Augustine of Hippo ranks high among the saints of God: a man whose influence among us as a person, churchman, philosopher and theologian, still runs strong. One reason why he is so admired, I am sure, is that he was a sinner before he became a saint. This offers encouragement to the rest of us sinners.
Augustine was a native of Tagaste in Numidia, a Roman colony on the Mediterranean coast of Africa. (He was not a black, as some people have concluded because of his “African” origin.) The father was Patricius, a pagan. The mother was Monica, a Christian whom we venerate as Saint Monica. She bore several children. Her exemplary Christian faith eventually led to the deathbed conversion of Patricius. However, her brilliant son Augustine, although enrolled as a catechumen for baptism, and taught Christian basics by Monica, drifted away from Christian faith and morality, and caused her years of pain by his thought-style and life-style.
Augustine was to admit to all this years later in his famous spiritual autobiography, the Confessions. His interest in literature led him from the school in Tagaste to the bigger school in the major city of Carthage. As a student of the spoken and written word, and increasingly of philosophy, he fell in with proponents of the Manichaean heresy, and also entered a common-law marriage, fathering one son. At the root of his misbehavior was youthful vanity and ambition. Next, for nine years he ran his own schools in Tagaste and Carthage.
By 383 be had come to reject Manichee ideas but he then took flight to Rome (without telling Monica). After teaching there for a while, he went north to Milan. At Milan he was welcomed as an experienced pedagogue. Among those who paid him respect was the great St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, a man who before becoming a cleric had served as governor, and was a noted public speaker. Augustine used to go to hear his sermons–not, as he assured himself, because of their Christian content, but to study the bishop’s oratorical techniques. Meanwhile Monica had joined her son at Milano.
Gradually Augustine became convinced of the truth of Christianity. He dismissed his spouse, but he still felt the tug of the flesh, and prayed, “Give me chastity, but not yet awhile.”
Eventually, however, God rewarded his good intentions by turning his eyes marvelously to a passage from St. Paul. As he read Paul’s words, he received the grace of total conversion. This was in 386. He was baptized the following year by St. Ambrose. Then he formed a quasi-religious community, including his mother, dedicated to study and prayer. Late in 387 he decided to return to Africa, to continue there his work for the Church. Monica died en route, happy to have seen her prayers answered for her son.
At Tagaste, Augustine and his friends continued their quasi-monastic life. He had no thought then of becoming a priest, but in 391 Bishop Valerius of Hippo persuaded him to accept ordination. Four years later he was consecrated coadjutor bishop of Hippo with right of succession, and he succeeded shortly afterward when Valerius died.
During the rest of his life, Bishop Augustine ransomed his wayward years by being a religious leader in every sense. He perfected a religious rule for his monastic group, and also founded a community of religious women. He used his own funds where necessary to aid the poor. A friendly and affectionate person, he made himself available to all inquirers by personal contact or by letter. Meanwhile he polished his knowledge of theology, and by working to refute current errors, became an expert theologian, consulted widely on matters of scripture and faith. Nowhere was his expertise greater than in the theology of divine grace. (He had learned much about God’s grace through his own spiritual experiences!)
After thirty-five years of laborious work, the Bishop of Hippo died of a fever at the moment when the Germanic Vandals were besieging his see-city. At that moment he found fulfillment of the prayer he had addressed to God in his Confessions:
“Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara