The Venerable Bede
by Joanna Bogle
We have a long history of Christianity in England. And we know a good deal about it. That is largely because of the work of a man who lived in the 7th century. He is Saint Bede, known as the Venerable.
He is buried in Durham Cathedral, and his grave attracts many visitors each year. He is our foremost historian, and his History of the English Church and People is crucial to our understanding of the development of the Church in our country.
Bede did not write in English as we know it today, but in Anglo-Saxon; his work is studied by those who are reading English at University and need to learn about the different forms and roots of the English language. Tragically, much Anglo-Saxon material has been lost in particular, a good many manuscripts were destroyed at the forcible closure of England’s abbeys and monasteries in the 16th century under Henry VIII.
Bede was born at a time when England was not one unified country, but was divided into seven different Saxon kingdoms. It was a Christian country, the Faith having initially arrived long before, when the country was part of the Roman Empire (Britain’s first martyr is Saint Alban, who died in the 3rd century, during the reign of the Emperor Septimus Severus his shrine is in Hertfordshire, in the city still named in his honor, Saint Albans). After the Saxon invasions, Saint Augustine sent by Pope Gregory the Great brought the faith anew, landing at Kent and establishing his base at Canterbury. Bede writes from the tradition established by this Saxon church, a Church that was thriving and sending missionaries abroad long before the Norman Conquest.
Bede became a monk at Wearmouth, later moving to Jarrow. He lived there all his life and never traveled to London or the mainland of Europe. He became a Scripture scholar, but it is his work as an historian that has proved most valuable to us.
Saint Boniface himself a Saxon saint, born at Crediton in Devon said of Bede that he was “a light of the Church, lit by the Holy Spirit”. His History of the English Church and People is really one of the world’s most important pieces of historical writing. Bede wrote all that he could learn about the early days of Christianity in England, drawn from traditions that had been passed down, and from such documents as were available. The book is still in print.
Boniface, who became a missionary in Germany, eventually Bishop of Mainz and a martyr in Friesland, is still honored in his native Crediton. His baptismal name was Wynfrith. Signs that welcome you to the pleasant Devon town mention his name and the (now Anglican) church associated with him has many interesting historical items of note. Links with Germany have been forged in modern times, honoring a common heritage of faith, and German choirs come to sing.
Today, we need to emphasize the great importance of studying our history as Catholics. We should not see famous churches and cathedrals as places filled with memorials or unconnected snippets of history but as a living whole our worship today combining with that of the past.
Teaching the Faith is something that must be continuous: it never ceases. Every child born into a Catholic family has to be taught, and brought to an understanding of the Mass and the Sacraments, and shown how to pray. Of course it is true that the Faith can be “caught” rather than “taught”, with family traditions, and common prayer, and informal kitchen discussions doing much of the most important work. But we need systematic teaching too including a teaching of Christian history. We have a right to know how we got the Faith. And the stories are interesting. Every nation has its own Catholic missionary heroes. Their tales are worth telling as Bede knew. Omission of this leaves Catholics bereft. And over-emphasis on “what Jesus means to me” can leave children and young adults with a lack of any historical sense, and any real conviction about the truths of the Catholic Faith, and how they came to be passed on.
Today, the need for clear Catholic teaching is really urgent there are so many other messages shouted at us, from TV and radio and the Internet, from advertising and super-stores and the pop industry. And it is not just doctrine that should be taught, but the story of how-the-faith-came-to-us. Saints should not be seen in isolation a Thomas More here, a Bernadette Soubirous there. Of course their individual stories matter and are the central thing, but they also need to be seen in context, when their full value and significance can be fully appreciated. Thomas More played a crucial role showing integrity and loyalty to the Church and the successor of Saint Peter in Rome during dark days of English history. Bernadette Soubirous was the recipient of an extraordinary vision, establishing a much-loved shrine, at a time when it seemed that popular Catholicism and simple devotions might have no place in the France of an emerging modern era.
There are schools and churches named after Saint Bede across England today, including of course one at Jarrow, where he was a monk long ago. He is also much honored at Durham, where he is buried.
My niece, who is studying Anglo-Saxon at Durham University, took me to see Bede’s grave in the great cathedral. We have family connections with Durham, and went to tea with a dear elderly aunt who grew up in the city: as a child there she was taught the Faith that, a generation later, I too was taught, and in another generation, my niece. So it goes on.
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.
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