Ampleforth Abbey

14 December 2017

Solemnity of St Augustine of Canterbury 2017

Homily preached in the Abbey Church by Fr Terence Richardson OSB at a vigil mass in honour of St Augustine of Canterbury on 26th May 2017. St Augustine is the principal patron of the English Benedictine Congregation.

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-3; Psalm 88; 1 Thess 2:2-8; Luke 10:1-9

Saint Paul wrote to the young Church in Thessaloniki, “it was our God who gave us the courage to proclaim his Good News to you in the face of great opposition.” He had reached their city having suffered indignity and imprisonment at Philippi, and at his next stop, in Athens, he would face ridicule and mockery. Paul knew he could persevere with his mission only by the encouragement of the Holy Spirit.

And Isaiah, hundreds of years before Christ, was conscious of his own unworthiness and inadequacy: “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips”. And yet later in the book, as we heard in the first reading, that anointing that he had received gave him the strength “to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken; to proclaim liberty to captives” and so on. And as we know Jesus read these very words in the synagogue and set them out as his manifesto for his ministry.

Saint Augustine of Canterbury, whose feast we celebrate tonight, also had an acute sense of his own inadequacy. That phrase from this evening’s Gospel “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” must have echoed round his mind as he encountered difficulties in his task. He depended on the constant support and encouragement from his fellow monk-missionaries, and he needed advice and direction from Pope Gregory the Great, whose idea the mission had been.

Saint Bede tells us that Gregory had seen fair-haired slaves for sale in the Rome markets and had enquired where they were from. When he was told they were Angles, Gregory remarked “not Angels but angels” and, hearing that they were pagans, resolved to send missionaries to their country.

Saint Augustine had been the Prior of the monastery that Gregory had himself established on his family property on the Caelian Hill in Rome. It was Augustine, a monk, whom Gregory chose to lead the mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons in this country.

Deep in the Vatican archives there are fourteen books of letters by Pope Gregory the Great. These are file copies of his correspondence with Bishops, rulers and others throughout Europe during his fourteen years as Pope at the end of the seventh century. A whole series of these letters concerns Saint Augustine of Canterbury.

Some of these letters are addressed to Augustine himself, giving him encouragement and advice. After all, the mission to the Anglo-Saxons was Gregory’s own idea, and he was always interested in how the work was going. Other letters are to Bishops and Kings and Queens in Gaul, on the route that Augustine and his community of forty monks would travel on their way to the Channel.

On one single day, 22 June 601, Gregory wrote seventeen letters, thirteen of which concern the mission to this country. One suspects that a courier was departing that very day for England via France, and that Gregory wanted to catch the post. In one of these letters, addressed to Augustine himself, Pope Gregory quotes passage from St Luke’s Gospel. It is a passage subsequent to the one that we heard in the Gospel. The seventy-two disciples return from their mission, rejoicing “ 'Lord,' they said 'even the devils submit to us when we use your name.' Jesus said to them, … ‘do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you; rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven.'” (letter 11.36)

A month later, Pope Gregory wrote again, this time to give advice about dealing with pagan temples. He wrote “the temples of the idols ought not to be destroyed at all, but the idols themselves, which are inside them, should be destroyed. Let water be blessed and sprinkled in the same temples, and let altars be constructed and relics placed there. For if those temples have been well constructed , it is necessary that they should be changed from the cult of demons to the worship of the true God” (letter 11.56)

What about us? I think it is easy for us to identify and sympathise with Augustine. He had been sent to begin a missionary task that he did not feel confident in. He needed encouragement and the support of his brethren and his superiors. So do we. Whether we are students acting as catechists, or leading lectio groups, we feel inadequate and exposed. We may be parents unsure how to cope with the children. All of us need advice and encouragement. And of course it is the responsibility of all of us to support others in their difficulties, whatever they are.

And where are the idols in our own day? Not statues in temples and sacred groves, but idols in our hearts. There are plenty of things that distract us from following what is good, what is holy, what is truly loving: ambitions and attractions that are frankly not worthy of us. So let us too take the advice of Pope Gregory and allow God to replace those idols within us, so that we, like our forebears fourteen hundred years ago, may, in our lives, follow and worship together the one true God in fullness and truth. And then, one day, please God, the Lord will say to us too “rejoice that your names are written in heaven”.