Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On St. Augustine
"All the Roads of Christian Latin Literature Lead to Hippo"
H.H. Benedict XVI
January 9, 2008
Dear brothers and sisters,
After the Christmas holidays I would like to turn to the meditations on
the Fathers of the Church and speak today of the greatest Father of the
Latin Church, St. Augustine: a man of passion and faith, of high
intelligence and untiring pastoral zeal. This great saint and doctor of
the Church is often well-known, at least by name, even by those who
ignore Christianity, or who are little acquainted with it, because he
made a deep impression on the cultural life of the Western world, and
the world in general.
Due to his exceptional importance, St. Augustine has been enormously
influential, so much so that it could be said, on one hand, that all the
roads of Christian Latin literature lead to Hippo (today’s Annaba, on
the Algerian coast), the place where he was a bishop, and on the other
hand, that from this town of Roman Africa, where Augustine was bishop
from 395 to 430, branch out many other roads of future Christianity and
of Western culture itself.
Rarely has a civilization encountered a figure so great, capable of
embracing its values and of proclaiming its intrinsic richness,
formulating ideas and methods that serve to nurture successive
generations, as Paul VI also emphasized: "One can say all of antiquity’s
philosophy converge in his work, and from it derive currents of thought
pervading the doctrinal tradition of the next centuries" (AAS, 62, 1970,
Moreover, Augustine is the Father of the Church who has left the
greatest number of writings. His biographer Possidius says: It seemed
impossible that a man could write so much during his life. We will talk
about his various works in a future session. Today we will focus on his
life, a life that we can reconstruct from his writings, and in
particular from the "Confessions," his extraordinary spiritual
autobiography written in praise of God, and which is his most popular
Precisely because of the attention paid to interiority and psychology,
Augustine's "Confessions" is a unique model in Western and non-Western
literature, even including nonreligious literature, right through to
modern times. The focus on spiritual life, on the mystery of self, on
the mystery of God that hides in the self, is an extraordinary thing
without precedent and remains, so to speak, a spiritual "vertex."
But, returning to his life, Augustine was born in Tagaste -- in the
Roman province of Africa -- on Nov. 13, 354, to Patrick, a pagan who
then became a catechumen, and Monica, a zealous Christian. This
passionate woman, venerated as a saint, was a big influence on her son
and educated him in the Christian belief. Augustine also received salt,
as a mark of welcome in the catechumenate. He was always charmed by the
figure of Jesus Christ; he says he had always loved Jesus, but he had
grown more and more apart from the faith and practice of the Church, as
happens with a lot of young people today.
Augustine also had a brother, Navigius, and a sister, whose name we do
not know, and who, when widowed, became the head of a female monastery.
Augustine had a sharp intelligence and received a good education, though
he was not always a model student. He studied grammar, first in his
hometown and then in Madaurus, and beginning in 370 he took rhetoric in
Carthage, capital of Roman Africa. He came to master Latin, but did not
do as well in Greek or Punic, the language of his fellow countrymen.
It was in Carthage that he read "Hortensius" for the first time, a work
by Cicero -- subsequently lost -- and which started him on the road to
conversion. The text awakened in him a love of wisdom, as confirmed in
his writings as a bishop in the "Confessions": "The book changed my
feelings," so much so that "suddenly, every vain hope became empty to
me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardor
in my heart" (III, 4, 7).
But, since he was convinced that without Jesus truth cannot really be
found, and because in that fascinating book his name was missing, he
immediately set to reading Scripture, the Bible. But he was
disappointed. Not only was the Latin translation of the sacred Scripture
insufficient, but also the content itself did not seem satisfactory.
In the narrations of wars and other human events, he could not find the
heights of philosophy, the splendor of its search for the truth.
Nevertheless, he did not want to live without God, and so he sought a
religion that matched his desire for truth and his desire to be close to
He fell into the net of the Manichaeans, who presented themselves as
Christians and promised a totally rational religion. They confirmed that
the world is divided into two principles: that of good and evil. This
explained the complexity of human history. St. Augustine also liked the
dualistic morality, because it entailed a very high morality for the
chosen ones: and for those, like him, who adhered to it, it was possible
to live a life more suited to the times, especially for a young man. He
therefore became a Manichaean, convinced that he had found the synthesis
between rationality, the search for the truth and the love of Jesus
And his private life benefited as well: Being a Manichaean opened career
possibilities. To adhere to this religion, which included many
influential personalities, allowed him to pursue a relationship he
started with a woman, and to continue his career.
With this woman he had a son, Adeodatus, who was very dear to him,
extremely intelligent, and who later on will be present in Augustine's
preparation for baptism in Lake Como, forming part of the "Dialogues"
that St. Augustine has passed on to us. Unfortunately, the boy died
After teaching grammar in his hometown at the age of 20, he soon
returned to Carthage, where he became a brilliant and celebrated master
of rhetoric. With time, however, Augustine distanced himself from the
Manichaean faith. It disappointed him intellectually as it was not
capable of resolving his doubts. He moved to Rome, and then to Milan,
where he obtained a prestigious place in the imperial court, thanks to
the recommendations of the prefect of Rome, the pagan Symmachus, who was
hostile to the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose.
At first with the purpose of enriching his rhetorical repertoire,
Augustine began attending the impressive lectures of Bishop Ambrose, who
had been a representative of the emperor in Northern Italy; he was
charmed by his words, not only because of their eloquence, but because
they touched his heart. The main problem of the Old Testament -- the
lack of oratory and philosophical elevation -- resolved itself in the
lectures of St. Ambrose thanks to the typological interpretation of the
Old Testament: Augustine understood that the Old Testament is a journey
toward Jesus Christ. So he found the key to understanding the beauty,
the philosophic depth of the Old Testament, and he understood the unity
of the mystery of Christ in history, as well as the synthesis between
philosophy, rationality and faith in the Logos, in Christ, the eternal
Word that became flesh.
Quickly, Augustine realized the allegorical reading of Scripture and the
Neoplatonic philosophy practiced by the bishop of Milan helped him
resolve the intellectual difficulties he encountered at a younger age,
when he first approached the biblical texts, which he believed to be
Augustine continued to read the writings of the philosophers along with
Scripture, and especially the letters of St. Paul. His conversion to
Christianity, Aug. 15, 386, is therefore placed at the apex of a long
and tormented inner journey of which we will speak in another
catechesis; The African moved to the country north of Milan near Lake
Como -- with his mother Monica, his son Adeodatus, and a small group of
friends -- to get ready for baptism. At 32, Augustine was christened by
Ambrose on April 24, 387, during Easter vigil in the Milan Cathedral.
After his baptism Augustine decided to return to Africa with his
friends, with the idea of putting into practice a communal monastic
life, in the service of God. But in Ostia, while waiting to leave, his
mother suddenly fell sick and a little later died, leaving her son's
heart in torment.
Back in his homeland he settled in Hippo to found a monastery. In this
town on the African coast he was ordained presbyter in 391, despite his
refusal, and began a monastic life with some companions, dividing his
time between praying, studying and preaching. He wanted to serve truth
alone, he didn’t feel called to the pastoral life; then he understood
that God’s call was to be a shepherd among others, and to offer the
others the gift of truth.
Four years later, in 395, he was consecrated bishop in Hippo. Deepening
the study of Scripture and the texts of the Christian tradition,
Augustine was an exemplary bishop in his untiring pastoral commitment:
He preached to the faithful several times a week, he helped the poor and
the orphans, he followed the education of the clergy and the
organization of female and male monasteries.
In short, he affirmed himself as one of the most important
representatives of Christianity of the time: Very active in the
administration of his diocese -- with considerable civic results too --
in more than 35 years of episcopate, the bishop of Hippo had an immense
influence in the leadership of the Catholic Church in Roman Africa and,
in general, in the Christianity of his time, facing Manichaeism,
Donatism and Pelagianism, which were endangering the Christian faith and
the one and only God full of grace.
Augustine entrusted himself to God every day, right up until the very
end of his life. He was struck by fever, while Hippo was being besieged
by invaders. The bishop -- as his friend Possidius tells us in the "Vita
Augustini" -- asked to transcribe in large characters the penitential
psalms, "and he had the sheets pinned to the wall, so that during his
illness he could read them while in bed, and he cried endlessly warm
tears" (31,2); this is how Augustine spent his last days. He died on
Aug. 28, 430, at the age of 75. We will dedicate the next sessions to
his works, his message and his interior experience.
[Translation by Laura Leoncini]
[After praying the Angelus, the Holy Father greeted pilgrims in six
languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our weekly catechesis, we now turn to the towering figure of Saint
Augustine of Hippo. The great intellectual heritage of antiquity found
expression in Augustine’s many writings, which then became a rich source
of inspiration and teaching for centuries to come. Augustine’s spiritual
autobiography -- "The Confessions" -- tells the story of his Christian
upbringing, his secular education, his decision to devote his life to
the pursuit of truth, and his eventual abandonment of the faith.
Attracted at first by Manichean dualism, he gradually recovered the
faith of his childhood, thanks to the prayers of his mother, Saint
Monica, and the brilliant teaching of Saint Ambrose, then Bishop of
Milan. "The Confessions" recount the tormented interior journey which
led to his moral and intellectual conversion, culminating in his baptism
by Ambrose. Returning to Africa to lead a monastic life, Augustine
became a priest and then the Bishop of Hippo. In his thirty years as
Bishop, he proved himself an exemplary pastor, an assiduous preacher and
an influential champion of the Catholic faith. In coming weeks, we will
turn our attention to the writings and the thought of this great Doctor
of the Church.
I am pleased to welcome the English-speaking pilgrims present at today’s
Audience, especially the student groups from Australia and the United
States. I greet the group of deacons from the Archdiocese of Dubuque,
and I thank the choir for their praise of God in song. Upon all of you I
invoke God’s abundant blessings of joy and peace.
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