Saint Bede the Venerable

The Last Chapter

Bede was born on lands likely belonging to the Monkwearmouth monastery in present-day Sunderland. His name comes from the Old English word for prayer, so it is possible that his parents always intended for him to enter a monastery. Bede was sent to the same monastery at the age of seven and later joined Abbot Ceolfrith at the Jarrow monastery, both of whom survived a plague that struck in 686, an outbreak that killed a majority of the population there. While he spent most of his life in the monastery, Bede travelled to several abbeys and monasteries across the British Isles, even visiting the archbishop of York and King Ceolwulf of Northumbria.

He is well known as an author, teacher (a student of one of his pupils was Alcuin), and scholar, and his most famous work, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, gained him the title “The Father of English History”. His ecumenical writings were extensive and included a number of Biblical commentaries and other theological works of exegetical erudition. He also helped establish the practice of dating forward from the birth of Christ (Anno Domini – in the year of our Lord), a practice which eventually became commonplace in medieval Europe.

He was ordained a deacon at an earlier age than normally allowed, which possibly means he was an excellent student. When he was about 30 years old, he was ordained a priest. Till his death, Bede was ever occupied with learning, writing, and teaching. Besides the many books that he copied, he composed 45 of his own, including 30 commentaries on books of the Bible. He was a teacher and a writer of scientific, historical, and religious works. Many modern historians still study his writing.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is commonly regarded as of decisive importance in the art and science of writing history. A unique era was coming to an end at the time of Bede’s death: It had fulfilled its purpose of preparing Western Christianity to assimilate the non-Roman barbarian North. Bede recognized the opening to a new day in the life of the Church even as it was happening.

Although eagerly sought by kings and other notables, even Pope Sergius, Bede managed to remain in his own monastery until his death. Only once did he leave for a few months in order to teach in the school of the archbishop of York. Bede died in 735 praying his favorite prayer: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As in the beginning, so now, and forever.”

In 1899, Pope Leo XIII named Bede a Doctor of the Church because of his contributions to theological writing. Both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church consider him to be a saint.

Pope Francis’ episcopal motto, “because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him,” is based on a homily by Saint Bede. The homily looks at the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus saw the tax collector, Matthew, sitting at a customs post and said to him, “Follow me.”

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