The Memorial of St Augustine of Canterbury
There were Christians in Britain before the invasions of Angles and Saxons in the fifth century, but the invasions created a new situation. So Pope St Gregory the Great decided in 596 to send a mission to the pagan Anglo-Saxons, and as a monk himself, he knew where to turn. In Chapter 5 of his Rule, St Benedict had written: “Those who cherish Christ above all…no longer live by their own judgment, giving in to their whims and appetites; rather they walk according to another’s decisions and directions, choosing to live in monasteries and to have an abbot over them”.
Gregory seems to have thought that monks could just as well lead the monastic life in pagan territory as they could in Rome, and that they could be missionaries simply by being faithful to their vows. At any rate, he selected a group of forty monks from his own monastery on the Coelian hill in Rome, led by their prior, Augustine. He could count on these monks to be faithful to their vow of obedience, and no longer live by their own judgment. If Augustine had told the pope that he’d prefer to stay in Rome, the entire history of Christianity in England would have been different, and we would not be celebrating Augustine as a saint today.
But as it is, these monks “walked according to another’s decisions and directions”, and arrived in Kent in the summer of 597. They were well received by King Ethelbert, whose wife, Bertha, was a Christian. The king allowed them the use of an old church built on the east side of Canterbury, dating from the Roman occupation of Britain. St Bede the Venerable tells us what happened next: “As soon as they had occupied the house given to them, they began to emulate the life of the apostles and the primitive Church. They were constantly at prayer; they fasted and kept vigils; they preached the word of life to whomsoever they could. They regarded worldly things as of little importance and accepted only the necessities of life from those they taught … In the old church they assembled to sing the Psalms, to pray, to say Mass, and to preach”.
As St Bede tells it, St Augustine and his monks did more for the conversion of England by being obedient and faithful to the monastic life, than anyone who had simply decided to go off on his own and convert the pagans.
Probably in 601, Ethelbert was converted, and so became the first Christian king in England. At about the same time, Augustine was ordained bishop somewhere in France and thus became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. He died on May 26, probably in 605, and is honored by Anglicans and Catholics alike. The lesson for all of us is that those who leave everything, even their own self-will, and follow Jesus, will find their reward in the kingdom of heaven.