St. Augustine of Canterbury

(Died AD 605)

Roman Britain received Christianity as early as the second century, and the Britons (who were Celts) were fairly well Christianized and organized by the year 400.

At that time, however, fearing the invasion of two other pagan Celtic peoples, the Picts (of Scotland) and the Scots (of Ireland), British King Vortigern, though himself a Christian, invited the warlike Angles, Saxons and Jutes, pagan Germanic peoples who lived in the present Netherlands and Denmark, to come to his aid. Come they did in what amounted to a permanent invasion. Thus Christian Britain was largely repaganized.

Many of the Celtic Christians took flight to Brittany in northern France. Those who stayed in Britannia fled westward to Wales and Cornwall. Did their churchmen who remained seek to preach the Gospel to these invading heathens? No. Filled with bitter hatred, they refused to have any dealings with them. As one British abbot said, “We will never, never preach the faith to this cruel race of foreigners who have so treacherously robbed us of our native soil!”

But St. Gregory the Great, then pope, could not in conscience deny the Good News of Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons. He decided to send to them from Rome itself a band of missionaries. He chose monks of the Roman monastery of St. Andrew, and he named as leader their monastic prior, Augustine (not to be confused with the great Augustine of Hippo in Africa).

This missionary band set out on their long westward journey in 596. Crossing the Channel, they went, according to papal instructions, to the kingdom of Kent, where ruled King Ethelbert, “chairman” of the five Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain. The monks had feared a harsh reception, but Ethelbert (whose queen was Catholic) gave them a hospitable hearing, and then gladly granted them permission to preach as they chose, although he insisted that there would be no forced conversions on his part or theirs.

A few months later he himself asked for baptism. At the outset, he had given them a church and a monastic dwelling at Canterbury. Thereafter he aided Augustine and the Pope in many ways, persuading them, for instance, to keep Canterbury as the metropolitan see, and helping them to set up its first two suffragan sees at Rochester and London in 604. Today this benefactor of the faith is venerated as a saint in his own right. His feast is on February 25.

Augustine’s mission throve particularly because he followed carefully the prudent recommendations of Pope Gregory. The Pope counseled him, for instance, to approach the Anglo-Saxons gently. Don’t abolish their religious sentiments, but Christianize them: make churches out of their temples; substitute saints’ days for “gods’ days,” “baptize” their customs. This was a magnificent and fruitful missiology!

Once the conversions were well under way in Kent, Augustine turned to the British churchmen to invite them to cooperate with him in broadening the Anglo-Saxon mission. But these Britons still refused. They would be fully reconciled to the papal plan only many decades later.

What a pity that ethnic and national differences so often lead Christians to forget the primary law of love!

Augustine (or Austin) of Canterbury died in 605. Although he had served the Anglo-Saxons for only nine years, he had given the English mission a strong start, and founded a church both dear and loyal to the Bishops of Rome. Through politics, the Church of England broke with the See of Peter in later centuries, but its organization still retains the format given to it by St. Gregory, and still venerates as its founder St. Augustine, the first Primate of All England.

--Father Robert F. McNamara