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Augustine: first Archbishop of Canterbury

Features

Msgr John Broadbent
4 May 2012

May 28

altPope St Gregory I, who died in 604, had seen young boys from England being sold in the markets of Rome. He was sorry for these young fair-haired and fair-skinned boys being sold as slaves and, when he heard they were not Christians, resolved to work for their conversion. He was supposed to have said ‘They are not Angles but angels by their looks.’

A dangerous mission
He chose a group of monks from his own monastery on the Caelian Hill in Rome where he had been Abbot, to go to England and at their head put the prior of the monastery, Augustine. Gregory could have chosen only a man he trusted for such a dangerous and important mission. The Angles and Saxons were noted for their ferocity.

In 597 AD St Augustine and his monks arrived at the channel between France and England. He was discouraged by the rumours of the ferocity of the inhabitants who had driven the British into Wales when they conquered England some two centuries before.

Pope Gregory wrote again from Rome that he had heard the English were well disposed towards the Christian faith, especially in Kent where the king had married a Christian Frankish princess.

Augustine went ahead and they landed on the island of Thanet in Kent, in King Ethelbert’s territory.

King Ethelbert listened to what Augustine and his fellow monks said, allowed them to preach, and gave them the old Roman church of St Martin.

A regal conversion
Ethelbert was baptised at Pentecost 597 after which Augustine went to France and was consecrated Bishop of the English in Arles and given the pallium of archbishop.
Augustine then returned to Rome with two of his monks to report to Gregory and request more helpers. They were sent back with sacred vessels, altar cloths, vestments, furniture for churches, relics and books.

Gregory showed his pastoral wisdom by telling them not to destroy pagan temples to which people were used to going, but to purify and consecrate them for Christian worship. He also said that pagan festivals should be replaced by Christian ones. As St Gregory said, ‘He who would climb to a lofty height must go by steps, not leaps.’

Based in Canterbury
Augustine made Canterbury his centre and built a cathedral there. The original was replaced by the present cathedral in the 11th century. Outside the city’s walls he built a monastery where most of the early archbishops were buried.

Augustine then turned to Wales where the ancient British were pretty well Christian by the time the Romans left. The church was strong with its own bishops, and sound in doctrine, but Celtic in many of its customs.

Scorned by the British bishops
Augustine invited the leading bishops to meet him at a place on the border of Wessex and Wales. He urged them to comply with the Roman Church as it was now and join him in converting the Anglo-Saxons whom they hated.

They retorted that the Anglo-Saxons had driven them out of their own land. Besides, they took a dislike to Augustine himself who did not rise to greet them, as was the Roman custom. The British bishops thought Augustine was lacking in humility and refused to come a second time.

Augustine and his monks returned to Kent to strengthen the faith they had planted. Some of them became apostles to other English kingdoms.

St Augustine died in May 604 and his sanctity was recognised from earliest times. The Archbishops of Canterbury were Catholic until Henry VIII.

St Augustine had a wise mentor in St Gregory who had written to him on hearing of some miracles Augustine had wrought:

Amidst the wonders that are done, the weak mind may be puffed up by self-esteem; and so the thing whereby it is outwardly raised to honour cause it to fall through vain glory – all the elect do not work miracles and yet the names of all are written in heaven.