Today there is an optional memorial for St. Augustin of Centerbury. I think it good that we know a little more about our ancestors in the Faith – especially the missionary one. It seems especially appropriate here in the Easter Season when so many of our Gospels are Jesus preparing the disciples for mission and the first readings are about the Church in its early missions. It seem to also speak to the Church in our time.The British Isle already had an established Christianity which had been established during the Roman rule. That lasted until the mid-4th century when the Romans withdrew from the island as the Roman Empire began its long dissolution into history. Contemporaneous with that withdrawal there was a significant migration of Germanic people to the island. This was what is sometimes called the Anglo-Saxon invasion, but it was not an invasion in the sense of the Goth invasion of Western Europe with the sacking of Rome. It was more of a slow cultural dominance in which the newcomers achieved a position of political and social dominance, which, aided by intermarriage, initiated a process of acculturation of the natives to the incoming language and material culture. That is our best scholarly guess as there is little recorded evidence that remains from this era. Still, The writing of Saint Patrick demonstrates the survival in Britain of Latin literacy and Roman education, learning and law within elite society and Christianity, throughout the bulk of the fifth and sixth centuries. But in the mid, eastern, and northern reaches of the island there was a significant movement towards Germanic pagan worship.
In 595 AD, Pope Gregory initiated the Gregorian mission to England with a goal to convert the whole of the island to Christianity. The pope sent St. Augustine with a goal of conversion of the island. It is not clear that the pope understood that in Western Britain the Church remained vibrant with established bishoprics. This is worth mentioning in that Augustine faced resistance from pagans and Christians alike.
Today’s gospel speaks to Augustine’s mission: “Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, and curing every disease and illness. At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mt 9:35-27)
The first reading also has light to shine on Augustine’s mission: “We drew courage through our God to speak to you the Gospel of God with much struggle. Our exhortation was not from delusion or impure motives, nor did it work through deception.” (1 Thess 2:2-3)
In our day perhaps we are more like Britain than we know. We have a “western region” of the Church that is a faithful Catholic enclave doing all the right things: Mass, rosary, devotion, Adoration – and all those are indeed good things. And yet in the “the mid, eastern, and northern reaches” of the Church the younger generations are slipping away. The “western region” bemoans that we are under attack by a political and social dominance that is acculturating our younger generation to a worldly view that has no place for God – and they again proclaim the same message to them as before. Research is quite clear that the largest segment of those leaving the Church hold classic orthodox Christian views. They left for other reasons.
St. Augustine began the mission that re-evangelized the part of Britain lost to the Church. He had a message for the people of his time. He was the shepherd the sheep of the “mid, eastern, and northern reaches” needed.
That is the challenge to us today: remain faithful to the Gospel, learn what the younger sheep need, and find the way forward that the flock may be one.