“One of the most important exponents of Christianity" in his time, is how Pope Benedict XVI described St. Augustine today at the Wednesday general audience.
This bishop of Hippo, the Pontiff said, was "a man of passion and of faith, of exalted intelligence and of tireless pastoral activity".
While the Holy Father acknowledged that the African saint has a large quantity of other works, he dedicated today’s audience to reflecting on the biography of Augustine. In the coming weeks, the Pope explained that he will focus on the saint’s numerous works.
It could be affirmed, said the Holy Father, that "all the threads of Latin Christian literature lead to Hippo" and that "many of the subsequent developments in Christianity, and in Western culture itself, lead out from this city of Roman Africa where St. Augustine was bishop from 395 to 430".
The author of the "Confessions", that "extraordinary spiritual autobiography ... with its great concern for the mystery of the self, for the mystery of God hidden in the self", was born in Tagaste in the year 354, the son of Patricius and of St. Monica. His mother educated him in the Christian faith, which the saint would later abandon despite his persistent interest in the figure of Christ.
Augustine studied rhetoric and grammar, a subject he went on to teach. While in Carthage, he read Cicero's "Hortensius" because although he had abandoned the practices of the Church he still always sought the truth. The book "awoke in him the love of wisdom", but "being convinced that without Jesus it is not possible to discover the truth", and as "Hortensius" contained no mention of Christ, he began to read Sacred Scripture.
However his encounter with the Bible left him disappointed, not only because of the poor Latin style of the translations, but also because "the content matter itself did not satisfy him. In the biblical accounts of wars and other human vicissitudes, he did not find that exalted philosophy," or "that splendor of the search for truth which characterizes it", said the Pope.
Yet Augustine did not want to live without God and continued to seek "a religion that responded to his desire to find truth ... and to draw close to Jesus". For this reason he was attracted by Manichaeism, the followers of which claimed that theirs was a "completely rational religion". Their dualist morality attracted the future bishop of Hippo who was convinced he had found the right fusion between "rationality, search for truth, and love for Jesus Christ"; yet Manichaeism proved incapable of resolving the saint's doubts.
When Augustine moved to Milan he began to frequent the sermons of Ambrose, as a way of improving his own rhetoric. The bishop of Milan taught "a typological interpretation of the Old Testament, as the road that leads to Jesus Christ". Thus it was that Augustine "discovered the key to understanding the beauty, and even the philosophical profundity, of the Old Testament, and he came to understand all the unity of the mystery of Christ in history, and the synthesis between philosophy, rationality and faith in the Logos, in Christ the eternal Word made flesh".
Augustine converted to Christianity on 15 August 386, "the end of a long and painful interior journey", and was baptized on 24 April 387. Ordained a priest in 391 following his return to Africa, he became a bishop four years later. "In his tireless pastoral commitment", said the Pope, "he was an exemplary bishop, ... he supported the poor, ... concerned himself with the formation of the clergy and the organization of monasteries and convents", and in a very short space of time became "one of the most important exponents of Christianity of that time".
"The bishop of Hippo", the Holy Father went on, "exercised a huge influence in his guidance of the Catholic Church in Roman Africa" and stood up against "tenacious and disruptive religious movements and heresies such as Manichaeism, Donatism and Pelagianism".
Pope Benedict recalled how "Augustine entrusted himself to God every day, until the end of his life", and how shortly before his death "he asked for the penitential psalms to be written in large letters and hung on the wall so he could see and read them from his bed". The bishop died on 28 August 430.