Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On the Writings of St. Augustine
"He Truly Lives in His Works, He Is Present With Us"
H.H. Benedict XVI
February 20, 2008
[Greetings at St. Peter's Basilica in English]:
I am pleased to greet all the English-speaking pilgrims gathered here in
the Basilica of St. Peter. Lent is a privileged time for all Christians
to recommit themselves to conversion and spiritual renewal. In this way,
we rekindle a genuine faith in Christ, a life-giving relationship with
God and a more fervent dedication to the Gospel. Strengthened by the
conviction that love is the distinguishing mark of Christian believers,
I encourage you to persevere in bearing witness to charity in your daily
[Catechesis in Paul VI Hall]:
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
After last week's break for spiritual exercises we return today to the
great figure of St. Augustine, about whom I have repeatedly spoken
during the Wednesday catecheses. He is the Father of the Church who has
left the most works and I intend to discuss these briefly today.
Some of the Augustinian writings are of major importance not only for
the history of Christianity but also in terms of the development of
Western culture as a whole: The clearest example of this is his
"Confessions," without doubt one of the most frequently read books of
ancient Christianity -- even today. As other Fathers of the Church in
the early centuries, but vastly more influential, the Bishop of Hippo
has in fact exercised an extensive and persistent influence as
demonstrated by the abundance of manuscripts of his works, which are
He personally reviewed these in the "Retractationes" a few years before
his death, and shortly after his death they were carefully recorded in
the "Indiculus" (list) attached to the biography of St. Augustine, "Vita
Augustini," by his faithful friend Possidius. The list of works by
Augustine was created with the express purpose of safeguarding them as
the destructive Roman invasion rampaged across Africa, and is made up of
more than 1,030 writings numbered by their author, plus others that
“cannot be numbered because he did not give them a number.” Possidius,
bishop of a nearby town, dictated these words in Hippo --where he had
taken refuge and had witnessed the death of his friend -- and almost
definitely based these comments on Augustine's personal library.
Today more than 300 letters and 600 sermons from the bishop of Hippo
have survived. Originally there would have been many more, perhaps even
3,000 or 4,000, fruit of 40 years of preaching by the ex-rhetorician who
decided to follow Christ and not to speak just to important individuals
in the imperial court, but to the ordinary population of Hippo.
In recent years the discovery of a group of letters and sermons have
enriched our knowledge of this great Father of the Church. His friend,
the Bishop Possidius wrote: "Many books 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 are so numerous that a scholar could hardly find it possible to
read all of them and learn them" ("Vita Augustini," 18, 9).
Within Augustine’s literary production -- more than 1,000 publications
subdivided into philosophical, apologetic, doctrinal, moral, monastic,
exegetic, and anti-heretical writings, as well as the letters and
sermons -- are some exceptional works of great theological and
Above all it is necessary to remember the already mentioned
"Confessions," written in 13 books in praise of God between 397 and 400.
It is a sort of autobiography in the form of a dialog with God. This
literary genre reflects St. Augustine’s life, which was not a reclusive
life, not dispersed in many things, but was a life mainly lived like a
conversation with God, a life shared with others. Already the title
"Confessions" shows the specificity of his autobiography.
In the Christian Latin developed in the tradition of the Psalms, the
word "confessiones" has two meanings that are interlinked. In the first
place "confessiones" is the confession of one’s own weaknesses, and of
the misery of sins; at the same time "confessiones" means praise of God,
gratitude to God.
Seeing one's misery in the light of God becomes praise for God and
gratitude because God loves us and accepts us, he transforms us and
raises us toward him. In the "Confessions" -- which were already largely
successful during St. Augustine’s life -- he 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). I should also mention that I am one of these "brothers."
Thanks to the "Confessions" we can follow step by step the inner journey
of this extraordinary man who was fascinated by God.
Less well-known but equally important are the "Retractationes," composed
in two books around 427, in which St. Augustine, now an old man, puts
together a "revision" (retractatio) of all his writings, thus leaving us
a particular and precious literary document, but also a teaching of
sincerity and intellectual humility.
"De Civitate Dei" (The City of God) -- a decisive and imposing work in
the development of modern political thought in the West and in Christian
historical theology -- was written between 413 and 426 and was made up
of 22 books. It was prompted by the sacking of Rome by the Goths in 410.
Many pagans who had survived, and also many Christians, had said: "Rome
has fallen; the Christian God and the Apostles cannot protect the city.
During the presence of the pagan gods, Rome was the 'caput mundi,' the
capital of the world, and no one thought it could fall into the hands of
its enemies. Now, with a Christian God, this great city no longer seems
safe. The Christian God therefore did not protect and could not be a God
in which one could trust."
It is this charge that was deeply felt by the Christians that St.
Augustine answered with this magnificent work, "De civitate Dei." He
clarified what we should and should not expect from God. Even today,
this book is the source used to clearly define secular and clerical
responsibilities, as well as the competences of the Church, the true and
great hope that gives us faith.
This great book is a presentation of the history of humanity as governed
by divine Providence, but actually divided by two loves. This is the
fundamental design, his interpretation of history, which is the struggle
between two loves: love of oneself, “even to the point of showing
indifference toward God,” and love of God, “even to the point of being
indifferent toward 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, of enduring importance.
Equally important is "De Trinitate," a work comprising 15 books on the
main linchpin of Christian faith, God as part of the holy Trinity. It
was written between 399 and 412. The first 12 books were published
without Augustine's knowledge, who completed and revised the work around
the year 420. He reflects on the face of God and tries to understand
this mystery of a God which is unique: creator of the world, of all of
us, and yet part of a trinity -- 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" however is a true cultural introduction of the
interpretation of the Bible and on Christianity, which had a decisive
influence on the formation of Western culture.
Even if modest, Augustine was certainly aware of his intellectual
magnitude. Nevertheless, he considered it more important to carry the
Christian message to the ordinary people than to realize major works of
high theological relevance. His deeper intention, that drove him all his
life, is revealed in a letter written to his colleague Evodio, where he
announces his decision to temporarily suspend the dictation of "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 found it more useful to communicate the faith in a
comprehensible manner to all, than to write large theological works. The
responsibility he felt toward the popularization of the Christian
message is the reason for writings such as "De Catechizandis Rudibus," a
theory as well as a practice of the catechesis, or the "Psalmus Contra
The Donatists were the big problem in St. Augustine’s Africa, a
definitively African faction. They affirmed that true Christianity was
African and opposed the unity of the Church. The great bishop fought all
his life against this split, trying to convince Donatists that only in
unity could the African way be true.
In order to be understood by ordinary men, who could not understand the
great rhetorician's Latin, he said: I should write with grammatical
mistakes, in a very simplified Latin. He did this above all in his "Psalmus,"
a simple poem against Donatists, to help everybody understand that only
through the unity of the Church can we truly realize our connection with
God and can encourage peace in the world.
In this production destined to a wider public, the numerous sermons play
an important role. Often given extemporaneously, they were transcribed
by the stenographers during the preaching and immediately distributed.
Among them stand out the attractive "Enarrationes in Psalmos," which
were widely read during the Medieval age.
It is the actual routine of publication of the thousands of sermons by
Augustine -- often without the control of the author -- that explains
their spread and successive dispersal, but also their vitality. Because
of the author’s reputation, immediately his lectures became very sought
after and were used as models by other bishops and priests, and adapted
to ever-new contexts.
The iconographic tradition, which we can see in a Lateran fresco dating
from the 6th century, represents St. Augustine with a book in his hand
to express his literary production that highly influenced Christian
mentality and thinking, but also to express his love for books, for
reading and knowledge of the great cultures.
Possidius tells us that at his death he did not leave anything, but "he
urged to always conserve diligently for posterity the library of the
Church with all its codices," as well as his own writings. Possidius
underlines that Augustine is "always alive" in his works and helps those
who read them, even if, he concludes, "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).
Indeed, it would have been wonderful to listen to him when he was alive.
But he truly lives in his works, he is present with us, and this is how
we see the permanent vitality of his faith to which he had dedicated all
[Translation by Laura Leoncini]
[After his address, the Holy Father greeted the pilgrims in various
languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In today’s catechesis, we continue to focus on Saint Augustine, a
prolific and widely influential author. Perhaps Augustine’s best-known
work is the "Confessions," a prayerful reflection on his life, in which
he perceives his own sinfulness and extols the Lord’s grace and mercy.
In "De civitate Dei," Augustine describes the tension between two
cities: the earthly city that springs from love of self and indifference
to God, and the heavenly city born from love of God and "indifference to
self". In "De Trinitate," Augustine expounds the core belief of the
Christian faith: one God in three persons -- Father, Son and Holy
Although Augustine is renowned for his towering intellect and vast body
of writings, his primary concern was always to spread the Christian
message. He continually strove to express the Gospel in a way accessible
to every man, woman and child, so that all might come to know its saving
truth: Jesus Christ. May we follow his example in sharing the Good News
I cordially greet all the English-speaking pilgrims present at today’s
audience. I extend a particular welcome to parishioners from the Church
of Our Lady of Loretto in New York, as well as Benedictines
participating in an intensive course on the rule of their order. A
blessed Lent to you all!
(c) Copyright 2008 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana
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