In much of the West, the lights of the Christian faith seem to be dimming, and the world seems to be growing ever colder towards the Gospel. We should take heart in the fact that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen things go south, and we should take counsel in seeing how the Saints succeeded in the re-evangelization of fallen away places like England.
Father Matthew Fish of the Archdiocese of Washington used the Feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury to delve deep into the spiritual problems that we’re facing in our culture, and what we must do in response. I was hardly alone in being stirred by the powerful homily, and got his permission to publish it here. From here on out is all Fr. Fish:
Today we celebrate the feast of the apostle to England, Saint Augustine of Canterbury. Not the first missionary to the British Isles, he remains the best known because he converted the people, the Angles, who would eventually rule most of those islands, and make England one of the greatest countries in Christendom. How strange, how sad then that we celebrate his feast when it seems the whole project has failed: England has given up the true faith, and is mostly secular and pagan, as most of the countries of Europe are quickly becoming. Are we to think of them like cursed fig trees, no longer bearing fruit that lasts?
Well, the history of the Church is abundant with examples of lands and cultures once evangelized and then fallen away, only then to be re-evangelized. That great Englishman G.K. Chesterton once criticized the modern aphorism, “you can’t turn back the clock.” As he said, “the simple and obvious answer is ‘You can.’ A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour.”
Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to an England that had lost its Christian roots. As the Venerable Bede tells us, after various foreign and civil wars, the Britons forgot the practice of virtue, and gave up trying to share the Gospel with the other peoples of England. “However,” as he said, “the goodness of God did not forsake his people whom He foreknew, but sent much more worthy preachers, to bring that nation to the faith.”
That preacher was Augustine, prior of a Benedictine abbey here in Rome. Augustine and his companions came to Kent, and met with the King of the Angles, Ethelbert. He was impressed by their earnestness, but not by their words. He was quite happy to keep the traditions of his ancestors. But he let Augustine and his companions go free. Which probably was his biggest mistake, as far as staying pagan goes. Soon enough, the English people, and not least of all King Ethelbert, noticed how differently these missionaries were living. Plainly free of self-interest, conspicuous in their generosity and simplicity, their witness proved to be the greatest argument to the English people. Venerable Bede relates how it went:
“As soon as they entered the dwelling place assigned them they began to imitate the course of life practiced in the primitive church; applying themselves to frequent prayer, watching and fasting; preaching the word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as not belonging to them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living themselves in all respects conformably to what they prescribed to others, and being always disposed to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In short, many believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their innocent life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine.”
I don’t think things have changed that much today. Much of the west, like early England, has left its Christian roots and become pagan again. So let’s turn back the clock, and witness by heavenly words and simple lives, as Augustine and his companions did, as saints do.