An Italian Benedictine monk who became the â€œApostle of the English,â€�
Saint Augustine of Canterbury is honored by the Catholic Church on May
Under the direction of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Augustine founded
the famous See of Canterbury and preached the Catholic faith to the
country's Anglo-Saxon pagans during the late sixth and early seventh
He is not be confused with the earlier St. Augustine of Hippo, the famous author of the â€œConfessionsâ€� and â€œCity of God.â€�
Augustine's date of birth cannot be established, nor are any details of
his early life known. Most likely born in Rome, to a noble family, he
entered monastic life as a young man. The community he joined had been
recently founded by a Benedictine monk named Gregory, who would go on to
become Pope and eventually be known as St. Gregory the Great. The
friendship between Gregory and Augustine had great historical
consequences, as it was the Pope who would eventually send his fellow
monk to evangelize England.
Around 595, five years into his 14-year pontificate, Pope Gregory set to
work on a plan for the conversion of the English people. The Catholic
faith had already been preached and accepted among England's original
Celtic inhabitants, in earlier times; but from the mid-fifth century
onward, the country was dominated by Anglo-Saxon invaders who did not
accept Christianity, and were not converted by the small number of
isolated Celtic Christian holdouts. Thus, England largely had to be
For this task the Pope chose a group of around forty monks â€“ including
Augustine, who was to represent the delegation and communicate on its
behalf. Though he was not explicitly chosen as its leader at that time,
that was the role he ended up taking on with Gregoryâ€™s support. The
group left for England in June 596, but some of the missionaries lost
their nerve after hearing fearsome reports about the Anglo-Saxons.
Augustine ended up returning to Rome, where he got further advice and
support from the Pope.
Persuaded to continue on their way, the missionary-monks reached their
port of departure and set sail for England in spring of 597. After
arriving they gained an audience with King Ethelbert of Kent, a pagan
ruler whose Frankish wife Queen Bertha was a Christian. Speaking with
the king through an interpreter, Augustine gave a powerful and
straightforward presentation of the Gospel message, speaking of Christâ€™s
redemption of the world and his offer of eternal life.
Ethelbert would later convert, and eventually even be canonized as a
saint. But his initial response to Augustineâ€™s preaching was only mildly
positive: he would receive the missionaries with hospitality, and
permit them to evangelize without any restriction. Despite his early
ambivalence, however, the king became a generous patron of the monks.
They made their home in Canterbury, after dramatically entering the city
in procession with the Cross and an image of Christ.
The Canterbury community lived according to the Rule of St. Benedict, as
they had in Italy, but they also preached in the surrounding area...