Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences

General Audience
On St. Augustine's Conversion
"A Journey That Remains a True Example for Each One of Us"
H.H. Benedict XVI
February 27,  2008

[Greetings at St. Peter's Basilica in English]

Dear Brothers and Sisters, I am pleased to welcome all the English-speaking visitors present here today. May your stay in Rome strengthen your faith, and grant you courage to continue your Lenten journey in prayer, fasting, reconciliation and compassion. Upon all of you I invoke God’s abundant blessings of joy and peace!

[Catechesis in Paul VI Hall]

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today we conclude our presentation of St. Augustine. Having dwelt on his life, his works, and some aspects of his writings, today I would like to return to the process of his interior conversion, which was one of the greatest conversions in Christian history.

It is to this journey in particular that I dedicated my reflections during my pilgrimage to Pavia last year, to pay homage to the mortal remains of this Father of the Church. In so doing, I wanted to demonstrate the admiration and reverence of the entire Catholic Church toward St. Augustine, and my own personal devotion and recognition of a figure with whom I feel I have close ties to due to the part he has played in my theological life, in my life as a priest and a pastor.

Even today it is possible to revisit the experiences of St. Augustine; above all this is thanks to the "Confessions," written in the praise of God and which is the basis of a more specific Western literary form -- the autobiography. That is, a personal expression of the knowledge of oneself.

Anyone who gets close to this extraordinary and fascinating book, which is still read by many today, will soon realize that the conversion of St. Augustine was not sudden or completed quickly, but it is better described as a journey that remains a true example for each one of us.

This journey culminated with his conversion and subsequent baptism, but was not concluded with the Easter vigil of 387, when the African rhetorician was baptized by Bishop Ambrose of Milan.

In fact, Augustine’s journey of conversion continued with humility until the end of his life. We can state that all the stages of his life -- and we can easily distinguish three phases -- together make up a single long conversion.

St. Augustine was from the start, a passionate seeker of the truth: He remained so his whole life. The first stage of his journey toward conversion was realized through his gradual approach to Christianity.

In reality, he received a Christian education from his mother, Monica, with whom he was always very close. Even though he lived an errant life in his youth, he was deeply tied to the love of Christ's name, as he himself underlined (cfr. "Confessions," III, 4, 8).

Philosophy, and especially Platonic philosophy, led him closer to Christ by revealing to him the existence of the Logos, or creative reason. The books of the philosophers showed him the existence of 'reason' from which the whole world is derived, but did not tell him how to reach this Logos, which seemed so inaccessible.

It was only through reading the letters of St. Paul, in the faith of the Catholic Church, that he came to a fuller understanding. This experience was summarized by Augustine in one of the most famous passages of the "Confessions." He tells us that in the torment of his reflections, he withdrew into a garden, when suddenly he heard a child's voice singing a lullaby he had never heard before: "Tolle, lege, tolle, lege," -- take and read, take and read (VIII, 12,29).

He was reminded at that moment of the conversion of Anthony, the father of monasticism. He hastily returned to the writings of Paul, which he had been looking at a short time before. His eyes fell on the passage of the Letter to the Romans, in which the apostle urges the abandonment of the pleasures of the flesh in favor of Christ (13:13-14).

He understood that those words were specifically meant for him. They came from God, through The Apostle, and showed him what he had to do in that moment. Augustine felt the dark cloud of doubt disperse and was free to give himself completely to Christ: “You converted my being to you,” he notes ("Confessions," VIII, 12,30). This was the first and decisive conversion.

It is thanks to his passion for men and for the truth that the African rhetorician arrived at the most important stage of his long journey; a passion that brought him to seek God, the great and inaccessible. His faith in Christ made him understand that God, seemingly so distant, was in truth not distant at all. In fact he has come near us, becoming one of us. In this sense his faith in Christ allowed Augustine to accomplish his long search for truth. Only a God who made himself 'touchable,' one of us, was a God to whom one could pray, for whom and with whom one could live.

This is a road to undertake with courage and humility, leading to a permanent purification, which everyone needs. That Easter vigil in 387, however, was not the end of Augustine’s journey. He returned to Africa and founded a small monastery where he retreated with a few friends, and dedicated himself to contemplation and study. This was his life's dream. He was called to completely dedicate his life to truth, in friendship with Christ, who is the truth. This dream lasted three years, until he was consecrated a priest in Hippo and destined to serve the believers, continuing to live with Christ and for Christ, but at the service of everyone.

This was very difficult for him, but since the beginning he understood that only by living for others, and not simply for his private contemplation, could he live with Christ and for Christ. So, by renouncing a life of only meditation, Augustine learned, not without difficulty, to put his knowledge at the disposal of others. He learned to communicate his faith to the ordinary people, and to live for them in what became his home town. He carryied out tirelessly a burdensome and generous activity that he describes in one of his beautiful sermons: "To preach continuously, discuss, reiterate, edify, be at the disposal of everyone -- it is an enormous responsibility, a great weight, an immense effort" (Sermon 339, 4). But he took this weight upon himself, knowing that this way he could be closer to Christ. His true second conversion was indeed to understand that one reaches others through simplicity and humility.

There is a last step -- a third conversion -- in the Augustinian journey: The one that led him to ask God for forgiveness every day of his life. At first he thought that once christened, in a life in communion with Christ, in the sacraments, and in the celebration of the Eucharist, he would attain a life as proposed in the Sermon on the Mount, which is one of perfection given through baptism and confirmed in the Eucharist.

In the latter period of his life he understood that what he had said in his first homilies on the Sermon on the Mount -- that we as Christians permanently live this ideal life -- was a mistake. Only Christ himself realizes truly and completely the Sermon on the Mount. We always need to be cleansed by Christ, who washes our feet, and be renewed by him. We need a permanent conversion. Up to the end we need to demonstrate a humility that acknowledges that we are sinners on a journey, until the Lord gives us his hand and leads us to eternal life. It is with this attitude of humility that Augustine lived out his final days until his death.
This deep humility in the face of the one Lord Jesus introduced him to an intellectual humility as well. In his last years, Augustine, who in fact was one of the greatest figures in philosophical history, wanted to critically examine his numerous works. This was the origin of the "Retractationes" -- Revisions -- that places his theological thinking, which is truly great, within the humble and holy faith of that which he refers to as simply Catholic, that is, the Church.
In this very original book he writes: "I understood that only one is truly perfect, and that the words of the Sermon on the Mount are completely realized in only one -- in Jesus Christ himself. The whole Church, instead -- all of us, including the Apostles -- must pray everyday: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" (I, 19, 1-3).
Converted to Christ, who is truth and love, Augustine followed him all his life and became a model for every human being, for all of us in search of God.

That is why I wanted to conclude my pilgrimage to Pavia by offering to the Church and the world, before the tomb of this great lover of God, my first encyclical -- "Deus Caritas Est." The encyclical owes a great deal to St. Augustine’s thinking, especially its first part.

Today, as then, mankind needs to know and to live this fundamental reality: God is love and meeting him is the only answer to the fears of the human heart. A heart where hope dwells, perhaps still dark and unenlightened for many of our contemporaries, but which for us Christians opens the doors to the future, so much so that St. Paul wrote "in hope we are saved" (Romans 8:24). I wanted to dedicate my second encyclical to hope -- "Spe Salvi" -- this one also owes a great deal to Augustine and to his meeting with God.

In a beautiful text St. Augustine defines prayer as an expression of desire, and affirms that God answers by moving our hearts closer to him. For our part we should purify our desires and our hopes in order to receive God's gentleness (cfr. "In I Ioannis," 4, 6). In fact, this alone -- opening ourselves up to others -- can save us.

Let us pray therefore that we are able to follow the example of this great man every day of our lives, and in every moment that we live, encounter the Lord Jesus -- the only one who can save us, purify us, and who gives us true joy and true life.

[Translation by Laura Leoncini]

[After his address, the Holy Father greeted the pilgrims in various languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today we conclude our presentation of St. Augustine with a discussion of the process of his interior conversion. In reading his Confessions, we see that his conversion was a life-long journey marked by a passionate search for truth. Despite living an errant life as a young man, Augustine had learned from his mother a love for the name of Christ. Platonic philosophy led him to recognise the existence of Logos, or creative reason in the Universe, which he later came to understand more fully by reading St. Paul and finding faith in Christ. He completed this fundamental phase in his search for truth when he was baptized in Milan by St. Ambrose. The second stage of his conversion saw Augustine return to Africa and found a small monastery with a group of friends dedicated to contemplation and study.

Three years later, he was ordained a priest and turned to the life of active ministry, placing the fruits of his study at the service of others through preaching and dialogue. The last stage was a conversion of such profound humility that he would daily ask God for pardon. He also demonstrated this humility in his intellectual endeavours, submitting all his works to a thorough critique. Augustine has had a profound effect on my own life and ministry. My hope is that we can all learn from this great and humble convert who saw with such clarity that Christ is truth and love!

I welcome all the English speaking visitors present today, including the many student groups and the pilgrims from England, Sweden, Malta, Japan, Canada and the United States. Upon all of you I invoke God’s abundant blessings of joy and peace.

(c) Copyright 2008 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana


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