Being a clown for Christ

English saint would have been a good model for new evangelization

Perhaps we should think of St. Aldhelm of Sherbourne as the patron of the new evangelization.

A biography by monk and historian William of Malmesbury (c. 1080-1143) tells how the 7th-century English Benedictine monk responded when people either didn’t attend Mass or spent their time in church gossiping.

He went to the town bridge and began clowning, singing popular ballads, and reciting verses he wrote. Once he hooked an audience, Aldhelm mixed in hymns and Gospel passages, winning “men’s ears and then their souls.” Gradually, he gave them simple religious teaching.

Aldhelm, a relative of King Ina, was born in Wessex, England, and attended a school at Malmesbury founded by an Irish monk. The bright, clever Aldhelm went on to become the first English scholar of distinction and a librarian.

After studying under St. Adrian and St. Theodore at Canterbury, he returned to Malmesbury and turned the school into a monastery, becoming its abbot in about 675. Trained in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, he attracted scholars from other countries. Aldhelm was also a poet and musician who played many instruments.

He wrote riddles in Latin, a long poem praising holy maidens and the treatise, “De Laude Virginitatis” (“In praise of virginity”) for the nuns of Barking in Essex.

Because he understood the need to speak to the masses, he wrote numerous hymns and songs in English, all of which have been lost along with his music. He also was the first to translate the psalms into English.

Besides his writings, Aldhelm advised King Ina and founded several smaller religious communities that furthered education in Wessex.

He worked to convince the Celtic and Anglo Saxon churches to adopt the general practice for determining the date of Easter and to repair the rift between the church of Cornwall and the rest of England.

Aldhelm became the first bishop of Sherbourne in 705, where he built a cathedral that was later replaced by one in the Norman style.

Aldhelm died at Doulting, Somerset, while touring his diocese. His body was taken to Malmesbury and crosses were placed at all the stops along the way. Burial was at Malmesbury Abbey, but the body was moved in 980 to Dunstan. A statue in Salisbury Cathedral commemorates him. He also is remembered in St. Aldhelm’s flag — a white cross on red that is a reverse of St. George’s flag.


Sources: “Butler’s Lives of the Saints”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”;;;;; and

St. Aldhelm of Sherbourne

When: c. 640 – May 25, 709

Where: England

What: Abbot, scholar, bishop

Feast: May 25