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Augustine’s Legacy

His Holiness, fresh from his Lenten retreat, returned to St. Augustine in Wednesday’s audience. Teresa Benedetta, ever faithful, translated…

Dear brothers and sisters,

After the pause during the spiritual exercises last week, we return today to the great figure of Saint Augustine, about whom I have already spoken in these catecheses.

He is the Father of the Church who has left the most number of works, about some of which I intend to speak briefly today.

Some of the Augustinian writings are of capital importance, not only for the history of Christianity but in shaping all of Western culture.

The clearest example is his Confessions, without a doubt one of the books from early Christianity that is still widely read today.

Like many Fathers of the Church in its early centuries – but in incomparably vaster measure – the Bishop of Hippo has indeed exercised an extensive and persistent influence, which is evident from the abundant tradition and legacy of his works, which are truly numerous.

He himself reviewed his writings a few years before his death in Retractationes, and shortly after his death, they were all carefully recorded in the Indiculus (list) added by the faithful Possidius to his biography of St. Augustine, Vita Augustini.

The list of Augustine’s works was made with the explicit intention of preserving them even as the barbarian invasions were spreading throughout Roman Africa, and included 1,030 writings numbered by the author himself, along with others that he did not number.

Bishop of a nearby city, Possidius dictated his words in Hippo, where he had sought refuge and was present at the death of his friend, so, almost certainly, his list was based on a catalog of Augustine’s personal library.

Today, the Bishop of Hippo is also survived by more than 300 letters and almost 600 homilies, although these were originally so much more – probably anywhere between 3,000-4,000, the fruit of some 40 years of preaching by the ex-rhetoricist who decided to follow Jesus, and instead of addressing himself to the imperial court, spoke to the simple people of Hippo.

In recent years, the discovery of a group of letters and more homilies have enriched our knowledge of this great Father of the Church.

“Many books,” wrote Possidius, “were written and published by him, many homilies were given in Church and then transcribed and edited, both to refute various heresies as well as to interpret Sacred Scriptures for the edification of the children of the Church. ”

“These works,” wrote his bishop friend, “are so numerous that a scholar could hardly find it possible to read all of them and learn them” (Vita Augustini, 18, 9).

Among this vast literary production of Augustine – more than a thousand publications subdivided into philosophical, apologetics, doctrinal, moral, monastic, exegetic, anti-heretical, besides his letters and homilies – there are a few exceptional works of great theological and philosophical weight that stand out.

First of all, the Confessions, which we have already mentioned, written in 13 volumes between 397-400 in praise of God. It is a sort of autobiography in the form of a dialog with God. This literary genre reflects the life of Augustine, which was a life not closed in on itself and dissipated in various activities, but substantially lived as a dialog with God and therefore, a life shared with others.

The very title indicates the specificity of this autobiography. The word ‘confessiones’ in the Christian Latin that was developed in the tradition of the Psalms, has two meanings that are interwoven.

Confessiones connotes, in the first place, a confession of one’s own weaknesses, of the misery of sinners, but at the same time, it also means praise of God, acknowledgment and recognition of God.

To see one’s own poverty in God’s light becomes praise of God and gratitude that God loves and accepts us, transforms us and lifts us towards himself.

About these Confessions which had great success even in Augustine’s lifetime, he himself wrote: “They exercised such action on me while I was writing them and do so even now when I reread them. There are many brothers who like these writings” (Retractationes, II, 6), and I must say that I, too, am one of these ‘brothers’.

Thanks to these Confessions, we can follow, step by step, the interior journey of this extraordinary man who had a great passion for God.

Less well-known but equally original and very important are the Retractationes, written in two books around 427, in which Augustine, then an old man, undertook a ‘review’ (retractatio) of all his written works, thus leaving a singular and most invaluable literary document that is a lesson in intellectual sincerity and humility.

De civitate Dei (of the City of God) – a powerful and decisive work for the development of Western political thought and the Christian theology of history – was written between 413 and 426 in 22 volumes, occasioned by the sacking of Rome by the Goths in 410.

Many pagans who survived, along with many Christians, had said, “Rome has fallen, and the Christian God and the Apostles can do nothing to protect the city. In the days of the pagan divinities, Rome was the caput mundi, capital of the world, and no one could imagine that it could fall into the hands of an enemy. Now, with the Christian God, this great city no longer appears safe.”

So (they were saying that) the God of the Christians could not protect, and therefore, could not be a God to trust. To this objection, which reached deeply into the hearts of many Christians, St. Augustine replied with his great work, De civitate Dei, clarifying what we should expect from God and what not to, what the relationship is between the political sphere and that of faith, of the Church.

Even today, this book is a source for defining well what true secularity is, and the competency (jurisdiction) of the Church, the true great hope that faith gives us.

This great book is a presentation of the history of a mankind governed by Divine Providence but actually divided by two loves. This is the fundamental design of his interpretation of history – as a battle between two loves: love of oneself “to the point of indifference to God”, and love of God “to the point of indifference to oneself” (De civitate Dei, XIV, 28), which leads to full freedom to be for others in the light of God. This, therefore, is perhaps St. Augustine’s greatest book, with the greatest permanent importance.

Equally important is De Trinitate, a work in 15 volumes on the principal nucleus of the Christian faith – faith in the Trinitarian God – which he wrote in two time periods. The first 12 volumes wre written between 399-412 and published without his knowledge, and he completed the work in 420, when it was published in full.

In this book, he reflects on the face of God and seeks to understand this mystery of the God who is unique, the only Creator of the world, of us all, and still, because this one God is trinitarian, is also a circle of love.

He seeks to understand the unfathomable mystery: the Trinitarian being, in three persons, as precisely the most real and most profound expression of teh unity of the one God.

De doctrina Christiana is a true and proper cultural introduction to the interpretation of the Bible, and at the same time, a conclusive interpretation of Christianity itself. It, too, had a decisive importance in the shaping of Western culture.

Even with all his humility, Augustine was certainly aware of his own intellectual stature. But for him, more important than writing great works of high theological value was bringing the Christian message to the simple people.

This most profound of his intentions, which guided his whole life, is expressed in a letter to his colleague Evodius, informing him of his decision to suspend for the time being his dictation of the books making up De Trinitate “because they are too laborious and I think they may be understood only by a few; more urgent are texts which I hope will be useful to many” (Epistulae, 169, 1, 1).

Therefore, he thought it was more useful to communicate the faith in a way understandable to all rather than write great theological works. This acutely felt responsibility regarding the proclamation of the Christian message was responsible for writings such as De catechizandis rudibus, which was both a theory and a praxis of catechesis, or the Psalmus contra partem Donati.

The Donatists were the great problem in the Africa of St. Augustine – a schism that was African in origin. The Donatists affirmed that true Christianity was African and opposed the unity of the Church. The great bishop fought this schism all his life, seeking to convince the Donatists that it is only in Christian unity that Africanness itself could be authentic.

And to make himself understood by the simple people, who could not understand a rhetoricist’s grand Latin, he decided: I should write even with grammatical errors in a very simplified Latin. And he did this, especially in this Psalmus, a kind of simple poetry against the Donatists, to help all the people understand that our relationship with God and peace in the world could only grow in the unity of the Church.

In Augustine’s literary production addressed to a much larger public, particularly important is the sheer mass of his homilies, often extemporaneous but transcribed during the preaching to be published for immediate circulation.

Among these are the very beautiful Enarrationes in Psalmos, widely read in the Middle Ages. The very practice of immediate publication of thousands of homilies by Augustine – often beyond the author’s control – explains their dissemination and subsequent wider diffusion, but also their vitality.

Almost immediately, in fact, the preachings of the Bishop of Hippo became, because of their author’s fame, highly sought texts that served even other bishops and priests, texts that were adaptable to ever new contexts.

The iconographic tradition – which we can see in a Lateran fresco dating to the sixth century – shows St. Augustine with a book in one hand, certainly to represent his literary production which so influenced Christian mentality and Christian thought, but also to show his love of books, for reading, and for gaining knowledge of older cultures.

At his death, he left nothing, said Possidius, but “he urged to always conserve diligently for posterity the library of the Church with all its codices”, as well as his own writings.

In his works, Possidius writes, Augustine is ‘always alive’ and benefits those who read his writings, even if “I believe that those who saw and heard him when he preached in Church had profited more from that contact, but most of all, those who had experience of his daily life among the people” (Vita Augustini, 31).

Yes, even for us, it would have been beautiful to hear him alive. But he truly lives in his writings, and is present with us, and we see the permanent vitality of the faith to which he had given his entire life.