Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
St. Augustine's Last Days
"Though the World Grows Old, Christ Is Forever Young"
H.H. Benedict XVI
January 16, 2008
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today, as I did last Wednesday, I would like to discuss the great bishop
of Hippo, St. Augustine. Four years before he died, he wanted to
nominate his successor. To this end, on Sept. 26, 426, he gathered the
people in the Basilica of Peace in Hippo so he could present them with
his choice for this task.
He said: "We are all mortal, but no individual can be sure of his last
day in this life. In any case, in childhood we hope to reach
adolescence, in adolescence we aspire toward adulthood, in adulthood
toward middle age and in middle age we look to reaching old age. We are
never sure we will get there, but that is our hope.
"Old age, however, is not followed by another stage of life toward which
we can aspire; its duration is unknown. I arrived in this city in the
vigor of my life, but now my youth has gone and I am an old man" (Ep.
At this point Augustine told them the name of his chosen successor, the
priest Heracles. The people burst into applause of approval and repeated
23 times: "Thanks be to God! Praise be to Christ!" They continued to
exclaim approval when Augustine told them of his plans for the future.
He wanted to dedicate his remaining years to a deeper study of holy
Scripture (Ep. 213,6).
The following four years were indeed of an extraordinary intellectual
activity: Augustine carried out important works, he undertook new ones
that were no less demanding, he held discussions with the heretics -- he
always sought dialogue -- and he intervened to promote peace in the
African provinces that were harassed by the southern barbarian tribes.
For this reason he wrote to Count Darius, who had come to Africa to put
an end to the disagreement between Count Boniface and the Imperial
Court, which the Mauri tribes were taking advantage of for their raids.
"A greater title for glory," he affirmed in his letter, "is to kill war
with words, rather than to kill men with the sword, and to get or
maintain peace through peace and not through war. Certainly the
fighters, if they are good, are also seeking peace, but at the cost of
shedding blood. You, on the contrary, have been sent to prevent blood
being spilt on any side" (Ep. 229, 2).
Unfortunately, the hope for peace in the African territories was not
fulfilled: In May 429, the Vandals, invited to Africa out of spite by
Boniface himself, crossed the Gibraltar strait and entered Mauritania.
The invasion rapidly spread to other rich African provinces. In May or
June 430, "the destroyers of the Roman Empire," as Possidius called
these barbarians ("Vita," 30,1), laid siege to Hippo.
Boniface also sought shelter in town; he had reconciled too late with
the Court and was now trying to stop the invaders, but to no avail. The
biographer Possidius describes Augustine's pain: "More than usual, his
tears became his bread day and night, and arriving almost to the end of
his life, he was, more than others, dragging his old age into bitterness
and mourning" ("Vita," 28,6). He explains: "That man of God was in fact
witnessing the massacre and destruction of the cities; homes in the
countryside destroyed and residents killed by the enemy, or forced to
flee; churches deprived of their priests and ministers; sacred virgins
and monks displaced; among them, some were tortured and killed, others
murdered by the sword, others taken prisoners; they lost faith and the
integrity of their soul and body, reduced to a grievous and long slavery
by their enemies" (ibid., 28,8).
Despite being old and tired, Augustine remained strong, providing
comfort for himself and others through prayer and meditation on the
mysteries of God's will. He spoke of "the world's old age" -- and this
Roman world really was old. He spoke of this old age as he had done
years earlier to console the Italian refugees when the Goths from Alaric
invaded the city of Rome. In old age sickness abounds: coughs, catarrh,
anxiety, exhaustion. Though the world grows old, Christ is forever
So he invited them: "Don't refuse to be young again united with Christ,
even in an old world. He tells you: Do not fear, your youth will be
renewed like the eagle's youth" (cf. Serm. 81,8). Therefore, the
Christian should not be let down even in difficult situations, but he
must help those in need. This is what the great doctor advised,
answering Honoratus, bishop of Tiabe, who had asked him whether a
bishop, a priest or any man of Church could flee to save his life when
under barbarian invasions: "When the danger is shared by all -- bishops,
clergymen and laymen -- those in need should not be left alone. In this
case they should all be transferred to safe places; but if some need to
stay, they should not be left alone by those who have the duty to assist
them with the sacred ministry, so either they all save themselves
together, or together they bear the disaster that the Father wants them
to suffer" (Ep. 228, 2).
And he concluded: "This is the supreme test of charity" (ibid., 3). How
could we not recognize, in these words, the heroic message that many
priests have embraced and identified with along the centuries?
Meanwhile, the town of Hippo held fast. Augustine's house-monastery had
opened its doors to the colleagues in the episcopate who were seeking
refuge. Among them was Possidius, already his disciple, who managed to
leave us a direct account of those final, dramatic days. "In the third
month of that siege," he tells us, "he was struck by fever: That was his
last illness" ("Vita," 29,3). The holy, venerable, old man decided to
dedicate his remaining time to intense prayer. He used to affirm that no
one, bishop, monk or layman, however irreproachable his conduct may have
been, could confront death without adequate penitence. That's why
between tears he continually repeated the penitential psalms, that he
had so often recited with his people (cf. ibid., 31,2).
As he worsened, the more the dying bishop felt the need for solitude and
prayer: "About 10 days before he left his body, in order not to be
troubled in his concentration, he begged us to not let anyone enter his
room outside of the medical visiting hours or the eating time schedule.
His wishes were carried out and during all that time he prayed" (ibid.,
31,3). He died Aug. 28, 430: His great heart finally rested in God.
"We assisted in the removal of his body," Possidius informs us,
"dedicated to God, and then he was buried" (Life, 31,5). At a certain
point -- date unknown -- his body was transferred to Sardinia, and from
there to Pavia around 725, to the Basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d'oro,
where he rests today.
His first biographer has the following conclusive judgment about him:
"He left a large clergy to the Church, as well as male and female
monasteries with people dedicated to the obedience of their superiors.
He left us libraries with books and speeches by him and other holy men
from which, with God's grace, we can deduce his merit and stature in the
Church, and in which the faithful always rediscover him" (Possidius,
"Vita," 31, 8).
We can associate ourselves with this judgment: In his writings we also
"rediscover him." When I read St. Augustine's works, I don't have the
impression that he died more or less 1,600 years ago, I feel he is a
modern man: a friend, a contemporary who speaks to me, he speaks to us
with his fresh and modern faith.
In St. Augustine, who speaks to us -- who speaks to me at us in his
writings -- we see the permanent actuality of his faith; of the faith
that comes from Christ, eternal word made flesh, Son of God and son of
man. This faith does not belong to yesterday, though it was preached
yesterday. It is always of today, because Christ is truly yesterday,
today and always. He is the way, the truth and the life. St. Augustine
encourages to entrust ourselves to the living Christ and to find through
him the way to life.
[Translation by Laura Leoncini]
[After praying the Angelus, the Holy Father greeted pilgrims in six
languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Our catechesis this week is again centered on the life and writings of
the great Doctor of the Church, Saint Augustine. Some four years before
he died, Augustine designated his successor in the See of Hippo,
desiring to devote the rest of his life to the study of the Scriptures.
Nevertheless, those proved to be years of extraordinary activity, as the
aged Bishop sought to reconcile divided Christians and to bring peace to
the troubled African provinces of the Empire. During the Vandal invasion
of Africa, Augustine found solace in reflection on the mystery of God's
providence. The world, he said, is growing old and failing, yet Christ
remains eternally young and brings renewed youth to those who put their
faith in him. Amid the calamities of the time, he encouraged the clergy
not to abandon their flock, but to offer the supreme witness of
Christian charity. Augustine died in 431, during the siege of Hippo,
having devoted his last days to penance and prayer. At last his great
heart found its rest in God. Today, as in past centuries, may
Augustine's example and the rich treasury of his writings be a source of
instruction, inspiration and strength as the Church makes her pilgrim
way to the fullness of God's Kingdom.
I welcome all the English-speaking pilgrims present at today's Audience,
including the students from Australia, Ireland, and the United States of
America. May your time in Rome be one of uplifting spiritual renewal.
Upon all of you I invoke God's abundant blessings of joy and peace.
[In Italian, he said:]
The day after tomorrow, Friday, Jan. 18, marks the beginning of the Week
of Prayer for Christian Unity, which this year has special significance
because a hundred years have passed since its inception. The theme is
the invitation of St. Paul to the Thessalonians: "Pray without ceasing"
(1 Thessalonians 5:17); an invitation which I gladly make my own and
address to the whole Church.
It is indeed necessary to pray without ceasing, insistently asking God
for the great gift of unity among all the Lord's disciples. May the
endless strength of the Holy Spirit move us to a sincere commitment to
seek unity, so that all together we may profess that Jesus is the one
Saviour of the world.
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