In his Wednesday Audience from January 9, 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said,
“This man of passion and faith, of the highest intelligence and tireless in his pastoral care, a great saint and Doctor of the Church, is often known, at least by hearsay, eve by those who ignore Christianity or who are not familiar with it, because he left a very deep mark on the cultural life of the West and on the whole world. Because of his special importance, Saint Augustine’s influence was widespread.”
Saint Augustine was born on November 13, 354 in Tagaste, a small town in Northern Africa in the Roman Province of Numidia. His father was Patricius, a pagan with a violent temper. His mother was Monica, a holy and pious woman, who through her conduct led her husband to be baptized before his death. Augustine had one brother, Navigius, and a sister who became the head of a monastery. From his mother, he learned the teachings of Christianity and how to pray, but was never baptized, because he put it off.
Around the age of seventeen, Augustine ventured to Carthage to study in the school of rhetoric. He enjoyed his studies and took great pleasure in them. While in school, he engaged in an illicit relationship with a woman (as well as other immoral activities), who bore him a son by the name of Adeodatus. At this time in his life, Augustine had a real contempt for Christianity. His son’s name means – “a gift from God.” He would remain with this woman till his conversion at the age of thirty-two.
After reading Cicero’s, Hortensius, his passion changed from rhetoric to philosophy. He also read the Bible, but found it dissatisfying. He desired to live with God, so he joined the Manicheans, who claimed to be the totally rational Christians. He found their dualistic approach of good and evil profound, until he met Faustus, the out of touch leader of the Manicheans. In the end, the Manicheans could never fully explain his doubts. Once departing from them, he opened up a school of rhetoric in Rome. Not enjoying this endeavor, Augustine left for Milan and applied for a lofty position in the imperial court located there under the pagan, Symmacus, the Prefect of Rome.
It was in Milan where he would meet St. Ambrose, the great Milanese Prelate. The two struck up a friendship based on academics, not necessarily the truth of Jesus Christ. Ambrose was Bishop of Milan at the time and found Augustine to of great intelligence and academic rigor. Augustine often attended the sermons of St. Ambrose, merely for curiosity sake; however, he found his rhetoric to be eloquent and engaging.
While in Milan, St. Monica hoped that he would marry the mother of Adeodatus, but he rejected the idea, it was an immoral life. Augustine continued down the rabbit hole of intellectual, moral, and spiritual suffering. After hearing a variety of stories of great men who converted their lives over to Jesus Christ after reading the life of St. Antony and writings of St. Paul, Augustine found himself distraught. He struggled immensely with the idea of chastity and the memories of his sins of the flesh.
Hearing the words from a small child singing nearby, “Tolle lege! – Take up and read! – Augustine opened up St. Paul’s epistles and read, “Not in rioting and drunkenness; not in chambering and impurities; not in contention and envy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupisceneces.” Once reading this passage and words that followed, Augustine resolved his life with the Lord and quickly went to St. Monica, who rejoiced and gave praise to God.
On April 24, 387, during the Easter Vigil, St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine, along with his friend Alipius, and his son, Adeodatus. After the death of his sixteen-year-old son, Augustine returned to Africa. Upon his return, St. Monica entered eternal glory. With some friends, he lived in Tagaste for three years praying, fasting, doing good works and studying Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.
Having no desire to be a priest initially, Augustine was ordained in 391. He served as an assistant to Valerius, Bishop of Hippo. He established a monastery where he and others lived. While living in the monastery, he wrote against the heresies of Manicheism and the start of Donatism. In 395, he was consecrated as coadjutor Bishop and later became Bishop of Hippo at the death of Valerius.
As Bishop of Hippo (on the coast of modern day Algeria) for thirty-five years, St. Augustine defended the Catholic faith against all kinds of heresies. He established a rule among his priests, deacons, and subdeacons that chose to live with him in residence. He fought courageously against the Donatists and even had to invoke civil laws to keep them out of Hippo.
Just as the Donatists began to die off, yet another heresy rose under Pelagius. The Pelagians did not believe in the doctrine of original sin. They believed that baptism was just a “ticket” to get into Heaven. Grace was not needed for salvation. Augustine responded with a great intensity and wrote heavily against these teachings. To read these words and others, see today’s complimentary blog post, The Words of Saint Augustine of Hippo.
In 410, when the Goths attacked Christianity with slander, St. Augustine began to write his second greatest work, Of the City of God, to counter attack them. At the age of seventy-two, he also wrote his greatest work, The Confessions, where he sets out his immoral conduct with great humility and penance.
His later years were filled with great struggle. During the siege of Hippo in 430 at the hands of the Vandals, St. Augustine was diagnosed with a fever. On August 28, 430, at the age of seventy-five years old, Saint Augustine silently entered the eternal glory of God.