As the Anglican Church prepares for an historic meeting in Canterbury next week, one likely to be dominated by hot button issues threatening to pull its communion apart, it will do so with an unambiguous symbol of unity facilitated by an Australian Catholic priest.
The ancient ivory head of a crosier associated with Pope St Gregory the Great – the pope who in 596 sent St Augustine of Canterbury to evangelise the Anglo-Saxon peoples – has been lent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Justin Welby, for the meeting in a gesture of ecumenical solidarity.
There it will be reserved for the private meditation of the primates of the global Anglican Communion as they contemplate the future of their Church, as well being available for public display on 9-10 January, and again on 16-17.
Melbourne-born priest Fr Robert McCulloch, the Rome-based procurator-general of the Missionary Society of St Columban, will tomorrow receive the relic, valued at £250,000, from the monastery of San Gregorio al Celio in Rome from where St Gregory sent Augustine to evangelise the English.
He will accompany the relic to Canterbury in England where it will be received by Archbishop Welby.
In another historic move, on 15 January Archbishop Welby will receive from Corpus Christi Library in Cambridge the Book of the Gospels which St Gregory gave Augustine before departing – an object insured for £50 million and of incalculable worth to Christian patrimony – uniting the two objects for the first time in more than 1400 years.
Fr McCulloch proposed lending the relic of St Gregory to the Church of England at a dinner on 24 July 2015 at the Anglican Centre in Rome hosted by Archbishop Sir David Moxon, previously Anglican archbishop of Wellington, New Zealand, and now the personal representative of the archbishop of Canterbury to the Holy See, and attended by the UK ambassador to the Holy See, Nigel Baker.
During the dinner the meeting being called by Archbishop Welby of the Anglican primates throughout the world was discussed.
“I felt that in the context of ecumenism it was vitally important to show support and encouragement, especially in light of an extraordinary act of generosity by the Anglicans just two weeks beforehand on 7 July when Cardinal George Pell had celebrated Mass at the High Altar of Canterbury Cathedral,” Fr McCulloch told the Catholic Weekly.
“This was the first time that a Catholic cardinal had celebrated Mass on the high altar since the Reformation. The last to do so was Cardinal Reginald Pole, the last Catholic archbishop of Canterbury.
“Certainly with that ecumenical spirit and gesture which Archbishop Welby personally approved, I thought, well, this is one way we could reciprocate it.”
Fr McCulloch credits his own strong interest in ecumenism to his family upbringing, probably unusual in a pre-Vatican II environment in Australia, and to the time he spent in Pakistan where he served local communities from 1978 to 2011 especially in ministries in healthcare and education.
“In Pakistan one of the greatest problems that Christians and Catholics have to overcome is not opposition from Muslims but opposition internally – from Christians themselves – due to a lack of a real genuine ecumenism.
“Often, the enemy is not without, it is within.”
St Columban, the patron of the Missionary Society of St Columban, is the great Irish missionary who evangelised in much of continental Europe at the end of the 6th century and was making his way to Italy at the same time as St Augustine was journeying to England.
“It’s one of the ‘what ifs’ in history: At the same time as St Columban was coming down from Ireland through France and eventually ended up in Italy, at the very same time St Augustine was coming up from Rome, through France and on his way to history.”
“In speaking of these two great missionaries, Archbishop Moxon said that we all, Catholics and Anglicans, can own them because they belong to an era – an epoch – when we were one.”
Augustine’s mission to England was a great success.
Arriving at Kent, Augustine eventually aided the conversion of King Ethelbert, who had married a Christian princess, Bertha.
Ethelbert allowed Augustine’s missionaries to preach freely and gave them land to found a monastery outside the walls of the city of Canterbury and a church within the royal palace boundaries.
St Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury and after his death in 604 was soon revered as a saint, called the “Apostle to the English”, and a founder of the English Church.