St. Augustine

(d. 430) — Doctor of the Church, a Western Father of the Church, whose conversion to Christianity is called one of the most important events in the history of the Church.

Augustine was born in Tagaste, in northern Africa, the son of Patricius, a pagan Roman official. His mother, St. Monica, was a Christian, and she raised Augustine in the faith. In 370, he went to Carthage (in modern Tunisia) to study law, turning instead to literary interests. He also took a mistress, who bore him a son, Adeodatus. In 373, Augustine and his friend Honoratus became members of the Manichaean heretical sect.

At the same time his brilliance was manifesting itself, as he won poetic tournaments and became known in the philosophical world. It took nine years for Augustine to free himself from his former life and Manichaeism. In 383, he went to Italy, having to depart in secret because of St. Monica’s opposition to such plans.

Augustine planned to teach in Rome but instead went to Milan, where he met St. Ambrose. With Ambrose’s influence, Augustine set about trying to discover a life of celibacy, study, and prayer. St. Monica joined her son in Milan, where St. Alipius, Augustine’s lifelong friend, also resided. With his mother, son, and friends, Augustine retired to a villa to begin his study of the Scriptures and ancient philosophers.

On Easter Sunday of 387, Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose. Planning to return to Tagaste, the company went to Ostia (modern Italy), to board a ship. St. Monica died in Ostia, and Augustine, filled with grief, stayed in Italy for a time, writing and praying.

In Tagaste, in 388, he sold his goods, distributed money to the poor, and began a life of penance. His notoriety soon spread to surrounding towns, and in 391, while visiting Hippo Regius (a city in North Africa), he was seized by a crowd, carried to the aged bishop, Valerius, and ordained a priest. Four years later, he was appointed coadjutor to the diocese of Hippo. Augustine was forty-two at the time, succeeding to the see around 395.

He occupied the see of Hippo for thirty-four years. The years were filled with constant writing and the need to confront numerous crises caused by the heresies of the time: the Donatists, Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians, and the Manichaeans. For his defense of Church doctrine concerning grace against the Pelagians, he is known also as the Doctor of Grace. He made his episcopal residence a monastery, sending out priests to make new foundations and providing well-trained bishops for dioceses. His major apostolate was in preaching and writing. He attended councils in 398, 401, 407, 416, 418, and 419.

In 426, Augustine, age 72, named Heraclius his auxiliary and successor. He sought rest but faced political and military turmoil and the Arian heresy. Bishops and political leaders flocked to Hippo for refuge from the Arian heretics and the Vandal invasion of the region. Hippo was itself put under an eighteen-month siege by the forces of the Vandals. Augustine spent three months in prayerful decline during the siege, dying on August 30, 430.

Augustine was a voluminous writer, authoring 113 books, 218 letters, and some 500 sermons. His literary output covers the entire sphere of human thought and ranges from the psychological complexity of the Confessions, to the political insights of the City of God, to the stridently polemical.

He was especially concerned with the combating of the three great heresies of the time: Pelagianism, Donatism, and Manichaeism. His writings, however, are distinguished by their eloquence, superb use of the Latin language, and the degree, born out of the necessity of the crisis of the moment, to which he examined and elucidated vital points of Christianity.

His earliest writings were the Dialogues, composed before his baptism and representing the consideration of a convert to Christianity in the traditions of Platonic philosophy. This was followed by a vast corpus of controversial and non-controversial works. His controversial writings were centered in refuting the prevailing heresies. Against the Manichaeans he wrote: Acts of the Dispute with Fortunatus the Manichaean (392); Acts of the Conference with Felix (404); Against Faustus (c. 400); Against Secundinus (405). Against the Donatists: Psalmus contra partem Donati (c. 395); De Baptismo contra Donatistas (c. 400); Contra epistolam Parmeniani (400); De peccatorum meritis et remissione (On the Merit and Forgiveness of Sins; 412); De spiritu et littera (On the Spirit and Letter; 412); De Gestis Pelagii (reproducing the acts of the Council of Diospolis; 417); De Gratia Christi et de peccato originali (On the Grace of Christ and on Original Sin; 418). Against the Semi-Pelagians: De praedestinatione Sanctorum (On the Predestination of the Saints; 428); and De Dono perseverantiae (On the Gift of Perseverance; 429). Against the Arians: Contra sermonem Ariarnorum (Against the Sermons of the Arians; 418).

On theology, Augustine wrote: De Trinitate (On the Trinity), writing the work from 400-416, considered his most theologically deep treatise; Enchiridion (421), a handbook on faith, hope, and love, written at the request of a Roman named Laurentius; assorted treatises on marriage, widows, prayers for the dead, continence, and lying. In matters of exegesis can be included De doctrina Christiana (begun in 397 and finished in 426), considered the first formal treatise on exegesis, as the literary production of St. Jerome was often of a more controversial nature, and treatises on the Epistle of St. John, Epistle to the Galatians, the Sermon on the Mount, and De Consensus Evangelistarum (Harmony of the Gospels; 400).

Aside from the apologetics De vera religione (389-391), letters to Consentius, and De utilitate credindi, his chief apology and arguably his most famous book (with the exception of the Confessions) was De Civitate Dei (City of God), begun in 413 and written in response to the attacks made by pagans that the fall of Rome in 410 to the Visigoths was the fault of the Christians, who were wrecking the civilization of the Roman Empire. Augustine argues instead that all of the virtues of the past — of the Romans, Greeks, and Hebrews — find fulfillment in Christ and possess virtue only in direct relation to the degree that they offer prayer and worship to God. He expresses as well a philosophy of history, noting that only Christianity embraces a history to the beginning of time and a future until the end of time. For Augustine, the City of God is a city insofar as it can be considered a heavenly society, in sharp contrast to the City of the World.

Finally, in the Confessions, Augustine gives not a confession in the common understanding but an account in which the soul is praised that it admires the procession of God within itself. The Confessions provides a penetrating glimpse into the human soul. The first nine chapters recounted Augustine’s life up to the time of his conversion; the tenth covers the life until the time of the writing of the work (c. 397-400). Entirely revealing in its presentation of his sins and failings, it is more concerned with the operation of God’s grace and with trumpeting to all people the glory of God and his creation.

Augustine’s position in the history of the Church is unquestioned. His enormous contributions to Christian theology would be preeminent until the 1200s and surrendered their virtual monopoly on theological thought only to another towering figure, St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). His extensive system, including such doctrines as grace, original sin, and the Fall, served as the impetus for a host of theologians and interpreters, the so-called Augustinians or adherents of Augustinianism.

In 700, the remains of St. Augustine were placed in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, in Pavia, Italy, from Sardinia. He is the patron of the Augustinians, theologians, and the city of Carthage.

Feast day: August 28