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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Augustine Of Canterbury

May 24, 2016 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

A Celtic cross erected in 1884 marks the spot in Ebbsfleet, Thanet, East Kent, where St. Augustine of Canterbury is said to have landed in 597.
While some form of Christianity in England may be traced back to the times of the Roman occupation, it did not become a strong presence until the arrival of St. Augustine, who came at the invitation of King Ethelbert who asked him and his monks to come to please his Christian wife, Bertha. Up until that time, what remained of the Christian presence was quite isolated from the Roman Church and in need of holy priests to administer the sacraments and preach to the people.
The life of St. Augustine began in Rome in the mid-sixth century, where he was most likely born of wealthy and noble parents. As a youth, he became a monk at the St. Andrew monastery on Caelian Hill erected by Pope St. Gregory I, who used his personal resources for the project. The monastery was based on the rule of St. Benedict (480-547).
(This monastery is now known today as San Gregorio Magno al Celio and is occupied by the Camaldolese monks, a part of the Benedictine family of monastic communities. It is located about three miles southeast of the Vatican.)
Thus when Augustine attended this monastery, he became a close associate of Pope St. Gregory I — a relationship that would facilitate the growth of one of the most influential Catholic churches of the English-speaking world.
Pope St. Gregory was particularly drawn to converting the young English slaves whom he saw in the Rome marketplace. When he became Pope in 590, he prepared to carry out that dream, searching for priests who would be fit for the task of going to England. Pope Gregory turned to the monastery on the Caelian Hill, one which he had ruled for ten years.
Pope Gregory, who was prior of St. Andrew’s at the time, went to the peaceful domain of prayer and study to meet the monks and, after careful deliberation, he selected forty men and appointed St. Augustine to be their representative. Pope Gregory had left Augustine in charge of the administration and spiritual direction of the monks so he was well aware of his abilities as a leader. In addition, Augustine must have been well educated, since Gregory had written to Ethelbert about Augustine’s great knowledge of the Bible.
The men received little instruction or direction as they waited for their opportunity to leave for England — it would take several years before they left Rome. Pope Gregory still had much to do before missionaries could be sent to England.
The first part of Pope Gregory’s plan was to purchase males slaves from England who were at least 17 years old and who would be formed in the faith. When these men had successfully completed the course, they would be ordained priests and then return to England to evangelize their countrymen.
To finance this endeavor, Pope Gregory enlisted the support of King Theuderic II of Burgundy, King Theudebert II of Austrasia, and their grandmother Brunhild, who were related to King Ethelbert in Kent. Finally, the Pope received an invitation from King Ethelbert, a pagan, who sent a request to the Pope for men to come and preach to his people. His wife was a devout Christian and had pleaded with her husband to find some spiritual directors for her and her family.
In 595 the group of men left for England, but when they reached Gaul, they learned of perils that lay ahead so they returned to Rome. When the Pope’s letters were delivered and King Ethelbert sent his invitation, St. Augustine and his men left Rome in the spring of 597 and landed on the Isle of Thanet.
The men were well received by King Ethelbert of Kent who provided quarters for them in Canterbury. There, St. Augustine later set up his episcopal see at St. Martin’s Church. Here they preached and evangelized the people, bringing many into the Church, including King Ethelbert.
In the fall of 597 Augustine was consecrated as bishop of the English people by St. Virgilius at Arles. Vatican archives reveal a letter written in 601 by Pope Gregory to King Ethelbert and his wife. The Pope addressed the king as “his son” and also mentioned the king’s Baptism.
Besides preaching and administering the sacraments, Augustine founded the Monastery of Saints Peter and Paul on land donated by the king. This abbey was the first Benedictine abbey founded outside of Italy.
Although parts of the Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul were destroyed in 1538 during of the English Reformation, the ruins and remains of the structure have been preserved for their historical value. It is now known as St. Augustine’s Abbey.
After more than 10,000 conversions, Augustine sent Lawrence of Canterbury back to Rome with word of their accomplishments and with questions regarding their work. These questions dealt with marriages, punishments for offenses, Baptisms, and who could receive Holy Communion.
With his response, the Pope sent even more missionaries to Kent as well as a pallium for St. Augustine, sacred vestments, and books. The Pope also gave directions to Augustine to ordain 12 bishops to serve in London and another 12 to serve in York, nearly 200 miles north of London. In 604 Augustine consecrated bishops for two new sees: Bishop Mellitus in London and Bishop Justus in Rochester.
Although the Pope also instructed Augustine to move his episcopal see to London, the transfer never happened — perhaps because London was not part of Elbert’s kingdom.
Because of a diplomatic misunderstanding at a meeting called by King Ethelbert south of the Severn, on the western side of England, the Christians in Wales and Dumnonia refused to obey Pope Gregory’s decree that they should submit to Augustine. This conflict included differences on the observance of Easter, the reception of tonsure, and differences in asceticism, not to mention the political and social differences as well.
In addition to the above tasks, Augustine also established what is said to be the oldest operating school in the Western Hemisphere: King’s School Canterbury. It was founded with the intention of preparing men who would serve the East Anglia Mission.
After nearly 10 years of hard labor for the Church, Augustine died on May 26, 604. Before his death, he had consecrated Lawrence of Canterbury to be his successor. Augustine’s remains were buried in the abbey, but were lost in the destruction of the Reformation. His feast day is celebrated on May 27.
Dear St. Augustine, strengthened by a life of prayer and education, you spread the word of God, and expanded His Kingdom in a predominantly pagan culture. Guide us by your intercession so that we may pray every day, seeking direction in converting our pagan culture that has lost its direction. Amen.

+ + +

(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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