Today is the feast day of Saint Aldhelm and Saint Bede (also known as the Venerable Bede). Both saints lived in an era of great change within the Church in Britain, and both contributed greatly to a consolidation and unification of its connections with the wider Catholic Church of which it was a part. Saint Bede (the only Doctor of the Church to have come from Great Britain) in particular was greatly concerned with strengthening these connections, and in drawing Britons of the time away from a provincialism which threatened to isolate them from the universal Church. He achieved this partly through his great scholarly works, which were sought across Europe, particularly his scriptural commentaries and catechetical homilies.
Born in 672/673 AD, Bede was entrusted to the Benedictine monastery at Jarrow, Northumbria, at the age of seven – a place where he would spend the rest of his life – and from early on showed a great capacity for learning, devoting much time to studying the manuscripts that the monks acquired during their visits to the continent. He developed a great reputation for learning and holiness of life, which legacy continued long after his death. In an address at Saint Peter’s given on the 18th of February 2009, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI discussed the life and work of Saint Bede, in which he drew attention to this legacy:
‘The fame of holiness and wisdom that Bede already enjoyed in his lifetime earned him the title of “Venerable.” Pope Sergius I called him this when we wrote to his abbot in 701 asking him to allow him to come to Rome temporarily to give advice on matters of universal interest. After his death, Bede’s writings were widely disseminated in his homeland and on the European continent. Bishop St. Boniface, the great missionary of Germany (d. 754), asked the archbishop of York and the abbot of Wearmouth several times to have some of his works transcribed and sent to him so that he and his companions might also enjoy the spiritual light that shone from them…
…it is a fact that with his works Bede made an effective contribution to building a Christian Europe in which the various peoples and cultures amalgamated with one another, thereby giving them a single physiognomy, inspired by the Christian faith.’
from Great Christian Thinkers (2011), p.165, Fortress Press.
This contribution to building a European culture rooted in the Christian faith was for Bede something that had to begin in his homeland, and he was greatly concerned with unifying the faith of his people so that they might persist in full communion with the Catholic Church as a whole, and enjoy the stability and richness of life which that unity would bring:
‘The characteristic features of the Church that Bede sought to emphasise are first, catholicity, seen as faithfulness to tradition while remaining open to historical developments, and as the quest for unity in multiplicity, in historical and cultural diversity according to the directives Pope Gregory the Great had given to Augustine of Canterbury, the Apostle of England.
Second, apostolicity and Roman traditions: in this regard, he deemed it of prime importance to convince all the Irish, Celtic and Pict churches to have one celebration for Easter in accordance with the Roman calendar. The Computo, which he worked out scientifically to establish the exact date of the Easter celebration, hence the entire cycle of the liturgical year, became the reference text for the whole Catholic Church.’
From what Pope Benedict says here, we can see that catholicity and apostolicity are deeply interlinked – for the British peoples to enjoy the first, it was necessary that they be committed to the second; without a firm basis in the apostolic traditions held by the wider Church, there would not exist that firm centre from which their various unique manifestations of ‘historical and cultural diversity’ could be expressed and realised.
Saint Aldhelm, another very learned man, was also deeply committed to this vision of strengthening bonds with the universal Church, as the Venerable Bede described in his History of the English Church and People:
‘While Aldhelm was still a priest, and abbot of the monastery known as Maelduib’s Town, he was directed by a synod of his own people to write a notable treatise against the errors of the Britons in observing Easter at the wrong time and doing other things contrary to the orthodoxy and unity of the Church. By means of this book he persuaded many of those Britons who were subject to the West Saxons to conform to the Catholic observance of our Lord’s Resurrection.
He also wrote an excellent book On Virginity, which he composed in a double form in hexameter verse and prose on the model of Sedulius. He also wrote other books; for he was a man of wide learning, with a polished style, and, as I have said, extremely well-read both in biblical and general literature.’
from A History of the English Church and People (1979), p.304, Penguin Classics.
Saint Aldhelm, who later became bishop of Malmesbury (the ‘Maelduib’s Town’ that Bede refers to), was, as Bede says in his description, a man of great learning, whose poetry was still popular in the time of Alfred the Great, and whose writings were used as standard texts in the monastic schools right up to the time of the Norman conquest. It is also said that Alfred greatly cherished Aldhelm’s On Virginity, seeing it as one of the treasures both of theology and of English prose. The breadth of his learning (law, astronomy, mathematics, Greek, Hebrew and Latin) shows how much the British Isles had benefited from the connections to the continent brought about by its membership of the Catholic Church.
As Bede also mentions, Saint Aldhelm was very committed to strengthening these connections, particularly in the region of Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall), which Saint Augustine of Canterbury had found so resistant to being brought into full communion when he arrived on British shores. It was a letter written by Aldhelm to the King (Geraint) of Dumnonia that finally ensured agreement with Roman practice, and thus united the English peoples in full catholicity. These connections not only brought ecclesiastical unity, but ensured the continuation of that cultural exchange that had so benefited British monastic life as a whole.
In these two saints we have examples of the great work that was done to plant Catholic roots in British (and particularly English) soil – roots that would run deep, and produce much good fruit over the years, so that by the high medieval period England had achieved such a reputation for devotion that it was referred to as ‘Our Lady’s Dowry’. The work done by Bede and Aldhelm to continue the mission laid out by Pope Saint Gregory the Great (and initiated by Saint Augustine of Canterbury) in fully returning the English peoples to the folds of the Catholic Church, after they had experienced much upheaval (invasions and raids, internal strife between natives and settlers) was invaluable.
With this, they established secure foundations that later generations could build upon, and an ecclesiastical infrastructure that ensured full communion across dioceses throughout the land, and into the rest of Catholic Europe. These bonds allowed the full exchange of cultural ideas, as well as providing the stability required for the various regional cultures of the British Isles to flourish without devolving into provincialism. At a time when many are uncertain as to what Europe is, and what relationship Britain has with its continental neighbours, it is perhaps useful to look back to the Catholic roots that joined us together in the first place, and, in considering how much of that heritage has already been lost, to ask ourselves how those roots may again be strengthened. The vision of Saint Aldhelm and Saint Bede is at the very least an excellent starting point for such a discussion.