Bishop, Apostle of England
Four hundred years had scarcely elapsed, since the glorious death of Eleutherius, when a second Apostle of Britain ascended from this world, and on this same day, to the abode of eternal bliss. We cannot but be struck at this circumstance of our two Apostles’ names appearing thus together on the Calendar: it shows us, that God has His own special reasons in fixing the day for the death of each one among us. We have more than once noticed these providential coincidences, which form one of the chief characteristics of the Liturgical Cycle. What a beautiful sight is this which is brought before us today, of this first Archbishop of Canterbury, who, after honouring on this day, the saintly memory of the holy Pontiff from whom England first received the Gospel, himself ascended into heaven, and shared with Eleutherius the eternity of heaven’s joy! Who would not acknowledge in this, a pledge of the predilection wherewith heaven has favoured this country, which, after centuries of fidelity to the Truth, has now, for three hundred years, been an enemy to her own truest glory!
The work begun by Eleutherius had been almost entirely destroyed by the invasion of the Saxons and Angli; so that a new Mission, a new preaching of the Gospel, had become a necessity. It was Rome that again supplied the want. St. Gregory the Great was the originator of the great design. Had it been permitted him, he would have taken upon himself the fatigues of this Apostolate to our country. He was deeply impressed with the idea that he was to be the spiritual Father of those poor Islanders, some of whom he had seen exposed in the market-place of Rome, that they might be sold as slaves. Not being allowed to undertake the work himself, he looked around him for men whom he might send as Apostles to our Island. He found them in the Benedictine Monastery, where he himself had spent several years of his life. There started from Rome forty Monks, with Augustine at their head, and they entered England under the Standard of the Cross.
Thus the new race, that then peopled the Island, received the Faith, as the Britains had previously done, from the hands of a Pope; and Monks were their teachers in the science of salvation. The word of Augustine and his companions fructified in this privileged soil. It, of course, took him some time before he could provide the whole nation with instruction; but neither Rome, nor the Benedictines, abandoned the work thus begun. The few remnants, that were still left of the ancient British Christianity, joined the new converts; and England merited to be called, for long ages, the “Island of Saints.”
The history of St. Augustine’s Apostolate in England is of a thrilling interest. The landing of the Roman Missioners, and their marching through the Country, to the chant of the Litany; the willing and almost kind welcome given them by king Ethelbert; the influence exercised by his queen Bertha, (who was French and Catholic,) in the establishment of the Faith among the Saxons; the baptism of ten thousand Neophytes, on Christmas Day, and in the bed of a river; the foundation of the metropolitan See of Canterbury, one of the most illustrious Churches of Christendom by the holiness and noble doings of its Archbishops; yes, all these admirable episodes of England’s conversion are eloquent proofs of God’s predilection of our dear Land. Augustine’s peaceful and gentle character, together with his love of contemplation amidst his arduous Missionary labours, gives an additional charm to this magnificent page of the Church’s history. But, who can help feeling sad at the thought, that a country, favoured, as ours has been, with such graces, should have apostatized from the Faith? have repaid with hatred that Rome, which made her Christian? and have persecuted, with unheard-of cruelties, the Benedictine Order, to which she owed so much of her glory?
We subjoin the following Lessons on the Life of our Apostle,
taken from an Office approved of by the Holy See.
Augustine was a Monk of the Monastery of Saint Andrew, in Rome, where also he discharged the office of Prior, with much piety and prudence. He was taken from that Monastery, by St Gregory the Great; and sent by him, with about forty Monks of the same Monastery, into Britain. Thus would Gregory carry out, by his disciples, the conversion of that Country to Christ, a project which he at first resolved to effect himself. They had not advanced far on their journey, when they got frightened at the difficulty of such an enterprise; but Gregory encouraged them by letters, which he sent to Augustine, whom he appointed as their Abbot, and gave him letters of introduction to the kings of the Franks, and to the Bishops of Gaul. Whereupon, Augustine and his Monks pursued their journey with haste. He visited the Tomb of St. Martin, at Tours. Having reached the town of Pont-de-Ce, not far from Angers, he was badly treated by its inhabitants, and was compelled to spend the night in the open air. Having struck the ground with his staff, a fountain miraculously sprang up; and, on that spot, a Church was afterwards built, and called after his name.
Having procured interpreters from the Franks, he proceeded to England, and landed at the Isle of Thanet. He entered the Country, carrying, as a Standard, a silver Cross, and a painting representing our Saviour. Thus did he present himself before Ethelbert, the king of Kent, who readily provided the heralds of the Gospel with a dwelling in the city of Canterbury, and gave them leave to preach in his kingdom. There was, close at hand, an Oratory which had been built in honour of St. Martin, when the Romans had possession of Britain. It was in this Oratory that his queen Bertha, (who was a Christian, as being of the nation of the Franks,) was wont to pray. Augustine, therefore, entered into Canterbury with solemn religious ceremony, amidst the chanting of psalms and litanies. He took up his abode, for some time, near to the said Oratory; and there, together with his Monks, led an apostolic life. Such manner of living, conjointly with the heavenly doctrine that was preached and confirmed by many miracles, so reconciled the Islanders, that many of them were induced to embrace the Christian Faith. The king himself was also converted, and Augustine baptized him and a very great number of his people. On one Christmas Day, he baptized upwards of ten thousand English, in a river at York; and it is related, that those among them, who were suffering any malady, received bodily health, as well as their spiritual regeneration.
Meanwhile, the man of God Augustine, received a command from Gregory to go and receive Episcopal ordination in Gaul, at the hands of Virgilius, the Bishop of Arles. On his return, he established his See at Canterbury, in the Church of our Saviour, which he had built, and he kept there some of the Monks to be his fellow-labourers. He also built in the suburbs the Monastery of Saint Peter, which was afterwards called ” Saint Augustine’s.” When Gregory heard of the conversion of the Angli, which was told to him by the two Monks Laurence and Peter, whom Augustine had sent to Rome, he wrote letters of congratulation to Augustine. He gave him power to arrange all that concerned the Church in England, and to wear the Pallium. In the same letters, he admonished him to be on his guard against priding himself on the miracles, which God enabled him to work for the salvation of souls, but which pride would turn to the injury of him that worked them.
Having thus put in order the affairs of the Church in England, Augustine held a Council with the Bishops and Doctors of the ancient Britons, who had long been at variance with the Roman Church in the keeping of Easter, and other rites. And in order to refute, by miracles, these men, whom the Apostolic See had often authoritatively admonished, but to no purpose, Augustine, in proof of the truth of his assertions, restored sight to a blind man, in their presence. But, on their refusing to yield even after witnessing the miracle, Augustine, with prophetic warning, told them of the punishment that awaited them. At length, after having laboured so long for Christ, and appointed Laurence as his successor, he took his departure for heaven, on the seventh of the Calends of June (May 26th,) and was buried in the Monastery of Saint Peter, which became the burying place of the Archbishops of Canterbury, and of several Kings. The Churches of England honoured him with great devotion. They decreed that, each year, his Feast should be kept as a day of rest, and that his Name should be inserted in the Litany, immediately after that of St. Gregory, together with whom Augustine has ever been honoured by the English as their Apostle, and as the propagator of the Benedictine Order in their country.
We also give the following Hymn in honour of our Apostle, which has also been approved of by the Holy See.
O Isle fruitful in Saints, sing a hymn to thine Apostle! Praise, in holy song, the son of Gregory!
Made fertile by his toil, thou gavest a rich harvest, and, for ages, wast famed for thy flowers of Sanctity.
He enters England, having with him his forty Brethren. He bears the Standard of Christ. He is the Leader, and brings the pledges of Peace.
The trophy of the Cross glitters in the air; the word of salvation is spread through the land. Yea, the king himself, though a barbarian, receives the Faith with a ready heart.
The nation casts aside its savage ways; it is baptized in the river’s stream, and is born to its New Life, on the very Day that the Sun of Justice rose upon our earth.
O kind Shepherd! from thy heavenly throne, feed thy children. Thy flock has gone astray; lead it back to its anxious Mother’s love.
O Blessed Trinity, that art ever pouring the dew of grace upon thy Vine! grant that the ancient Faith may rise again and flourish in our Land! Amen.
O Jesus, our Risen Lord! Thou art the Life of Nations, as Thou art the Life of our souls. Thou biddest them know and love and serve Thee, for they have been given to Thee for thine inheritance; and, at Thine own appointed time, each of them is made Thy possession (Ps. ii. 8). Our own dear country was one of the earliest to be called; and, when on thy Cross, Thou lookedst with mercy on this far Island of the West. In the second Age of Thy Church, Thou didst send to her the heralds of Thy Gospel; and again in the Sixth, Augustine, Thine Apostle, commissioned by Gregory, Thy Vicar, came to teach the way of Truth to the new pagan race that had made itself the owner of this highly favoured land.
How glorious, dear Jesus, was Thy reign in our Fatherland! Thou gavest her Bishops, Doctors, Kings, Monks, and Virgins, whose virtues and works made the whole world speak of her as the “Isle of Saints;” and it is to Augustine, Thy disciple and herald, that Thou wouldst have us attribute the chief part of the honour of so grand a conquest. Long indeed was thy Reign over this people, whose Faith was lauded throughout the whole world; but, alas! an evil hour came, and England rebelled against Thee; she would not have thee to reign over her (St. Luke. xix. 14). By her influence, she led other nations astray. She hated Thee in Thy Vicar; she repudiated the greater part of the truths Thou hast revealed to men; she put out the light of Faith, and substituted in its place the principle of Private Judgment, which made her the slave of countless false doctrines. In the mad rage of her heresy, she trampled beneath her feet and burned the Relics of the Saints, who were her grandest glory; she annihilated the Monastic Order, to which she owed her knowledge of the Christian Faith; she was drunk with the blood of the Martyrs; she encouraged apostacy, and punished adhesion to the ancient Faith as the greatest of crimes.
She, by a just judgment of God, has become a worshipper of material prosperity. Her wealth, her fleet, and her colonies, these are her idols, and she would awe the rest of the world by the power they give her. But the Lord will, in His own time, overthrow this Colossus of power and riches; and as it was in times past, when the mightiest of kingdoms was clay (Dan. ii. 35), so will people be amazed, when the time of retribution comes, to find how easily the greatest of modern Nations was conquered and humbled.
England no longer forms a part of Thy Kingdom, O Jesus! She separated herself from it, by breaking the bond that had held her so long in union with Thy Church. Thou hast patiently waited for her return; yet she returns not. Her prosperity is a scandal to the weak; so that her own best and most devoted children feel that her chastisement will be one of the severest that Thy Justice can inflict.
Meanwhile, Thy Mercy, O Jesus, is winning over thousands of her people to the Truth, and their love of it seems fervent in proportion to their having been so long deprived of its beautiful light. Thou hast created a new people in her very midst, and, each year, the number is increasing. Cease not thy merciful workings; that thus, these Faithful ones may once more draw down upon our country the blessing she forfeited when she rebelled against thy Church.
Thy mission, then, O holy Apostle Augustine! is not yet over. The number of the Elect is not filled up; and our Lord is gleaning some of these from amidst the tares that cover the land of thy loving labours. May thine intercession obtain for her children those graces which enlighten the mind and convert the heart. May it remove their prejudices, and give them to see that the Spouse of Jesus is but One, as He himself calls her (Cant. vi. 8); that the Faith of Gregory and Augustine are still the Faith of the Catholic Church at this day; and that three hundred years’ possession could never give heresy any claim to a country which was led astray by seduction and violence, and which has retained so many traces of its ancient and deep-rooted Catholicity. Amen.
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.