St Theodore of Tarsus, the Greek Archbishop of Canterbury

Gregory DiPippo

Today marks the anniversary of the death of one of the most interesting characters in the history of the English people, a seventh-century archbishop of Canterbury named Theodore. His life and career perfectly show the endurance of the transnational culture created by the Roman Empire, and the role that culture played in spreading the Gospel, which St John XXIII spoke of in his Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia.

Theodore was born ca. 602 in southeast Asia Minor at Tarsus, more famous as the birthplace of St Paul. Little is known of his early life, but it seems clear that if he did not move west when his region was invaded by the Persians in 613-14, he certainly did when it was taken by the Arabs in 637. It has been guessed that before this, he was educated at Antioch and possibly also Edessa. After living in Constantinople for many years as a monk, but not a priest, he moved to Rome. Despite the disintegration of the Empire, and the city’s very considerable drop in population, the ancient capital was still very much a crossroads of humanity, and Theodore settled in one of the Greek monastic communities that were still numerous there. He learned Latin and became as familiar with its literature as he was with that of his native language.

In 664, the first native English archbishop of Canterbury, St Deusdedit, died. The see had been founded less than 70 years earlier by Roman monks whom Pope St Gregory the Great had sent to England, and the new English hierarchy still felt a strong dependence on Rome. His successor, Wighard, was therefore sent to Rome to be consecrated, but died before this could happen. Pope Vitalian wished to nominate in his place a Benedictine abbot from Naples named Adrian, who refused the honor, and recommended Theodore in his place. St Vitalian accepted on condition that Adrian go with him as an adviser. Thus did a Greek from Asia Minor, who could boast that he was a fellow-citizen of one of the authors of the New Testament, and had perhaps studied in the place where the word “Christian” was invented, find himself bishop of a see more than 2,200 miles from his birthplace. Adrian was in origin a North African Berber; his specific birth place is unknown, but the chief see of that region, Carthage, is well over 1,200 miles away from Canterbury.

(A stained-glass window of St Theodore in the church of St John the Evangelist in Knotty Ash, England; image from Wikimedia Commons by Rodhullandemu, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Theodore was highly successful as archbishop, and helped to give the organization of the church in England a permanent form which in many ways would endure until the Reformation, nearly nine centuries later. He made Adrian abbot of the monastery of Ss Peter and Paul in Canterbury, (later renamed for St Augustine, the leader of St Gregory’s English mission), and together they established a school there, of which St Bede the Venerable writes:

“Et quia litteris sacris simul et saecularibus … abundanter ambo erant instructi, congregata discipulorum caterua, scientiae salutaris cotidie flumina inrigandis eorum cordibus emanabant; ita ut etiam metricae artis, astronomiae, et arithimeticae ecclesiasticae disciplinam inter sacrorum apicum uolumina suis auditoribus contraderent. Indicio est, quod usque hodie supersunt de eorum discipulis, qui Latinam Grecamque linguam aeque ut propriam, in qua nati sunt, norunt. Neque umquam prorsus, ex quo Brittaniam petierunt Angli, feliciora fuere tempora; dum et fortissimos Christianosque habentes reges cunctis barbaris nationibus essent terrori, et omnium uota ad nuper audita caelestis regni gaudia penderent, et quicumque lectionibus sacris cuperent erudiri, haberent in promtu magistros, qui docerent.

And because they were both very well instructed in both sacred and secular letters, … they gathered a group of disciples, and daily poured forth rivers of saving knowledge to water their hearts; and thus taught their students, together with the books of holy writ, the sacred disciplines of the arts of poetry, astronomy, and arithmetic. As a testimony of this is the fact to this very day, there are still living some of their students, who know Latin and Greek just as well as they know their native language. Nor were there ever happier times since the English came into Britain; since they had kings who were most brave and Christians, and were a terror to the barbarous nations, and the prayers of all men hung upon the joys of the heavenly kingdom of which they had just heard; and all who desired to be instructed in sacred reading had masters at hand to teach them.” (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, 4.2)

Many pupils of the school at Canterbury became bishops and abbots, and continued their teachers’ tradition of learning elsewhere. Theodore himself died in 690 at the age of 88, after serving as archbishop for twenty-two years. The success of his mission may be judged from these words of Christopher Dawson, one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, who wrote this about Bede (671-735) as a product of the generation of scholars trained by Theodore and his contemporaries: “No one could guess from the study of his work that a man like Bede … was hardly two generations removed from pagan barbarism.” (Medieval Essays, p. 144)

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