Wednesday, 28 May 2008

A saint for the discouraged? Augustine of Canterbury OSB

I know I've done a bit of a run on saints this week, but it is hard to resist the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, famously sent to convert England after Pope St Gregory the Great (above, dispatching St Augustine) saw a group of children in the marketplace ('not angels but angels').

St Augustine and his group of monks from the Lateran (where St Benedict's monks had taken refuge) got as far as Provence before deciding that it all sounded far too difficult and dangerous. St Bede records in his history:

"Having undertaken this task in obedience to the Pope's command and progressed a short distance on their journey, they became afraid, and began to consider returning home. For they were appalled at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation, of whose very language they were ignorant. They unanimously agreed that this was the safest course, and sent back that he might humbly request the holy Gregory to recall them..."

Pope Gregory the Great, however, urged to complete their mission.

In the event, the task proved challenging,but not quite as forthan they had anticipated, for King Ethelbert of Kent had a Christian wife, and was persuaded to allow them freedom to preach. The monks set a powerful example:

"They were constantly at prayer; they fasted and kept vigils; they preached the word to whomsoever they could. They regarded worldly things as of little importance, and they accepted only the necessities of life from those they taught. They practiced what they preached, and were willing to endure any hardship, and even to die for the truth which they proclaimed.

Before long a number of heathen, admiring the simplicity of their holy lives and the comfort of their heavenly message, believed and were baptized."

St Bede records several exchanges of correspondence between St Augustine and St Gregory.
The most famous is on inculturation (via Abbot Mellitus) in which the Pope urges St Augustine to destroy pagan idols but not the temples, which should be converted into Christian churches (after appropriate purification); and to devise appropriate festivities with a Christian flavour to replace the customary pagan ones. If only the false idols of this century could be so readily dispatched and replaced!

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