Our parish patron saint, Augustine of Canterbury, was living a quiet life in late sixth century Rome as Prior of St. Andrew Monastery, which was established under Pope Gregory’s patrimony and was where the Pope himself had once been Prior. Gregory called upon Augustine to lead a mission to England to fulfill the Pope’s dream of bringing the Christian faith to that country. Previous missionaries, sent before the Saxon conquest, had been killed, had fled into hiding or had returned to Rome with stories of the cruelty and barbarity of the Saxons. Pope Gregory knew that a strong hand, like that of Augustine, would be needed to convince the Saxons to become Christians themselves. Augustine was also given the task of bringing the wayward Christians already living in the English Islands and Ireland back to allegiance under Rome and the Pope.
Augustine and about forty other monks set off at the behest of Pope Gregory but were ready to turn back upon hearing of the uncivilized tribes spreading violence and mayhem throughout England. The fear of the great unknown that lay before them stopped the group at the coast of France. Augustine fled to Rome and beseeched the Pope to release him from his duty. Gregory reassured Augustine and urged his group to continue on, believing that the time was ripe for England to be evangelized. He sent Augustine back to his group of monks with a message:
Since it is better not to begin good works than to have second thoughts and withdraw from those that are begun, you must, my dearest sons, zealously complete the good works you have begun. Neither the toil of the journey, nor the tongues of evil speakers should deter you; therefore carry out with all instancy and fervor what you have begun by God’s help, knowing that the greater the labor, the greater the reward of eternal glory... May almighty God protect you by his grace and grant me to behold in the eternal country the fruit of your labor, for although I cannot labor with you, I do indeed desire to do so; may I share in the joy of your reward.
In the spring of 597 the monastic band of travelers crossed the channel. They were told a Christian queen would welcome them, and much to their relief, they were embraced warmly by King Aethelbert and his Frankish queen, Bertha. Legend says that this first meeting took place under a great oak, a tree symbolic of hospitality in iconography. Aethelbert gave Augustine and his monks land and buildings in Canterbury to establish their mission. The king invited his people to listen to the monks, but he would not permit the monks to force conversion on anyone. Under Augustine’s influence, the monks lived simply among the local people, always respecting their customs. Their lives were a witness to Christianity as they preached of God’s love, cared for the poor and prayed constantly.
Impressed by Augustine’s and the monks’ ways, the king himself requested instruction and was baptized at Pentecost. With this foothold, Augustine was consecrated Archbishop of the English. Aethelbert continued to allow his subjects religious freedom of choice; yet because of Augustine’s teachings more than ten thousand people were baptized of their own free will that Christmas. King Aethelbert allowed his territory to be mapped out into dioceses and began to speak to the Celtic bishops on behalf of his Archbishop, Augustine, and Pope Gregory. Augustine was sent priests, liturgical books, vestments and vessels to expand his mission. Pagan temples were converted for Christian worship and pagan festivals were turned into martyrs’ feast days. Finally Pope Gregory’s ultimate mission to bring the British isles under the Church’s influence was coming to fruition under Augustine’s influence.
Augustine continuously turned to the Pope for wisdom and direction. When word spread that Augustine was healing the sick and performing miraculous cures, people flocked to the monastery. Gregory advised Augustine:
...And whatsoever you shall receive or have received in relation to working miracles, see that you consider the same, not as conferred on you, but on those for whose salvation it has been given you.
Augustine died in 605. In the eight years that Augustine lived among the tribes of England, his mission of conversion grew slowly, but he never again wavered in his teaching of Christ’s saving love. Gregory’s advice to Augustine is as important today as it was then: “He who would climb to a lofty height must go by steps, not by leaps.”