saintly memory of the holy Pontiff from whom England first received the Gospel, himself ascended into heaven, and shared with Eleutherius the eternity of heaven’s joy! Who would not acknowledge in this, a pledge of the predilection wherewith heaven has favoured this country, which, after centuries of fidelity to the Truth, has now, for three hundred years, been an enemy to her own truest glory!

The work begun by Eleutherius had been almost entirely destroyed by the invasion of the Saxons and Angli; so that a new Mission, a new preaching of the Gospel, had become a necessity. It was Rome that again supplied the want. St. Gregory the Great was the originator of the great design. Had it been permitted him, he would have taken upon himself the fatigues of this Apostolate to our country. He was deeply impressed with the idea that he was to be the spiritual Father of those poor Islanders, some of whom he had seen exposed in the market-place of Rome, that they might be sold as slaves. Not being allowed to undertake the work himself, he looked around him for men whom he might send as Apostles to our Island. He found them in the Benedictine Monastery, where he himself had spent several years of his life. There started from Rome forty Monks, with Augustine at their head, and they entered England under the Standard of the Cross.

Thus the new race, that then peopled the Island, received the Faith, as the Britains had previously done, from the hands of a Pope; and Monks were their teachers in the science of salvation. The word of Augustine and his companions fructified in this privileged soil. It, of course, took him some time before he could provide the whole nation with instruction; but neither Rome, nor the Benedictines, abandoned the work thus begun. The few remnants, that were still left of the ancient British Christianity, joined the new converts; and England merited to be called, for long ages, the “Island of Saints.”

The history of St. Augustine’s Apostolate in England is of a thrilling interest. The landing of the Roman Missioners, and their marching through the Country, to the chant of the Litany; the willing and almost kind welcome given them by king Ethelbert; the influence exercised by his queen Bertha, (who was French and Catholic,) in the establishment of the Faith among the Saxons; the baptism of ten thousand Neophytes, on Christmas Day, and in the bed of a river; the foundation of the metropolitan See of Canterbury, one of the most illustrious Churches of Christendom by the holiness and noble doings of its Archbishops; yes, all these admirable episodes of England’s conversion are eloquent proofs of God’s predilection of our dear Land. Augustine’s peaceful and gentle character, together with his love of contemplation amidst his arduous Missionary labours, gives an additional charm to this magnificent page of the Church’s history. But, who can help feeling sad at the thought, that a country, favoured, as ours has been, with such graces, should have apostatized from the Faith? have repaid with hatred that Rome, which made her Christian? and have persecuted, with unheard-of cruelties, the Benedictine Order, to which she owed so much of her glory?

We subjoin the following Lessons on the Life of our Apostle,
taken from an Office approved of by the Holy See.

Augustine was a Monk of the Monastery of Saint Andrew, in Rome, where also he discharged the office of Prior, with much piety and prudence. He was taken from that Monastery, by St Gregory the Great; and sent by him, with about forty Monks of the same Monastery, into Britain. Thus would Gregory carry out, by his disciples, the conversion of that Country to Christ, a project which he at first resolved to effect himself. They had not advanced far on their journey, when they got frightened at the difficulty of such an enterprise; but Gregory encouraged them by letters, which he sent to Augustine, whom he appointed as their Abbot, and gave him letters of introduction to the kings of the Franks, and to the Bishops of Gaul. Whereupon, Augustine and his Monks pursued their journey with haste. He visited the Tomb of St. Martin, at Tours. Having reached the town of Pont-de-Ce, not far from Angers, he was badly treated by its inhabitants, and was compelled to spend the night in the open air. Having struck the ground with his staff, a fountain miraculously sprang up; and, on that spot, a Church was afterwards built, and called after his name.

Having procured interpreters from the Franks, he proceeded to England, and landed at the Isle of Thanet. He entered the Country, carrying, as a Standard, a silver Cross, and a painting representing our Saviour. Thus did he present himself before Ethelbert, the king of Kent, who readily provided the heralds of the Gospel with a dwelling in the city of Canterbury, and gave them leave to preach in his kingdom. There was, close at hand, an Oratory which had been built in honour of St. Martin, when the Romans had possession of Britain. It was in this Oratory that his queen Bertha, (who was a Christian, as being of the nation of the Franks,) was wont to pray. Augustine, therefore, entered into Canterbury with solemn religious ceremony, amidst the chanting of psalms and litanies. He took up his abode, for some time, near to the said Oratory; and there, together with his Monks, led an apostolic life. Such manner of living, conjointly with the heavenly doctrine that was preached and confirmed by many miracles, so reconciled the Islanders, that many of them were induced to embrace the Christian Faith. The king himself was also converted, and Augustine baptized him and a very great number of his people. On one Christmas Day, he baptized upwards of ten thousand English, in a river at York; and it is related, that those among them, who were suffering any malady, received bodily health, as well as their spiritual regeneration.

Meanwhile, the man of God Augustine, received a command from Gregory to go and receive Episcopal ordination in Gaul, at the hands of Virgilius, the Bishop of Arles. On his return, he established his See at Canterbury, in the Church of our Saviour, which he had built, and he kept there some of the Monks to be his fellow-labourers. He also built in the suburbs the Monastery of Saint Peter, which was afterwards called ” Saint Augustine’s.” When Gregory heard of the conversion of the Angli, which was told to him by the two Monks Laurence and Peter, whom Augustine had sent to Rome, he wrote letters of congratulation to Augustine. He gave him power to arrange all that concerned the Church in England, and to wear the Pallium. In the same letters, he admonished him to be on his guard against priding himself on the miracles, which God enabled him to work for the salvation of souls, but which pride would turn to the injury of him that worked them.

Having thus put in order the affairs of the Church in England, Augustine held a Council with the Bishops and Doctors of the ancient Britons, who had long been at variance with the Roman Church in the keeping of Easter, and other rites. And in order to refute, by miracles, these men, whom the Apostolic See had often authoritatively admonished, but to no purpose, Augustine, in proof of the truth of his assertions, restored sight to a blind man, in their presence. But, on their refusing to yield even after witnessing the miracle, Augustine, with prophetic warning, told them of the punishment that awaited them. At length, after having laboured so long for Christ, and appointed Laurence as his successor, he took his departure for heaven, on the seventh of the Calends of June (May 26th,) and was buried in the Monastery of Saint Peter, which became the burying place of the Archbishops of Canterbury, and of several Kings. The Churches of England honoured him with great devotion. They decreed that, each year, his Feast should be kept as a day of rest, and that his Name should be inserted in the Litany, immediately after that of St. Gregory, together with whom Augustine has ever been honoured by the English as their Apostle, and as the propagator of the Benedictine Order in their country. (1)

His death fell in the same year says a very early tradition (which can be traced back to Archbishop Theodore’s time) as that of his beloved father and patron, Pope Gregory. Thorn, however, who attempts always to give the Canterbury version of these legends, asserts — somewhat inaccurately, it would appear, if his coincidences be rigorously tested — that it took place in 605. He was buried, in true Roman fashion, outside the walls of the Kentish capital in a grave dug by the side of the great Roman road which then ran from Deal to Canterbury over St. Martin’s Hill and near the unfinished abbey church which he had begun in honour of Sts. Peter and Paul and which was afterwards to be dedicated to his memory. When the monastery was completed, his relics were translated to a tomb prepared for them in the north porch. A modern hospital is said to occupy the site of his last resting place. [Stanley, “Memorials of Canterbury” (1906), 38.] His feast day in the Roman Calendar is kept on 28 May; but in the proper of the English office it occurs two days earlier, the true anniversary of his death. (3)

Image: Saint Augustine of Canterbury (5)

Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff


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