There is little that can be said to expand on the virtues of the exemplary Saint Augustine of Hippo by that which has been written by so many others.
Saint Augustine, for whom his long-suffering mother, Saint Monica, cried copious tears for twenty years, shows us that it is possible to escape a life filled with sin and pleasure-seeking and to divest oneself from almost every error imaginable.
Indeed, Saint Augustine shows us there is hope for us all, those who have still struggle with their faults and failings, whether venial or God forbid, mortal. Saint Augustine also shows us that no prayer is ever wasted. We must persevere in prayer for our relatives and friends who are out of the Holy Faith or who do see the true state of the Church in this time of apostasy and betrayal. We must also persevere in our prayers for those we know, including family members, who are non-Catholics and living lives of unrepentant moral dissolution, and we must persevere in prayers to Our Lady for our own daily conversion from worldliness or lukewarmness to a detachment from the world and a fervor soul that makes even the thought of sin repugnant to us!
Writing in his Confessions, Saint Augustine described the difficulties he experienced when converting to the true Faith at the hands of Saint Ambrose:
1. O My God, let me with gratitude remember and confess unto You Your mercies bestowed upon me. Let my bones be steeped in Your love, and let them say, Who is like You, O Lord? You have loosed my bonds, I will offer unto You the sacrifice of thanksgiving. And how You have loosed them I will declare; and all who worship You when they hear these things shall say: Blessed be the Lord in heaven and earth, great and wonderful is His name. Your words had stuck fast into my breast, and I was hedged round about by You on every side. Job 1:10 Of Your eternal life I was now certain, although I had seen it through a glass darkly. 1 Corinthians 13:12 Yet I no longer doubted that there was an incorruptible substance, from which was derived all other substance; nor did I now desire to be more certain of You, but more steadfast in You. As for my temporal life, all things were uncertain, and my heart had to be purged from the old leaven. 1 Corinthians 5:7 The Way, John 14:6 the Saviour Himself, was pleasant unto me, but as yet I disliked to pass through its straightness. And Thou put into my mind, and it seemed good in my eyes, to go unto Simplicianus, who appeared to me a faithful servant of Yours, and Your grace shone in him. I had also heard that from his very youth he had lived most devoted to You. Now he had grown into years, and by reason of so great age, passed in such zealous following of Your ways, he appeared to me likely to have gained much experience; and so in truth he had. Out of which experience I desired him to tell me (setting before him my griefs) which would be the most fitting way for one afflicted as I was to walk in Your way.
2. For the Church I saw to be full, and one went this way, and another that. But it was displeasing to me that I led a secular life; yea, now that my passions had ceased to excite me as of old with hopes of honour and wealth, a very grievous burden it was to undergo so great a servitude. For, compared with Your sweetness, and the beauty of Your house, which I loved, those things delighted me no longer. But still very tenaciously was I held by the love of women; nor did the apostle forbid me to marry, although he exhorted me to something better, especially wishing that all men were as he himself was. 1 Corinthians 7:7 But I, being weak, made choice of the more agreeable place, and because of this alone was tossed up and down in all beside, faint and languishing with withering cares, because in other matters I was compelled, though unwilling, to agree to a married life, to which I was given up and enthralled. I had heard from the mouth of truth that there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake; but, says He, he that is able to receive it, let him receive it. Matthew 19:12 Vain, assuredly, are all men in whom the knowledge of God is not, and who could not, out of the good things which are seen, find out Him who is good. Wisdom 13:1 But I was no longer in that vanity; I had surmounted it, and by the united testimony of Your whole creation had found You, our Creator, and Your Word, God with You, and together with You and the Holy Ghost one God, by whom You created all things. There is yet another kind of impious men, who when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful. Romans 1:21 Into this also had I fallen; but Your right hand held me up, and bore me away, and You placed me where I might recover. For You have said to man, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; Job 28:28 and desire not to seem wise, Proverbs 3:7 because, Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools. Romans 1:22 But I had now found the goodly pearl, which, selling all that I had, Matthew 13:46 I ought to have bought; and I hesitated.
3. To Simplicianus then I went — the father of Ambrose (at that time a bishop) in receiving Your grace, and whom he truly loved as a father. To him I narrated the windings of my error. But when I mentioned to him that I had read certain books of the Platonists, which Victorinus, sometime Professor of Rhetoric at Rome (who died a Christian, as I had been told), had translated into Latin, he congratulated me that I had not fallen upon the writings of other philosophers, which were full of fallacies and deceit, after the rudiments of the world, Colossians 2:8 whereas they, in many ways, led to the belief in God and His word. Then, to exhort me to the humility of Christ, hidden from the wise, and revealed to little ones, Matthew 11:25 he spoke of Victorinus himself, whom, while he was at Rome, he had known very intimately; and of him he related that about which I will not be silent. For it contains great praise of Your grace, which ought to be confessed unto You, how that most learned old man, highly skilled in all the liberal sciences, who had read, criticised, and explained so many works of the philosophers; the teacher of so many noble senators; who also, as a mark of his excellent discharge of his duties, had (which men of this world esteem a great honour) both merited and obtained a statue in the Roman Forum, he — even to that age a worshipper of idols, and a participator in the sacrilegious rites to which almost all the nobility of Rome were wedded, and had inspired the people with the love of the dog Anubis, and a medley crew of monster gods [who] 'gainst Neptune stand in arms, 'Gainst Venus and Minerva, steel-clad Mars, whom Rome once conquered, now worshipped, all which old Victorinus had with thundering eloquence defended so many years — he now blushed not to be the child of Your Christ, and an infant at Your fountain, submitting his neck to the yoke of humility, and subduing his forehead to the reproach of the Cross.
4. O Lord, Lord, who has bowed the heavens and come down, touched the mountains and they did smoke, by what means did You convey Yourself into that bosom? He used to read, as Simplicianus said, the Holy Scripture, most studiously sought after and searched into all the Christian writings, and said to Simplicianus, — not openly, but secretly, and as a friend —Know that I am a Christian. To which he replied, I will not believe it, nor will I rank you among the Christians unless I see you in the Church of Christ. Whereupon he replied derisively, Is it then the walls that make Christians? And this he often said, that he already was a Christian; and Simplidanus making the same answer, the conceit of the walls was by the other as often renewed. For he was fearful of offending his friends, proud demon-worshippers, from the height of whose Babylonian dignity, as from cedars of Lebanon which had not yet been broken by the Lord, he thought a storm of enmity would descend upon him. But after that, from reading and inquiry, he had derived strength, and feared lest he should be denied by Christ before the holy angels if he now was afraid to confess Him before men, Luke 9:26 and appeared to himself guilty of a great fault in being ashamed of the sacraments of the humility of Your word, and not being ashamed of the sacrilegious rites of those proud demons, whose pride he had imitated and their rites adopted, he became bold-faced against vanity, and shame-faced toward the truth, and suddenly and unexpectedly said to Simplicianus, — as he himself informed me —Let us go to the church; I wish to be made a Christian. But he, not containing himself for joy, accompanied him. And having been admitted to the first sacraments of instruction, he not long after gave in his name, that he might be regenerated by baptism — Rome marvelling, and the Church rejoicing. The proud saw, and were enraged; they gnashed with their teeth, and melted away! But the Lord God was the hope of Your servant, and He regarded not vanities and lying madness.
5. Finally, when the hour arrived for him to make profession of his faith (which at Rome they who are about to approach Your grace are wont to deliver from an elevated place, in view of the faithful people, in a set form of words learned by heart), the presbyters, he said, offered Victorinus to make his profession more privately, as the custom was to do to those who were likely, through bashfulness, to be afraid; but he chose rather to profess his salvation in the presence of the holy assembly. For it was not salvation that he taught in rhetoric, and yet he had publicly professed that. How much less, therefore, ought he, when pronouncing Your word, to dread Your meek flock, who, in the delivery of his own words, had not feared the mad multitudes! So, then, when he ascended to make his profession, all, as they recognised him, whispered his name one to the other, with a voice of congratulation. And who was there among them that did not know him? And there ran a low murmur through the mouths of all the rejoicing multitude, Victorinus! Victorinus! Sudden was the burst of exultation at the sight of him; and suddenly were they hushed, that they might hear him. He pronounced the true faith with an excellent boldness, and all desired to take him to their very heart — yea, by their love and joy they took him there; such were the hands with which they took him.
6. Good God, what passed in man to make him rejoice more at the salvation of a soul despaired of, and delivered from greater danger, than if there had always been hope of him, or the danger had been less? For so Thou also, O merciful Father, rejoice over one sinner that repents, more than over ninety-nine just persons that need no repentance. And with much joyfulness do we hear, whenever we hear, how the lost sheep is brought home again on the Shepherd's shoulders, while the angels rejoice, and the drachma is restored to Your treasury, the neighhours rejoicing with the woman who found it; Luke 15:4-10 and the joy of the solemn service of Your house constrains to tears, when in Your house it is read of Your younger son that he was dead, and is alive again, and was lost, and is found. Luke 15:32 For You rejoice both in us and in Your angels, holy through holy charity. For You are ever the same; for all things which abide neither the same nor for ever, Thou ever know after the same manner.
7. What, then, passes in the soul when it more delights at finding or having restored to it the thing it loves than if it had always possessed them? Yea, and other things bear witness hereunto; and all things are full of witnesses, crying out, So it is. The victorious commander triumphs; yet he would not have conquered had he not fought, and the greater the peril of the battle, the more the rejoicing of the triumph. The storm tosses the voyagers, threatens shipwreck, and every one waxes pale at the approach of death; but sky and sea grow calm, and they rejoice much, as they feared much. A loved one is sick, and his pulse indicates danger; all who desire his safety are at once sick at heart: he recovers, though not able as yet to walk with his former strength, and there is such joy as was not before when he walked sound and strong. Yea, the very pleasures of human life — not those only which rush upon us unexpectedly, and against our wills, but those that are voluntary and designed — do men obtain by difficulties. There is no pleasure at all in eating and drinking unless the pains of hunger and thirst go before. And drunkards eat certain salt meats with the view of creating a troublesome heat, which the drink allaying causes pleasure. It is also the custom that the affianced bride should not immediately be given up, that the husband may not less esteem her whom, as betrothed, he longed not for.
8. This law obtains in base and accursed joy; in that joy also which is permitted and lawful; in the sincerity of honest friendship; and in Him who was dead, and lived again, had been lost, and was found. Luke 15:32 The greater joy is everywhere preceded by the greater pain. What means this, O Lord my God, when You are, an everlasting joy unto Your own self, and some things about You are ever rejoicing in You? What means this, that this portion of things thus ebbs and flows, alternately offended and reconciled? Is this the fashion of them, and is this all You have allotted to them, whereas from the highest heaven to the lowest earth, from the beginning of the world to its end, from the angel to the worm, from the first movement unto the last, You set each in its right place, and appointed each its proper seasons, everything good after its kind? Woe is me! How high are You in the highest, and how deep in the deepest! Thou withdrawest no whither, and scarcely do we return to You. (Saint Augustine, The Confessions, Chapter 8. Translated by J.G. Pilkington. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.)
Pope Pius XI, writing in Ad Salutem, April 20, 1930, elaborated on Saint Augustine’s abandonment of his wretched life and his attachment to pagan gods as he gradually came to see the truth after hearing a sermon preached by Saint Ambrose in Milan:
8. In youth, parted from his mother, and a pupil of pagan masters-so was it permitted by the Most High-he lost his early piety, became the unhappy slave of carnal pleasures and was ensnared in the toils of Manicheism, being for nearly nine years an adherent of that sect. God’s purpose was, that the destined Doctor of Grace should learn by experience and transmit to later ages how extreme is the weakness and frailty of even the noblest spirit, if it be not made strong in the way of virtue by the safeguard of Christian training and ceaseless application to prayer, especially during youth, when the mind is bewitched more readily by the lure of error and the soul is led astray by the first stirrings of sense. God further permitted his defection, that our Saint might realize in his own life how wretched is the man who tries to fill his heart to satiety with creatures; a truth that he later plainly confessed before the Lord. ‘For Thou wert ever present with compassionate anger, mingling the bitterness of distaste with all my lawless delights, that I might seek delight without distaste and should fail to find this in aught, save in Thee, O Lord.” Did not the Heavenly Father, then, abandon Augustine to his own devices, that Monica might ply Him with tearful entreaties and serve as a type of those mothers, who by their long-suffering and gentleness of temper, by their tireless supplication of the divine mercy, succeed at length in winning back their sons to virtue? For it was impossible that the sons would perish, for whom so many tears were shed. Our Saint thus writes to the point:
“And in those same books containing the story of my conversion, telling how God converted me to the Faith which my unhappy and mad abuse of language was bent on destroying, do you not recall that the purpose of my narrative was to show that I was a boon granted to the loyal, daily tears of my mother, lest I be lost?”
9. Hence, Augustine was by degrees estranged from the Manichean heresy and, urged as it were by a Divine impulse, was led to Milan to meet Ambrose the Bishop there. The Lord “little by little with a touch of tender pity shaping and moulding his heart,” though the wise words of Ambrose brought him to believe in the Catholic Church and in the truth of the Bible. Then it was that the son of Monica, though not yet immune from anxiety and from the allurements of vice, still grasped firmly the truth that Divine Providence has set the way of salvation only in Christ Our Lord and in the Sacred Scriptures, which find the sole warrant of their truth in the authority of the Catholic Church. Yet how hard and toilsome is the complete conversion of a man, who has long been straying from the straight path. He was still the prey of his passions and of mental disquiet, which he was not strong enough to control. So far was he from deriving the strength from the teaching of Platonists concerning God and creatures, that he would have filled the measure of his misfortunes with the still greater one of pride, had he not learned at length from the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, that he who wishes to live like a Christian must build on a foundation of humility and depend on the aid of Divine grace. And now-we narrate a fact the story of which none can tell without tears-grieving over the deeds of his past life and inspired by the example of so many Christians, who were ready to make shipwreck of all created goods to gain the “one thing necessary,” he made his surrender to the Divine mercy, which had lovingly pursued him, at the moment when at prayer he was startled by a sudden voice that cried: “Take and read.” He opened a copy of the Epistles lying near and with Heaven’s grace effectively stirring his soul, the following passage met his eyes: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.” And it is certain that from that moment to his dying breath, Augustine gave himself wholly to God. (Pope Pius XI, Ad Salutem, April 20, 1930.)
Dom Prosper Gueranger explained in The Liturgical Year that Saint Augustine became a fierce foe of all heresies immediately after his conversion:
Today Augustine, the greatest and the humblest of the Doctors, is hailed by heaven, where his conversion caused greater joy than that of any other sinner; and celebrated by the Church, who is enlightened by his writings as to the power, the value, and the gratuitousness of divine grace.
Since that wonderful, heavenly conversation at Ostia, God had completed his triumph in the son of Monica’s tears and of Ambrose’s holiness. Far away from the great cities where pleasure had seduced him, the former rhetorician now cared only to nourish his soul with the simplicity of the Scriptures, in silence and solitude. But grace, after breaking the double chain that bound his mind and his heart, was to have still greater dominion over him; the pontifical consecration was to consummate Augustine’s union with that divine Wisdom, whom alone he declared he loved “for her own sole sake, caring neither for rest nor life save on her account.” From his height, to which the divine mercy had raised him, let us hear him pouring out his heart:
“Too late have I loved thee, O beauty so ancient and yet so new! Too late have I loved thee! And behold thou wast within me, and I, having wandered out of myself, sought thee everywhere without … I questioned the earth, and she answered me: I am not the one thou seekest; and all the creatures of earth made the same reply. I questioned the sea and its abyss and all the living things therein, and they answered: We are not thy God; seek above us. I questioned the restless winds, and all the air with its inhabitants replied: Anaximenes is mistaken, I am not God. I questioned the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars, and they said: We are not the God whom thou seekest. And I said to all these things that stand without at the gates of my senses: Ye have all confessed concerning my God that ye are not he, tell me now something about him. And they all cried with one great voice: It is he that made us. I questioned them with my desires, and they answered by their beauty.—Let the air and the waters and the earth be silent! Let man keep silence in his own soul! Let him pass beyond his own thought; for beyond all language of man or of Angels, he, of whom creatures speak, makes himself heard; where signs and images and figurative visions cease, there Eternal Wisdom reveals herself … Thou didst call and cry so loud that my deaf ears could hear thee; thou didst shine so brightly that my blind eyes could see thee; thy fragrance exhilarated me and it is after thee that I aspire; having tasted thee I hunger and thirst; thou hadst touched me and thrilled me and I burn to be in thy peaceful rest. When I shall be united to thee with my whole being, then will my sorrows and labors cease.”
To the end of his life Augustine never ceased to fight for the truth against all the heresies then invented by the father of lies; in his ever repeated victories, we know not which to admire most: his knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, his powerful logic, or his eloquence. We see too that divine charity which, while inflexibly upholding every iota of God’s rights, is full of ineffable compassion for the unhappy beings who do not understand those rights.
“Let those be hard upon you who do not know what labor it is to reach the truth and turn away from error. Let those be hard upon you, who know not how rare a thing it is, and how much it costs, to overcome the false images of the senses and to dwell in peace of soul. Let those be hard upon you who know not with what difficulty man’s mental eye is healed so as to be able to gaze upon the Sun of justice; who know not through what sighs and groans one attains to some little knowledge of God. Let those finally be hard upon you who have never known seduction like that whereby you are destroyed … As for me, who have been tossed about by the vain imaginations of which my mind was in search, and who have shared your misery and so long deplored it, I could not by any means be harsh to you.”
These touching words were addressed to the disciples of Manes, who were hemmed in on all sides even by the laws of the pagan emperors. How fearful is the misery of our fallen race when the darkness of hell can overpower the loftiest intellects! Augustine, the formidable opponent of heresy, was for nine years previously the convinced disciple and ardent apostle of Manicheism. This heresy was a strange variety of Gnostic dualism, which, to explain the existence of evil, made a god of evil itself; and which owed its prolonged influence to the pleasure taken in it by Satan’s pride.
Augustine sustained also a prolonged though more local struggle against the Donatists, whose teaching was based on a principle as false as the fact from which it professed to originate. This fact, which on the petitions presented by the Donatists themselves was juridically proved to be false, was that Cæcilianus, primate of Africa in 311, had received episcopal consecration from a traditor, i.e. one who had delivered up the sacred Books in time of persecution. No one, argued the Donatists, could communicate with a sinner without himself ceasing to form part of the flock of Christ; therefore, as the bishops of the rest of the world had continued to communicate with Cæcilianus and his successors, the Donatists alone were now the Church. This groundless schism was established among most of the inhabitants of Roman Africa, with its four hundred and ten bishops, and its troops of Circumcellions ever ready to commit murders and violence upon the Catholics on the roads or in isolated houses. The greater part of our Saint’s time was occupied in trying to bring back these lost sheep.
We must not imagine him studying at his ease in the peace of a quiet episcopal city chosen as if for the purpose by Providence, and there writing those precious works whose fruits the whole world has now enjoyed even to our days. There is no fecundity on earth without sufferings and trials, known sometimes to men, sometimes to God alone. When the writings of the saints awaken in us pious thoughts and generous resolutions, we must not be satisfied, as we might in the case of profane books, with admiring the genius of the authors, but think with gratitude of the price they paid for the supernatural good produced in our souls. Before Augustine’s arrival in Hippo, the Donatists were so great a majority of the population that, as he himself informs us, they could even forbid anyone to bake bread for Catholics. When the saint died, things were very different; but the pastor, who had made it his first duty to save, even in spite of themselves, the souls confided to him, had been obliged to spend his days and nights in this great work, and had more than once run the risk of martyrdom. The leaders of the schismatics, fearing the force of his reasoning even more than his eloquence, refused all intercourse with him; they declared that to put Augustine to death would be a praiseworthy action which would merit for the perpetrator the remission of his sins.
“Pray for us,” he said at the beginning of his episcopate, “pray for us who live in so precarious a state, as it were between the teeth of furious wolves. These wandering sheep, obstinate sheep, are offended because we run after them, as if their wandering made them cease to be ours.—Why dost thou call us? they say; why dost thou pursue us? —But the very reason of our cries and our anguish is that they are running to their ruin.—If I am lost, if I die, what is it to thee? what dost thou want with me? —What I want is to call thee back from thy wandering; what I desire is to snatch thee from death.—But what if I will to wander? what if I will to be lost? —Thou willest to wander? thou willest to be lost? How much more earnestly do I wish it not! Yea, I dare to say it, I am importunate; for I hear the Apostle saying: Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season. In season, when they are willing; out of season, when they are unwilling. Yes then, I am importunate: thou willest to perish, I will it not. And he wills it not who threatened the shepherds saying: That which was driven away you have not brought again, neither have you sought that which was lost. Am I to fear thee more than him? I fear thee not; the tribunal of Donatus cannot take the place of Christ’s judgment seat, before which we must all appear. Whether thou will it or not, I shall call back the wandering sheep, I shall seek the lost sheep. The thorns may tear me; but however narrow the opening may be it shall not check my pursuit; I will beat every bush, as long as the Lord gives me strength; so only I can get to thee wherever thou strivest to perish.”
Driven into their last trenches by such unconquerable charity, the Donatists replied by massacring clerics and faithful, since they could not touch Augustine himself. The bishop implored the imperial judges not to inflict mutilation or death upon the murderers lest the triumph of the martyrs should be sullied by such a vengeance. Such mildness was certainly worthy of the Church; but it was destined to be one day brought forward against her in contrast to certain other facts of her history, by a school of liberalism that can grant rights and even pre-eminence to error. Augustine acknowledges his first idea to have been that constraint should not be used to bring anyone into the unity of Christ; he believed that preaching and free discussion should be the only arms employed for the conversion of heretics. But on the consideration of what was taking place before his eyes, the very logic of his charity brought him over to the opinion of his more ancient colleagues in the episcopate.
“Who,” he says, “could love us more than God does? Nevertheless God makes use of fear in order to save us, although he teaches us with sweetness. When the Father of the family wanted guests for his banquet, did he not send his servants to the highways and hedges, to compel all they met to come in? This banquet is the unity of Christ’s Body. If, then, the divine goodness has willed that, at the fitting time, the faith of Christian kings should recognize this power of the Church, let the heretics brought back from the byways, and schismatics forced into their enclosures, consider not the constraint they suffer, but the banquet of the Lord to which they would not otherwise have attained. Does not the shepherd sometimes use threats and sometimes blows to win back to the master’s fold the sheep that have been enticed out of it? Severity that springs from love is preferable to deceitful gentleness. He who binds the delirious man and waked up the sleeper from his lethargy molests them both, but for their good. If a house were on the point of falling, and our cries could not induce those within to come out, would it not be cruelty not to save them by force in spite of themselves? and that, even if we could snatch only one from death because the rest, seeing it, obstinately hastened their own destruction: as the Donatists do, who in their madness commit suicide to obtain the crown of martyrdom. No one can become good in spite of himself; nevertheless, the rigorous laws, of which they complain, bring deliverance not only to individuals but to the whole cities, by freeing them from the bonds of untruth and causing them to see the truth, which the violence or the deceits of the schismatics had hidden from their eyes. Far from complaining, their gratitude is now boundless and their joy complete; their feasts and their chants are unceasing.”
Meanwhile the justice of heaven was falling upon the queen of nations; Rome, after the triumph of the Cross, had not profited of God’s merciful delay; now she was expiating under the hand of Alaric, the blood of the Saints which she had shed before her idols. Go out from her my people. At this signal the city was evacuated. The roads were all lined with barbarians; and happy was the fugitive who could succeed in reaching the sea, there to entrust to the frailest skiff the honor of his family and the remains of his fortune. Like a bright beacon shining through the storms, Augustine, by his reputation, attracted to the African coast the best of the unfortunates; his varied correspondence shows us the new links then formed by God between the Bishop of Hippo and so many noble exiles. At one time he would send, as far as Nola in Compania, charming messages mingled with learned questions and luminous answers, to greet his “dear lords and venerable brethren, Paulinus and Therasia, his fellow disciples in the school of our Lord Jesus.” Again it was to Carthage or even nearer home that his letters were directed, to console, instruct and fortify Albina, Melania, and Pinianus, but especially Proba and Juliana, the illustrious grandmother and mother of a still more illustrious daughter, the virgin Demetrias, the greatest in the Roman world for nobility and wealth, and Augustine’s dear conquest to the heavenly Spouse. “Oh! who,” he wrote on hearing of her consecration to our Lord, “who could worthily express the glory added this day to the family of the Anicii; for years, it has ennobled the world by the consuls its sons, but now it gives virgins to Christ! Let others imitate Demetrias; whosoever ambitions the glory of this illustrious family, let him take holiness for his portion!” Augustine’s desire was magnificently realized when, less than a century later, the gens Anicia gave to the world Scholastica and Benedict, who were to lead into intimate familiarity and union with God so many should eager for true nobility.
When Rome fell, the shock was felt throughout the provinces and even beyond. Augustine tells us how he, a descendant of the ancient Numidians, groaned and wept in his almost inconsolable grief; so great, even in her decadence, was the universal esteem and love for the queen city, through the secret action of him who was holdin gout to her new and higher destinies. Meanwhile the terrible crisis furnished the occasion for Augustine’s most important writings. The City of God was an answer to the still numerous partisans of idolatry who attributed the misfortunes of the empire to the suppression of the false gods. In this great work he refutes, in the most complete and masterly way, the theology and also the philosophy of Roman and Grecian paganism; he then proceeds to set forth the origin, the history, and the end of the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, which divide the world between them, and which are founded upon “two opposite loves: the love of self even to the despising of God, and the love of God even to the despising of self.”
But Augustine’s greatest triumph was that which earned for him the title of the Doctor of grace. His favorite prayer: Da quod jubes, et jube quod vis (Give me grace to do what Thou dost command, and command what Thou wilt), offended the pride of a certain British monk, whom the events of the year 410 had led into Africa. This was Pelagius, who taught that nature, all-powerful for good, was quite capable of working out salvation, and that Adam’s sin injured himself alone, and was not passed down to his posterity. We can well understand Augustine, who owed so much to the Divine mercy, feeling so strong an aversion for a system whose authors “seemed to say to God: Thou madest us men, but it is we that justify ourselves.”
In this new campaign no injuries were spared to the former convert; but they were his joy and his hope. He had already said, with regard to similar arguments adduced by other adversaries: “Catholics, my beloeved brethren, one flock of the one Shepherd, I care not how the enemy may insult the watchdog of the fold; it is not for my own defense, but for yours, that I must bark. Yet I must needs tell this enemy that, as to my former wanderings and errors, I condemn them, as everyone else does; I can but see therein the glory of him who has delivered me from myself. When I hear my former life brought forward, no matter with what intention it is done, I am not so ungrateful as to be afflicted thereat; for the more they show up my misery, the more I praise my physician.”
While he made so little account of himself, his reputation was spreading throughout the world, by reason of the victory he had won for grace. “Honor to you,” wrote the aged Saint Jerome from Bethlehem; “honor to the man whom the raging winds have not been able to overthrow! … Continue to be of good courage. The whole world celebrates your praises; the Catholics venerate and admire you as the restorer of the ancient faith. But what is a mark of still greater glory, all the heretics hate you. They honor me too, with their hatred. Not being able to strike us with the sword, they kill us in desire.”
These lines reveal the intrepid combatant with whom we shall make acquaintance in September and who, soon after writing them, was laid to rest in the sacred Cave near which he had taken refuge. Augustine had yet some years to continue the good fight, to complete the exposition of Catholic doctrine in contradiction to some even holy persons, who were inclined to think that at least the beginning of salvation, the desire of faith, did not require the special assistance of God. This was semi-pelagianism. A century later (529) the second Council of Orange, approved by Rome and hailed by the whole Church, closed the struggle, taking its definitions from the writings of the bishop of Hippo. Augustine himself, however, thus concluded his last work: “Let those who read these things give thanks to God, if they understand them; if not, let them pray to the teacher of our souls, to him whose shining produces knowledge and understanding. Do they think that I err? Let them reflect again and again, lest perhaps they themselves be mistaken. As for me, when the readers of my works instruct and correct me, I see therein the goodness of God; yes, I ask it as a favor, especially of the learned ones in the Church, if by chance this book should fall into their hands, and they deign to take notice of what I write.”
But let us return to the privileged people of Hippo, won over by Augustine’s devotedness, even more than by his admirable discourses. His door was open to every comer; and he was ever ready to listen to the requests, the sorrows, and the disputes of his children. Sometimes, at the instance of other churches, and even of councils, requiring of Augustine a more active pursuit of works of general interest, an agreement was made between the flock and the pastor, that on certain days of the week no one should interrupt him. Whoever wished could claim the attention of this loving and humble shepherd, beside whom the little ones especially knew well that they would never meet with a refusal. As an instance of this we may mention the fortunate child who, wishing to enter into correspondence with the bishop but not daring to take the initiative, received from him the touching letter which may be seen in his works.
Besides all his other glories, our saint was the institutor of monastic life in Roman Africa, by the monasteries he founded, and in which he lived before he became bishop. He was a legislator by his letter to the virgins of Hippo, which became the Rule whereon so many servants and handmaids of our Lord have formed their religious life. Lastly, together with the clerics of his church who lived with him a common life of absolute poverty, he was the example and the head of the great family of Regular Canons. But we must close these already lengthy pages, which will be completed by the narrative of the holy Liturgy. (Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B., The Liturgical Year—Time after Pentecost, Book V, Volume 14, pp. 92-103.)
The fall of Rome to Alaric the Goth in the Fifth Century was blamed upon Christianity in general and Christians in particular, an infamous lie that was popularized by Edward Gibbons’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire even though Saint Augustine had refuted it definitively in The City of God by placing the blame squarely on the moral corruption of the Romans.
Saint Augustine wrote as follows in The City of God to explain why Christians (Catholics were, of course, the only Christians and are today the only true Christians) had to suffer with the pagans at the time of the barbaric invasions of Rome at the beginning of the Fifth Century:
What, then, have the Christians suffered in that calamitous period, which would not profit every one who duly and faithfully considered the following circumstances? First of all, they must humbly consider those very sins which have provoked God to fill the world with such terrible disasters; for although they be far from the excesses of wicked, immoral, and ungodly men, yet they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer for these even temporal ills. For every man, however laudably he lives, yet yields in some points to the lust of the flesh. Though he do not fall into gross enormity of wickedness, and abandoned viciousness, and abominable profanity, yet he slips into some sins, either rarely or so much the more frequently as the sins seem of less account. But not to mention this, where can we readily find a man who holds in fit and just estimation those persons on account of whose revolting pride, luxury, and avarice, and cursed iniquities and impiety, God now smites the earth as His predictions threatened? Where is the man who lives with them in the style in which it becomes us to live with them? For often we wickedly blind ourselves to the occasions of teaching and admonishing them, sometimes even of reprimanding and chiding them, either because we shrink from the labor or are ashamed to offend them, or because we fear to lose good friendships, lest this should stand in the way of our advancement, or injure us in some worldly matter, which either our covetous disposition desires to obtain, or our weakness shrinks from losing. So that, although the conduct of wicked men is distasteful to the good, and therefore they do not fall with them into that damnation which in the next life awaits such persons, yet, because they spare their damnable sins through fear, therefore, even though their own sins be slight and venial, they are justly scourged with the wicked in this world, though in eternity they quite escape punishment. Justly, when God afflicts them in common with the wicked, do they find this life bitter, through love of whose sweetness they declined to be bitter to these sinners.
If any one forbears to reprove and find fault with those who are doing wrong, because he seeks a more seasonable opportunity, or because he fears they may be made worse by his rebuke, or that other weak persons may be disheartened from endeavoring to lead a good and pious life, and may be driven from the faith; this man’s omission seems to be occasioned not by covetousness, but by a charitable consideration. But what is blame-worthy is, that they who themselves revolt from the conduct of the wicked, and live in quite another fashion, yet spare those faults in other men which they ought to reprehend and wean them from; and spare them because they fear to give offence, lest they should injure their interests in those things which good men may innocently and legitimately use,—though they use them more greedily than becomes persons who are strangers in this world, and profess the hope of a heavenly country. For not only the weaker brethren who enjoy married life, and have children (or desire to have them), and own houses and establishments, whom the apostle addresses in the churches, warning and instructing them how they should live, both the wives with their husbands, and the husbands with their wives, the children with their parents, and parents with their children, and servants with their masters, and masters with their servants,—not only do these weaker brethren gladly obtain and grudgingly lose many earthly and temporal things on account of which they dare not offend men whose polluted and wicked life greatly displeases them; but those also who live at a higher level, who are not entangled in the meshes of married life, but use meagre food and raiment, do often take thought of their own safety and good name, and abstain from finding fault with the wicked, because they fear their wiles and violence. And although they do not fear them to such an extent as to be drawn to the commission of like iniquities, nay, not by any threats or violence soever; yet those very deeds which they refuse to share in the commission of they often decline to find fault with, when possibly they might by finding fault prevent their commission. They abstain from interference, because they fear that, if it fail of good effect, their own safety or reputation may be damaged or destroyed; not because they see that their preservation and good name are needful, that they may be able to influence those who need their instruction, but rather because they weakly relish the flattery and respect of men, and fear the judgments of the people, and the pain or death of the body; that is to say, their non-intervention is the result of selfishness, and not of love.
Accordingly this seems to me to be one principal reason why the good are chastised along with the wicked, when God is pleased to visit with temporal punishments the profligate manners of a community. They are punished together, not because they have spent an equally corrupt life, but because the good as well as the wicked, though not equally with them, love this present life; while they ought to hold it cheap, that the wicked, being admonished and reformed by their example, might lay hold of life eternal. And if they will not be the companions of the good in seeking life everlasting, they should be loved as enemies, and be dealt with patiently. For so long as they live, it remains uncertain whether they may not come to a better mind. These selfish persons have more cause to fear than those to whom it was said through the prophet, “He is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand. For watchmen or overseers of the people are appointed in churches, that they may unsparingly rebuke sin. Nor is that man guiltless of the sin we speak of, who, though he be not a watchman, yet sees in the conduct of those with whom the relationships of this life bring him into contact, many things that should be blamed, and yet overlooks them, fearing to give offence, and lose such worldly blessings as may legitimately be desired, but which he too eagerly grasps. Then, lastly, there is another reason why the good are afflicted with temporal calamities—the reason which Job’s case exemplifies: that the human spirit may be proved, and that it may be manifested with what fortitude of pious trust, and with how unmercenary a love, it cleaves to God. (Saint Augustine, The City of God, Chapter 9.)
Saint Augustine explained the degree of madness that had gripped the Rome of the caesars as ordinary people sought nonstop entertainment, frequently at the expense of their own bodily health as well as the that their spiritual health. There are great parallels between Saint Augustine’s description of the alleged delights of Rome with the way in which so many Catholics today immerse themselves in the popular culture:
Know then, ye who are ignorant of this, and ye who feign ignorance be reminded, while you murmur against Him who has freed you from such rulers, that the scenic games, exhibitions of shameless folly and license, were established at Rome, not by men’s vicious cravings, but by the appointment of your gods. Much more pardonably might you have rendered divine honors to Scipio than to such gods as these. The gods were not so moral as their pontiff. But give me now your attention, if your mind, inebriated by its deep potations of error, can take in any sober truth. The gods enjoined that games be exhibited in their honor to stay a physical pestilence; their pontiff prohibited the theatre from being constructed, to prevent a moral pestilence. If, then, there remains in you sufficient mental enlightenment to prefer the soul to the body, choose whom you will worship. Besides, though the pestilence was stayed, this was not because the voluptuous madness of stage-plays had taken possession of a warlike people hitherto accustomed only to the games of the circus; but these astute and wicked spirits, foreseeing that in due course the pestilence would shortly cease, took occasion to infect, not the bodies, but the morals of their worshippers, with a far more serious disease. And in this pestilence these gods find great enjoyment, because it benighted the minds of men with so gross a darkness and dishonored them with so foul a deformity, that even quite recently (will posterity be able to credit it?) some of those who fled from the sack of Rome and found refuge in Carthage, were so infected with this disease, that day after day they seemed to contend with one another who should most madly run after the actors in the theatres. (Saint Augustine, City of God, Chapter 32.)
Saint Augustine noted that what happened at the end of the Roman Empire in the West was just a more perfect manifestations of the evils that were present before the Incarnation and Nativity of Our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ:
Cicero, a weighty man, and a philosopher in his way, when about to be made edible, wished the citizens to that, among the other duties of his magistracy, he must propitiate Flora by the celebration of games. And these games are reckoned devout in proportion to their lewdness. In another and when he was now consul, and the state in great peril, he says that games had been celebrated for ten days together, and that nothing had been omitted which could pacify the gods: as if it had not been more satisfactory to irritate the gods by temperance, than to pacify them by debauchery; and to provoke their hate by honest living, than soothe it by such unseemly grossness. For no matter how cruel was the ferocity of those men who were threatening the state, and on whose account the gods were being propitiated, it could not have been more hurtful than the alliance of gods who were won with the foulest vices. To avert the danger which threatened men’s bodies, the gods were conciliated in a fashion that drove virtue from their spirits; and the gods did not enroll themselves as defenders of the battlements against the besiegers, until they had first stormed and sacked the morality of the citizens. This propitiation of such divinities,—a propitiation so wanton, so impure, so immodest, so wicked, so filthy, whose actors the innate and praiseworthy virtue of the Romans disabled from civic honors, erased from their tribe, recognized as polluted and made infamous;—this propitiation, I say, so foul, so detestable, and alien from every religious feeling, these fabulous and ensnaring accounts of the criminal actions of the gods, these scandalous actions which theyeither shamefullyand wickedlycommitted, or more shamefully and wickedly feigned, all this the whole city learned in public both by the words and gestures of the actors. They saw that the gods delighted in the commission of these things, and therefore believed that they wished them not only to be exhibited to them, but to be imitated by themselves. But as for that good and honest instruction which they speak of, it was given in such secrecy, and to so few (if indeed given at all), that they seemed rather to fear it might be divulged, than that it might not be practised. (Chapter 27)
Refuting the false charge that Christianity was responsible for the sack and destruction of Rome, Saint Augustine went to great lengths to explain that Rome suffered from many calamities long before the coming of Our Lord and the Apostolic work of Saints Peter and Paul shortly before their own respective martyrdoms:
Let those who have no gratitude to Christ for His great benefits, blame their own gods for these heavy disasters. For certainly when these occurred the altars of the gods were kept blazing, and there rose the mingled fragrance of “Cebuan incense and fresh garlands;” Virgil, Æneid, I. 417. the priests were clothed with honor, the shrines were maintained in splendor; sacrifices, games, sacred ecstasies, were common in the temples; while the blood of the citizens was being so freely shed, not only in remote places, but among the very altars of the gods. Cicero did not choose to seek sanctuary in a temple, because Mucius had sought it there in vain. But they who most unpardonably calumniate this Christian era, are the very men who either themselves fled for asylum to the places specially dedicated to Christ, or were led there by the barbarians that they might be safe. In short, not to recapitulate the many instances I have cited, and not to add to their number others which it were tedious to enumerate, this one thing I am persuaded of, and this every impartial judgment will readily acknowledge, that if the human race had received Christianity before the Punic wars, and if the same desolating calamities which these wars brought upon Europe and Africa had followed the introduction of Christianity, there is no one of those who now accuse us who would not have attributed them to our religion. How intolerable would their accusations have been, at least so far as the Romans are concerned, if the Christian religion had been received and diffused prior to the invasion of the Gauls, or to the ruinous floods and fires which desolated Rome, or to those most calamitous of all events, the civil wars! And those other disasters, which were of so strange a nature that they were reckoned prodigies, had they happened since the Christian era, to whom but to the Christians would they have imputed these as crimes? I do not speak of those things which were rather surprising than hurtful,—oxen speaking, unborn infants articulating some words in their mothers’ wombs, serpents flying, hens and women being changed into the other sex; and other similar prodigies which, whether true or false, are recorded not in their imaginative, but in their historical works, and which do not injure, but only astonish men. But when it rained earth, when it rained chalk, when it rained stones—not hailstones, but real stones—this certainly was calculated to do serious damage. We have read in their books that the fires of Etna, pouring down from the top of the mountain to the neighboring shore, caused the sea to boil, so that rocks were burnt up, and the pitch of ships began to run,—a phenomenon incredibly surprising, but at the same time no less hurtful. By the same violent heat, they relate that on another occasion Sicily was filled with cinders, so that the houses of the city Catina were destroyed and buried under them,—a calamity which moved the Romans to pity them, and remit their tribute for that year. One may also read that Africa, which had by that time become a province of Rome, was visited by a prodigious multitude of locusts, which, after consuming the fruit and foliage of the trees, were driven into the sea in one vast and measureless cloud; so that when they were drowned and cast upon the shore the air was polluted, and so serious a pestilence produced that in the kingdom of Masinissa alone they 63 say there perished 800,000 persons, besides a much greater number in the neighboring districts. At Utica they assure us that, of 30,000 soldiers then garrisoning it, there survived only ten. Yet which of these disasters, suppose they happened now, would not be attributed to the Christian religion by those who thus thoughtlessly accuse us, and whom we are compelled to answer? And yet to their own gods they attribute none of these things, though they worship them for the sake of escaping lesser calamities of the same kind, and do not reflect that they who formerly worshiped them were not preserved from these serious disasters. (City God, Book II, Chapter 31).
It is the same now as then. Exactly the same. Why are we so frightful in the midst of chastisements? Do we not realize that sins, including our own, need to be punished?
As noted before, the Catholics who lived in the Roman Empire did not go out of their way to make trouble for themselves. Trouble found them solely because they were Catholic. They never denied the Faith. They resisted the evils of the popular culture. They refused to be converted by the pagan immorality around which they lived. Although it can be argued that Catholics in the United States of America have lived in a cultural environment similar to that of the Roman Empire in the first three centuries of the Church, most Catholics in this country have been willing to deny the Faith by looking favorably upon the “worship” offered to the devil by Protestant sects and other false religions. The Catholics of Rome were not coopted by Roman spirit. Catholics in this country, however, have been coopted by the Americanist spirit.
The Rome of the caesars did indeed fall. The Rome of Christ the King arose from its ashes. Holy Mother Church passed from her Infancy and Hidden Years into her Public Life as the missionary work, which had been undergoing even during the times of the persecutions, begun on Pentecost Sunday began to spread and take root amongst the various pagan and barbaric peoples of Europe and elsewhere, resulting in the establishment of the Christ-centered world we refer to as the Christendom of the Middle Ages, which is, approximately speaking, that time in history from the collapse of Rome in the West to the rise of the secular, relativistic Renaissance and the Protestant Revolution, a period of around one thousand years. It is Christendom that is the model for how men must organize themselves around the Divine Plan that God Himself instituted to effect man’s return to Him through the Catholic Church, not the American model of pluralism and relativism that are incarnations of the same pathologies as brought down the wrath of God upon the Roman Empire.
We must have the same faith in our Holy Catholic Church as the only foundation of personal and social order as that possessed by Saint Augustine.
Pope Pius XI summarized Saint Augustine’s commitment as follows near the end of Ad Salutem, April 20, 1930, as His Holiness quote a letter from none other than Saint Jerome, himself a fearless, if not fierce, defender of Catholic truth, to Saint Augustine:
50. We have sketched the career and the deserts of our subject, Venerable Brethren; a man to whom none or very few can be compared from among those who have flourished from history’s dawn to the present, if we regard his soaring and subtle genius, his wealth and range of learning, his sanctity mounting to the topmost pinnacle, his invincible defense of Catholic truth. We have already cited more than one who spoke his praises. How charmingly, and how truly, Jerome writes to his contemporary and close friend; “My resolution is to love, to welcome, to cherish, to admire you, and to champion your words as though they were my own.” And again: “Well done! You are famous throughout the world. Catholics revere and receive you as another builder of the ancient Faith. A mark of greater glory it is, that heretics loathe you. Me too they assail with a like hatred. They would kill in desire those whom they cannot slay with the sword.” (As found in Pope Pius XI, Ad Salutem, April 20, 1930.)
May the world and its enablers in the counterfeit church of conciliarism have the same hatred of us for our holding fast to and defending the Catholic Faith as the enemies of the Faith had for Saint Augustine and for Saint Jerome!
The prayer composed by Dom Prosper Gueranger to Saint Augustine for his feast day should inspire us all after his example penance and his fearlessness in defense of the Holy Faith and hatred of heresy while have compassion on the erring:
What a death was thine, O Augustine, receiving on thy humble couch nought but news of disasters and ruin! Thy Africa was perishing at the hands of the barbarians, in punishment of those nameless crimes of the ancient world, in which she had so large a share. Together with Genseric, Arius triumphed over that land, which nevertheless, thanks to thee, was to produce, for yet a hundred years, admirable martyrs for the Consubstantiality of the Word. When Balisarius restored her to the Roman world, God seemed to be offering her, for the martyr’s sake, an opportunity of returning to her former prosperity; but the inexperienced Byzantines, preoccupied with their theological quarrels and political intrigues, knew not how to raise her up, nor to protect her against an invasion more terrible than the first; and the torrent of Mussulman infidelity soon swept all before it.
At length, after twelve centuries, the Cross reappeared in those places where the very names of so many flourishing churches had perished. May the nation on which thy country is now dependent, show that it is proud of this honor, and understand its consequent obligations!
During all that long night which overhung thy native land, thy influence did not cease. Throughout the entire world, thy immortal works were enlightening the minds of men and arousing their love. In the basilicas served by thy sons and imitators, the splendor of divine worship, the pomp of the ceremonies, the perfection of the sacred melodies, kept up in the hearts of the people the same supernatural enthusiasm which took possession of thine own, when, for the first time in our West, St. Ambrose instituted the alternate chanting of the Psalms and sacred Hymns. Throughout all ages the perfect life, in its many different ways of exercising the double precept of charity, draws from the waters of thy fountains. Continue to illumine the Church with thine incomparable light. Bless the numerous religious families which claim thine illustrious patronage. Assist us all by obtaining for us the spirit of love and of penance, of confidence and of humility, which befits the redeemed soul. Give us to know the weakness of our nature and its unworthiness since the Fall, and at the same time the boundless goodness of our God, the superabundance of his Redemption, the all-powerfulness of his grace. May we all, like thee, not only recognize the truth, but be able loyally and practically to say to God: “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is ill at ease till it rest in thee.” (Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B., The Liturgical Year—Time after Pentecost, Book V, Volume 14, pp. 106-107.
We should pray a Rosary each August 28 in thanksgiving to Our Lord for giving us Saint Augustine of Hippo, who responded to the tears of Saint Monica and to the example provided him by Saint Ambrose to leave a life of pagan profligacy to a life of Heavenly virtue in defense of Catholicism against all comers.
Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us.
Saint Joseph, pray for us.
Saints Peter and Paul, pray for us.
Saint John the Baptist, pray for us.
Saint Michael the Archangel, pray for us.
Saint Gabriel the Archangel, pray for us.
Saint Raphael the Archangel, pray for us.
Saints Joachim and Anne, pray for us.
Saints Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, pray for us.Saint Augustine, pray for us.
Saint Hermes, pray for us.