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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Bede The Venerable

May 12, 2015 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

In northern England — what is now known as the county of Tyne and Wear — on the Wear River sits St. Peter’s at Monkwearmouth. About seven miles away are the ruins of St. Paul’s Parish, which contain the oldest stained-glass window in the world. Both churches played an important role in the development of Christianity in England, leading them to be selected as a World Heritage Site and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
In the mid-seventh century, Benedict Biscop received some land from Egfrid, king of Northumbria, to build a monastery and church. The monastery, completed in 674, became the major Anglo-Saxon center of learning in northern England. In 678, the Pope — probably Pope Agatho, who was elected that year — urged Biscop to start another monastery because St. Peter’s was such a success. The new building became known as St. Paul’s.
Benedict Biscop traveled to Rome and Europe frequently, returning with so many books and works of art that the monastery became known for its literary treasures, including many writings of the Fathers of the Church. It also became the center of book production.
In 793 the Viking raids destroyed part of the monastery, with the Danes completing the near destruction in 860. Only one or two monks remained in the ruins; those ruins were finally given away to associates of Henry VIII in the mid-16th century.
Of all the students and monks who resided in these august walls, Bede the Venerable is certainly the most renowned: the Father of English History.
Very little is known about Bede, who spent nearly all his life at the monastery. He was born in 672, most likely to wealthy parents. When Bede was seven years old, his parents sent him to the twin monasteries, entrusting him to the care of St. Benedict Biscop. Here he stayed for the rest of his life, rarely leaving its walls to visit friends.
At the age of ten he was transferred to St. Paul’s under the guardianship of St. Ceolfrid. This saint recommended him for Ordination to the diaconate when Bede was 19 and later to the priesthood when he turned 30. Both Ordinations were presided over by Bishop John (St. John of Beverley).
Between the time of his Ordination and his death, he passed his time studying Scripture, observing monastic discipline, and singing in the Church. During this period his extraordinary holiness led others to call him Bede the Venerable. He demonstrated moderation, gentleness, and breadth of view. His favorite past-times were to learn, to teach, and to write, “For my own use and that of my brethren.”
St. Bede found great joy in this reading, writing, and studying. The extensive library collected by Benedict brought many hours of work and enjoyment for Bede. He spent most of his time studying the writings of the fathers of the Church and the reading of Sacred Scripture.
Since he had mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, he also excelled at translating the Sacred Scriptures. (He was the first to write a commentary on the Book of Revelation.) So eager was Bede to write commentaries on the Scriptures, supported by writings of the Church fathers, that he developed a new style of writing much smaller than what was commonly used in the production of books. In this time before the printing press, the smaller script greatly shortened the time to produce a book.
Hence St. Peter and St. Paul at Jarrow became known as one of the great book-producing monasteries of the time. Bede’s familiarity with the writings of St. Augustine, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and others helped him in writing about Sacred Scripture. In addition, Bede was the first to insist that the passages he used from the Church fathers be completely noted in the text of his translations and commentaries.
St. Bede also wrote a five-volume history of the Church in England, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.” This history covered the time from the raids of Julius Caesar in 55-45 B.C. until the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury in 597. The work was acclaimed as the “finest historical work of the Middle Ages.”
Bede may have been the first to write a complete history of the world from creation to the year 725. In this history, Bede became the first historian to use the distinction of Anno Domino (the year of our Lord) to distinguish historical events that happened after the birth of Christ.
In writing these histories, he took great pains to collect accurate information as well as making a careful analysis of various authors in order to have a comprehensive work. Bede became widely acclaimed as the most brilliant historian of his time.
In all of his writings, he insisted that all historical accounts must be subordinated to the words of Holy Scripture, “Holy Scripture is above all other books not only because it is divine, or by its utility because it leads to eternal life, but also by its antiquity and its literary form.” He wrote that his notes were “in conformity with their meaning and interpretation.”
St. Bede even wrote some papers on music. His two compositions about music were Musica Theoretica and De arte Metrica.
St. Bede was greatly loved by his fellow monks as testified by Cuthbert, one of his disciples, who described Bede’s last moments. Bede became ill around 734, but continued his studies without interruption as his fellow monks read aloud to him. Frequently, the readers took a break in order to contain their tears. Meanwhile, Bede thanked God without ceasing as Cuthbert explains, “I can with truth declare, that I never saw with my eyes or heard with my ears anyone return thanks so unceasingly to the living God.”
On the Vigil of the Ascension, May 25, 735, the end was near. Still, Bede continued to dictate the end of his translation of the Gospel of John into the vernacular. As Bede paused, his young assistant, Wilbert, noted that he needed one more sentence. After Bede completed the sentence and Wilbert told Bede it was done, Bede exclaimed, “Take my head in thy hands for it much delights me to sit opposite any holy place where I used to pray, that so sitting I may call upon my Father.” His final words he sang with joy, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.”
Many consider Bede as the most learned man of his time. At the Council of Aachen in 853, he was formally declared to be Bede the Venerable. In 1899 Pope Leo XIII declared him as doctor of the Church, making Bede the only English-born person to receive the title.
His tomb is in the Anglican Cathedral of Durham along with the relics of St. Cuthbert. The Church celebrates his feast day on May 25.
Dear St. Bede the Venerable, instill in us a zeal for the writings of the fathers of the Church.

+ + +

(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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