It took not only a mandate from the pope, but some extra goading for Augustine of Canterbury to make it to the Anglo-Saxons
Today’s saint, St. Augustine of Canterbury, is famous for his mission to Great Britain. Just as St. Boniface is remembered as the “Apostle to the Germans,” and Ss. Cyril and Methodius as the “Apostles to the Slavs,” so St. Augustine is called the “Apostle to the English,” the founder of the Christian Faith in England. Yet, Christianity has first come to Britain centuries before St. Augustine! But his mission, and the way it is remembered, tell us something important about the nature of missionary activity.
The British Isles have a long history as a Christian land. British bishops attended Church councils in the 300s, and the island even produced one of the most infamous heretics in the Church’s history, Pelagius. But after the Romans withdrew in the early 400s, the island was invaded by pagan Angles and Saxons. While some Christian communities survived in the west of Britain, the faith was nearly wiped out in areas where the Anglo-Saxons ruled.
In the late 500s, Gregory the Great was elected bishop of Rome. Though he lived as a monk before his election, he had a great zeal for missionary work. Some early histories report that he himself had wanted to make a missionary journey to Britain.
As pope, he decided to send a mission to Britain when — according to the Venerable Bede, ecclesiastical historian and Doctor of the Church (himself British) — Pope Gregory encountered a group of slaves in the Roman marketplace. They were fair-haired and fair-skinned, not a typical sight in the Mediterranean. Pope Gregory asked who they were and was told, “These are Angles.” Pope Gregory is said to have replied, “No, they are not Angles, they are angels (Non Angli, sed angeli).”
To undertake the missionary journey, Pope Gregory chose a member of his former monastery, a monk named Augustine. Together with a few other handpicked monks, they set out for the Kingdom of Kent, in southeast England, where King Aethelberht had recently married a Frankish Christian princess, Bertha, and allowed greater freedom of practice for Christianity.
After departing, Augustine and his band of missionaries quailed, intimidated by their task, and actually tried to go back to Rome, but the pope encouraged them and prevailed upon them to carry out their work. They arrived in Kent in 597 AD and went to the king’s capital city, Canterbury. There they preached and celebrated the sacraments. They made many converts, and eventually King Aethelberht himself was baptized and became a Christian.
A few elements of St. Augustine’s story are particularly instructive for us today. First, the detail that the missionaries nearly abandoned their mission before starting it reminds us that missionary work requires a great amount of faith and trust—and that even when we lack these for a moment, that does not need to prevent us from achieving our aims. Even saints are afraid sometimes.
Second, this story shows that Pope Francis’ call in our own day to “go out to the peripheries” is not new, but an evangelical impulse present from the beginning and throughout the Church’s history. The apostles went to places like Armenia, India, and Ethiopia. St. Augustine here traveled to a land once Christian that had been all but abandoned and forgotten by the wider Church. Today, we are especially reminded to serve and preach to those whom society still overlooks: the poor, the outcast, the abandoned, the elderly, the unborn.
A key decision of St. Augustine’s symbolized this impulse. After being named archbishop, St. Augustine was supposed to move his cathedral seat to London, but the move never happened. Thus did Canterbury, a small town far outside the bustling centers of former Roman territory, become established as the center of English Christianity.
Missions are not just for the unconverted, but for the forgotten, for the underserved or left behind, for those in need of rejuvenation. They can blow on the embers of a Christian Faith that has dwindled down and lost its power in a person or a society. Then the person or local Church can be born anew, and the missionary can truly be thought of as their “father in faith.”