Our Patron Saints
Pope St Gregory the Great and St Augustine of Canterbury are jointly known as the Apostles of the English. In 595/6 Pope Gregory sent Augustine and a group of his fellow monks on a mission which was to result in the conversion of what is now England. This was the first large-scale mission personally initiated by a Roman Pontiff, and English Catholicism has always since been characterised by its fidelity to the Holy See.
Christianity had already been established in Britain, but had dwindled from around the early fifth century after the withdrawal of the Roman legions and successive Saxon invasions. By the time of St Augustine’s arrival Christianity only survived with a few indigenous bishops in scattered locations.
St Bede the Venerable’s chronicle records how upon his journey Augustine became terrified by tales of the savage inhabitants of ‘a barbarous, fierce, and unbelieving nation’. He asked Gregory if he and his companions could give up the mission, but Gregory urged him and his companions onward. The panels of the High Altar illustrate this; a paternal and wise St Gregory and a trepidatious but brave St Augustine.
Augustine landed in the kingdom of Kent, near present-day Ramsgate, and upon obtaining permission from the pagan king Æthelbert, he went with his monks to the capital at Canterbury. Bede tells how they made their way in procession chanting litanies and ‘bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board’. Their prayers were answered, as their reception was not as hostile as Augustine had feared. Æthelbert had a Christian queen, and, already familiar with Christianity, he allowed Augustine and his community to establish a monastery at Canterbury. Bede tells of how ‘attracted by the pure life of these holy men and their gracious promises, the truth of which they established by many miracles’ Æthelbert and many of his people soon converted to the Christianity.
It is not clear when St Augustine was consecrated as a bishop, but it seems probable that it was before he landed in Kent. Following instructions given by St Gregory, he consecrated one of his monks, St Paulinus, as a bishop and sent him northward to establish a second See in York, and he also established Sees elsewhere. This initial ‘Gregorian mission’ brought about a period of rapid conversion and, aided by subsequent Celtic missions, resulted in the conversion of the entirety of what is now England. The episcopal Sees at Canterbury and York continued as the primatial Sees of England throughout the Middle Ages.
Gregory is a Doctor of the Church and one of only two popes to be called 'the Great' (the other is Pope St Leo). By virtue of his vast body of sermons, letters, and other works he is also recognised as one of the four great Fathers of the Latin Church (the others being St Augustine of Hippo, St Ambrose, and St Jerome). The Roman liturgy also owes much to him; he codified the liturgical rites and his name is given to western plainchant. The Roman Church’s current ‘Extraordinary Form’ is in its principal elements the liturgy codified by Gregory.
St Gregory died in Rome on 12 March 604. His body is now enshrined in an altar dedicated to him in the Vatican basilica. A relic of St Gregory’s bone obtained from Rome is venerated in the parish. His feast days are 12 March (Extraordinary Form) and 3 September (Ordinary Form).
St Augustine died in Canterbury on 26 May 604, and was buried in his Abbey church there. His original shrine was dissolved at the Reformation, but in 2012 a new shrine with a relic of his bone was erected at St Augustine’s Church, Ramsgate, near the site where he first landed on British shores. His feast days are 26 May (Extraordinary Form) and 27 May (Ordinary Form).