Previous Saint This month Next Saint
[Yesterday's last saint] [back to Calendar] [Today's next saint]

Born in Rome; died on May 26, 604-607; feast day is also May 26.

"God, in his promises to hear our prayers, is desirous to bestow Himself upon us; if you find anything better than Him, ask it; but if you ask anything beneath Him, you put an affront upon Him, and hurt yourself by preferring to Him a creature which He framed: Pray in the spirit and sentiment of love, in which the royal prophet said to Him, 'Thou, O Lord, are my portion.' Let others choose to themselves portions among creatures, for my part, You are my portion, You alone I have chosen for my whole inheritance." --Saint Austin.

Saint Augustine was a Roman, the prior of Saint Andrew's monastery on the Coelian Hill in Rome. In 596, Pope Saint Gregory the Great sent him with 30-40 of his monks to evangelize the English. By the time they had reached southern France, they were frightened by stories of the brutality of the Anglo-Saxons and the dangerous nature of the Channel crossing and his company wanted to return to civilisation.

Augustine sought help from the pope, who sent encouragement. Gregory said, "It is better never to undertake any high enterprise than to abandon it once it has started." He added, "The greater the labour, the greater will be the glory of your eternal reward." Gregory also persuaded some French priests to aid the mission and the group landed near Ebbsfleet near Ramsgate on the isle of Thanet in 597. They were welcomed by King Ethelbert of Kent, then the most sophisticated of the Anglo- Saxon kingdoms. Ethelbert's wife Bertha was the daughter of the king of Paris and already a Christian, which made it much easier for the missionaries to gain a foothold in the land. The king himself was baptized within a year of their arrival. Augustine would later help Ethelbert to write the earliest Anglo-Saxon laws to survive.

Augustine went to France to be consecrated bishop of the English by Saint Virgilius, Metropolitan of Arles, and upon his return to England was so successful in making converts that he sent to Rome for more assistance. Among those who responded were Saint Mellitus, Saint Justus, and Saint Paulinus, who brought with them sacred vessels, altar cloths, and books.

Augustine rebuilt a church and laid the foundation for what would become the monastery of Christ Church. On land given to him by the king, he built a Benedictine monastery at Canterbury, called SS. Peter and Paul (later called Saint Augustine's).

He was unable to convince the bishops in Wales and Cornwall to abandon their Celtic rites and adopt the disciplines and practices of Rome. He invited leading ecclesiastics to meet him at Wessex, known as "Augustine's Oak." He urged them to follow Roman rites and to cooperate with him in the evangelization of England, but fidelity to local customs and resentment against their conquerors made them refuse.

In 603, he held a second conference with the leaders of the already existing Christian congregations in Britain, but failed to reach an accommodation with them, largely due to his own tactlessness, and his insistence (contrary, it may be noted, to Pope Gregory's explicit advice) on imposing Roman customs on a church long accustomed to its own traditions of worship. It is said that the English bishops, before going to meet Augustine, consulted a hermit with a reputation for wisdom and holiness, asking him, "Shall we accept this man as our leader, or not?" The hermit replied, "If, at your meeting, he rises to greet you, then accept him, but if he remains seated, then he is arrogant and unfit to lead, and you ought to reject him." Augustine, alas, remained seated. It took another sixty years before the breach was healed.

He was never able to extend his authority to the existing Christians in Wales and southwest England (Dumnonia). These Britons were suspicious and wary, Augustine was insufficiently conciliatory, and the British bishop refused to recognise him as their archbishop.

He spent the rest of his life spreading the word, and he established sees at London and Rochester. He was the first archbishop of Canterbury and was called the "Apostle of the English" (as opposed to Roman Britain), though his comparatively short mission was perforce confined to a limited area. That he was a very conscientious missionary is clear from the pages of Bede, who gives what purports to be the text of Pope Gregory's answers to Augustine's requests for direction on various matters arising out of his mission.

He adapted a gradual course of conversion outlined for him by Pope Saint Gregory. The Pope has asked him not to destroy pagan temples and allowed that innocent pagan rites could be incorporated into Christian feasts, operating under the belief that "He who would climb to a lofty height must go by steps, not leaps."

Augustine's patience became well known, as is illustrated by an episode that occurred in Dorsetshire, when a town of seafaring people attached fishtales to the backs of the Italians' robes. He was buried in the unfinished church of the monastery that would one day bear his name (Attwater, Benedictines, bentley, Deanesly, Delaney, White).

In art, Saint Augustine is portrayed as a bishop baptizing the king of Kent (Roeder, in the black habit of the order, with a pen or book (one of his own works), or obtaining by prayer a fountain for baptizing (White).

Icon of St. Augustine

Previous Saint This month Next Saint
[Yesterday's last saint] [back to Calendar] [Today's next saint]