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For a large part of the liturgical year, we devote ourselves to listening to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects unfolded as we seek God's truth and understanding.
Augustine of Canterbury, Bishop, d. c. 605
St. Gregory the Great, pope during Augustine’s adult life, had a vision of re-evangelizing Anglo-Saxon England. To accomplish this, he selected about thirty of the monks from his monastery in Rome, including their prior, Augustine. This group set out for England in 596.
When the group reached the English Channel, they received warnings that the Anglo-Saxons were a wild and fierce people and the monks would be in great danger if they crossed over the Channel to England. The monks asked Augustine to seek reassurance from the pope, so Augustine returned to Rome where St. Gregory encouraged him and his monks to continue with their mission, promising them that he was certain that the English were ready for conversion.
Arriving in the territory of Kent, the missionaries sent word to the English king that they came to spread the good news. King Ethelbert (later St. Ethelbert), whose wife was Christian though he himself was not, came to meet them. Ethelbert had no objection to the monks preaching, allowing them to convert any of his people who would believe in Christ. King Ethelbert himself was baptized in the following year. Having learned well from his teachers, the king would not force any of his people to become Christian, the service of Christ being voluntary. Upon his conversion, however, many of his followers were also baptized. Soon after, Augustine was consecrated the bishop of the English.
Augustine’s success in his mission overjoyed the pope who sent another band of missionaries to assist him. Gregory outlined for Augustine the steps which he should take to establish the Church in England. Local customs were to be maintained as far as possible, substituting the feast days of saints for heathen festivals. Pagan temples were to be purified and consecrated as Christian churches for, as Gregory wrote, “he who would climb to a lofty height must go by steps, not leaps.”
Augustine kept busy spreading the faith. In Canterbury, he rebuilt an ancient church as the center of his see, which stood on the site of the present day cathedral. Outside the walls of Canterbury, he established an abbey which he dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul. After his death, this abbey became known as St. Augustine’s. He also established sees in London and Rochester.
Augustine died on May 26 in about the year 605, seven years after his arrival in England. He is honored in England and Wales on that date. In this country, his memorial is celebrated one day later, on the 27th of May.
Augustine’s message today: Like many of us, Augustine had some doubts before he set off on his mission, but, with God’s reassurance through the pope, he proceeded on to great successes.