Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Reluctant Missionary: St. Augustine of Canterbury Scores Another Pentecost

In the history of the Church, there are many stories of those who wished to be missionaries, but in obedience, stayed back. Yesterday's saint, Philip Neri, longed to accompany his friend St. Francis Xavier to convert the East, and St. Therese begged to leave the convent on a similar venture. While obedience to the Lord is its own reward, they both received saintly acclaim due to their compliance. Therese was named Patron Saint of Missionaries, while Philip was called the "Second Apostle of Rome." Today's saint was just the opposite; a quiet monk who wished to remain in Italy but became a missionary due to the order of his boss (and Pope), in this case St. Gregory the Great. And Augustine was not only rewarded with a title, but another Pentecost harvest.

Unlike his more famous namesake, this Augustine was not a charismatic preacher and dynamic Doctor of the Church, but a quiet leader of a group of faithful monks in the St. Andrew Monastery near Rome. He was resigned to a hidden life of prayer and manual labor when in 597, the gregarious Gregory asked him to head the mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons to the one true God. As historians tell us, Gregory was a bit of a missionary himself in his younger days, and no doubt would have liked to lead the expedition himself, but being Bishop of Rome now put other demands on his time, and he realized he must delegate the task. So he chose the faithful if bashful Augustine along with his timorous monks, who immediately set out for England ... and just as quickly turned back!

The mutinous monks were correct in telling the steadfast Augustine this trip was both extremely uncertain and far too dangerous. Indeed, only a spirit-filled leader like Gregory, who believed the times were so evil and full of natural disasters (so what's new?) that there may not be much time left. On the other hand, the man who gave us "the chant" also had done his homework, for he knew the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelbert was not only a benign ruler, but that his wife Queen Bertha, was already a Christian sympathizer. All the good king needed was to hear the good news from someone who really believed it ...

Buoyed by a powerful Gregorian letter to "trust in God and Augustine," the monks regained their resolve and proceeded onward. Their tour took them through France, and somewhere between Lyons and Tours, Augustine not only became bishop, but the band of thirty or so men picked up a few Frankish clergy to act as interpreters. Finally they reached Kent, and King Ethelbert (to guard against magic) agreed to meet Augustine and his men in an open field near Canterbury. Augustine preached the good news of Jesus Christ, and Ethelbert, filled with the Spirit was baptized—as were most of his subjects. The date was Pentecost, 597.

After establishing the monastery of St. Peter and Paul (called St. Augustine's after his death) Augustine spread the good news throughout the Angle-Saxon kingdom, setting up Episcopal Sees in London and Rochester. But while the first part of Augustine's mission had been nearly a complete success, the second part of Gregory's plan (re-establishing ties with the Welsh Christians) was almost a complete disaster.

Unlike the South and East of England, the Northern part of Britain still had remnants of Christianity back from the days of Patrick and previous missionaries. However, it had been cut off from Rome and had developed some bad habits over the centuries, ranging from different customs to outright superstitions. While it would be incorrect to call these sects heretics or even schismatics, they proved just as intractable as Henry VIII or Cromwell, and Augustine could not get them to accept his local authority as coming from Rome itself. Saddened but undaunted, Augustine returned to Canterbury to further consolidate this new kingdom of Christendom, and died there in 604, no long an unknown Roman monk but the "Apostle of England."

After watching the movie Braveheart the first time, I was struck by an inner voice that I should work "for the Reunification of Christianity." Of course, St. Philip Neri (and his counter-reformation "teammates") continue to inspire me in this mission, but so does the "other" Augustine, who is now called a powerful ecumenical intercessor for those who pray for the return of the days when Rome and Canterbury spoke with one voice. Plus, on this Feast of the Holy Spirit 2007, his feat is a reminder that even the quiet and soft-spoken among us can bring about "another Pentecost"—as long as we are Rome's obedient servants.

1 comment :

JimAroo said...

What an outstanding portrait of tis great saint. Yesterday we had the patron saint of over the top types like me and today the saint of the quiet witnesses who bring Christ present in their own way.

I am inspired by the saints just because of their diversity. They always remind me that God doesn't call the qualified.... he qualifies the called! Thank God!!!