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Catholic Heroes… St. Augustine Of Canterbury

September 27, 2022 saints No Comments

By DEB PIROCH

Apostle, Benedictine monk, first archbishop of Canterbury, and the founder of the First Eccliastical See in England, St. Augustine of Canterbury is not a name remembered by many Americans. But as England buries Queen Elizabeth II this week, we hear much of Her Majesty’s Christian faith. Without St. Augustine’s work, would Christianity in England exist at all as it is at all? This is an occasion to recall that while the Reformation led to England sadly abandoning the faith, the Queen also was the first to make overtures to Catholics since the time of Elizabeth I.
Canterbury is an ancient city, predating Roman times. Back in the sixth century, when Pope Gregory the Great dreamt of what could be, he turned to his own monastery and there chose approximately forty monks. The prior then was an Italian, likely of noble birth, and the monastery was St. Andrew’s built on Celian Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome. Its prior was Augustine and he agreed to the trip in June 596, but in Gaul some wished to turn back, perhaps worried by stories of the frightful paganism of the Anglo-Saxons. Augustine agreed to a stop, insofar as to return to the Pope and put their difficulties before the Holy Father. Urged on by the Pope, Gregory the Great also had St. Augustine made abbot, according to the Venerable Bede, and sent them a message with more encouragement.
Augustine returned to the men waiting in France by July and the men forged ahead. They likely wintered in France and were told to hire Frankish interpreters before proceeding, likely crossing in the spring. One of the first whom St. Augustine would convert was King Ethelbert of Kent, the grandfather of St. Eanswythe about whom we did a column a few weeks ago. The king, married to a Frankish princess, Bertha, knew they were coming and arranged that he would meet them, coming twelve miles from Canterbury to the Isle of Thanet. They met in open air and told the king, “how the compassionate Jesus had redeemed a world of sin by His own agony and opened up the Kingdom of Heaven to all who would believe,” to which he responded with grace:
“Your words and promises are very fair, but as they are new to us and of uncertain import, I cannot assent to them and give up what I have long held in common with the whole English nation. But since you have come as strangers from so great a distance, and, as I take it, are anxious to have us also share in what you conceive to be both excellent and true, we will not interfere with you, but receive you, rather, in kindly hospitality and take care to provide what may be necessary for your support. Moreover, we make no objection to your winning as many converts as you can to your creed” — The Venerable Bede.
As we mentioned then, Romans had brought Christianity to England, but paganism was still entrenched. Augustine won King Ethelbert’s conversion and that would open many doors. The King granted the monks a home at Canterbury and a place to say Mass at Old St. Martin’s Church, where the family worshipped, as well.
St. Augustine did not force any man to convert, says Bede, but it was obvious that conversion of the King was bound to have an effect. According to the historian, 10,000 were baptized on Christmas Day 597, and no doubt there was feasting that year! News was sent to Pope Gregory, who wrote back of his joy to Augustine, the King, and his wife. Also sent to the Pope were a list of dubia or questions regarding ritual and discipline on how they were to act in certain respects. And it was Gregory who entrusted to Augustine all the bishops of England, making him truly the first archbishop of Canterbury.
The seeds of the faith germinated in many saints, in the early years Saints Mellitus and Justus, early bishops of London and Rochester. Centuries later, St. Thomas Becket would be slain at the cathedral that would rise up in Canterbury. Later still, St. Margaret Roper would be buried in the family vault of St. Dunstan’s, elsewhere in Canterbury, taking with her the relic of her father’s head. Her father was, of course, St. Thomas More.
One of Augustine’s great disappointments was the failure to achieve unity with the Celtic bishops. The Celtic bishops rejected his authority and deemed him prideful, which was a great pain to him. The last efforts of his life were attempts to achieve uniformity in the faith.
There are no known images of the saint that have survived the centuries. If history is accurate, he is believed to have died the same year as his friend, Pope Gregory. He was buried in Roman fashion by the side of road near the abbey church that he had begun, named in honor of Saints Peter and Paul. His relics were later translated to the church.
Augustine’s feast day of May 28 is a day to contemplate the same divisions in unity that still afflict the nation of England and, indeed, the United Kingdom. King Charles III is now the supreme head of the Anglican Church in England but, of the Catholic Church, he will never be. Queen Elizabeth II made groundbreaking overtures to repair divisions with the Church even before her coronation, visiting Pope Pius XII in 1951. She visited Pope John XXIII in Italy in 1961, and in 1980 achieved the first state visit by a British monarch to the Vatican. The following year Pope St. John Paul II was the first reigning Pope to visit the United Kingdom. This was not a state but a pastoral trip, sponsored and funded by the Church. Pope John Paul governed the Church for 26 years, the Queen governed England for 70 years, but both achieved the status of visiting over one hundred nations.
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI received the first state invitation by the Queen to visit Scotland, and first ever to address the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. (Any address by Pope John Paul had been previously rejected by Prime Minister Thatcher in 1982, given the Irish “troubles.”) On September 17, 2010 Pope Benedict said:
“The dilemma which faced [St. Thomas] More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process….
“I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere….This overview of recent cooperation between the United Kingdom and the Holy See illustrates well how much progress has been made, in the years that have passed since the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, in promoting throughout the world the many core values that we share….
“For such cooperation to be possible, religious bodies — including institutions linked to the Catholic Church — need to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the Church. In this way, such basic rights as religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of association are guaranteed” — Pope Benedict XVI.
Given the immediate judgment, we trust that Her Majesty does now truly understand and is in harmonious agreement with all Defenders of the Faith.

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