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APOSTLE OF THE ENGLISH

Father Francis's picture
Saint Augustine of Canterbury

The English nation owes a debt of gratitude to Saint Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, who can truly be called the Apostle of the English although he might never have set foot on English soil, had it not been for a pope and a slave boy.

Christianity had been brought to the island of Britain during the 4th century, but from around 450 onwards successive waves of invaders meant that by the mid sixth century only the Celtic fringes in the west and far north of the British island retained the Christian faith. The land now known as England was inhabited by Angles and Saxons who worshipped pagan gods.

According to tradition it was Pope Gregory's encounter with some Anglo-Saxon children which resulted in a papal mission being sent to their nation. Seeing some striking blond-haired boys in the market place he asked from which country they had come. On being told that they were from a heathen race called Angles, he exclaimed that they looked like angels and deserved to be brought to Christ.

It was in 596 that a small party of some 30 monks set out from Rome to preach the gospel to the Anglo-Saxons. They were led by Augustine but travelling across Europe they heard terrifying reports of the ferocious people on the other side of the Channel, and decided to turn back. The Pope, however, urged them to continue.

The monks set out again and landed in Kent, a kingdom ruled by King Ethelbert, a pagan with a Christian wife, so Augustine and his companions were warmly received. A residence was provided for them in Canterbury and on Pentecost Sunday 597 Ethelbert was baptised. Augustine established his see at Canterbury, building a church and monastery dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul on the site where the present Cathedral stands.

The monks led a simple life, praying, preaching and living frugally. By their example, and with King Ethelbert's support and encouragement, the faith began to spread, and Augustine was able to send messengers to Rome to tell Pope Gregory what had been achieved. Many letters were exchanged and Gregory gave Augustine practical advice on building up the Church, in particular, recommending a tactful approach to pagan customs.

Augustine also faced difficulties with the Celtic Church. The Celts bitterly detested the Saxons and refused to make any attempt to share their Christian faith with them. When the Saxons were converted by Augustine and his monks they accepted the Roman rites, but the Celtic Church, because of its isolation, had developed rites and customs which were at variance with Rome. It was Augustine's great desire to establish Catholic unity throughout the country but the Celts could not be persuaded to give up their traditions. Augustine therefore devoted the rest of his life to consolidating and extending the faith throughout England. Many new churches were built, and the sees of London and Rochester were established.

Augustine died on 26 May 604 and he was buried in his church of SS. Peter and Paul, his epitaph acknowledging that he "guided King Ethelbert and his people from the worship of idols to the Faith of Christ."

England owes so much to Pope Gregory, Augustine of Canterbury and his Benedictine monks. We call upon Saint Augustine to come to our aid and once again convert our country.