Pope Benedict XVI resumed his series of teachings on St. Augustine during his general audience on Feb. 20. He focused on the writings of St. Augustine, who was a prolific and influential author. Although St. Augustine is renowned for his towering intellect and vast body of writings, the Holy Father pointed out that his primary concern was always to spread the Christian message, particularly among ordinary people.
Dear brothers and sisters,
After the break last week for my spiritual exercises, today we will continue to focus on St. Augustine, that great figure about whom I have spoken on several occasions during these Wednesday catecheses. He is the Father of the Church who has left us the greatest number of written works and I plan on discussing them briefly today.
Some of Augustine’s writings are of major importance not only for the history of Christianity but also for the development of Western culture as a whole. The clearest example is his Confessions, which is, undoubtedly, even today one of the most widely read books from the early Christian period.
Indeed, like other Fathers of the Church from these early centuries, but in a vastly greater measure, Augustine of Hippo exercised a far-reaching and ongoing influence, which is apparent from the sheer abundance of his works, which are truly numerous.
He personally left us a survey of these works a few years before his death in his Retractations, and, shortly after his death, his faithful friend, Possidius, carefully recorded them in the Indiculus (list) that he appended to his Vita Augustini, a biography of St. Augustine.
This list of Augustine’s works was compiled with the express purpose of preserving the record of them when the Vandal invasion spread across Roman Africa. It lists more than 1,030 manuscripts that the author numbered, as well as others that “cannot be counted because he did not give them a number.”
Possidius, the bishop of a nearby town, dictated these words when he was in Hippo, where he had taken refuge and had been present at the death of his friend. It is almost certain that his comments were based on the catalog from Augustine’s personal library.
Today, more than 300 letters and almost 600 sermons by the bishop of Hippo have survived. Originally, however, there were very many more — perhaps even between 3,000 or 4,000 of them — the fruit of 40 years of preaching by the former rhetorician who decided to follow Jesus and had a preference for speaking to the ordinary people of Hippo as opposed to important figures in the imperial court.
Recently, the discoveries of a group of letters and of some homilies have enriched our knowledge of this great Father of the Church.
“He wrote and published many books,” Possidius wrote, “and many homilies that he gave in Church and later transcribed and edited, to refute various heresies or to interpret sacred Scripture for the edification of the sons and daughters of the Church.”
His friend the bishop goes on to say: “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).
In Augustine’s literary legacy — which consists of more than 1,000 publications subdivided into philosophical, apologetic, doctrinal, moral, monastic, exegetical and anti-heretical writings, besides the letters and homilies —some exceptional works of great theological and philosophical breadth stand out.
We recall, first of all, his Confessions, which we have already mentioned, consisting of 13 books written in praise of God between 397 and 400. They are sort of an autobiography in the form of a dialogue with God.
Indeed, this literary genre is a reflection of St. Augustine’s life, which was not a life that was focused upon him or a life scattered among many things, but a life that was, for the most part, lived out as a dialogue with God, and, as a result, a life shared with others.
The title Confessions indicates the specific genre of this autobiography. In the Latin of Christianity that developed from the tradition of the Psalms, the word confessiones has two meanings that are intertwined. Confessiones, first of all, means the confession of one’s own weaknesses and of the frailty of one’s sins. Yet, at the same time, confessiones means praise of God and gratitude to God.
Seeing one’s own misery in God’s light becomes praise of God and thanksgiving because God loves us and accepts us, transforms us and raises us to himself. His Confessions already enjoyed a great deal of success during his lifetime, and Augustine himself wrote the following words about them: “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” (Retractations, II, 6).
I have to admit that I, too, am one of these “brothers.” Thanks to the Confessions, we can follow step by step the inner journey of this extraordinary man who was passionate about God.
His Retractations are less well-known but equally important. They consist of two books written around 427 in which St. Augustine, by then an old man, compiled a revision (retractatio) of all his writings, thus leaving us a unique and valuable literary record as well as a lesson of sincerity and intellectual humility.
The City of God
De Civitate Dei (The City of God) — an imposing work that was decisive for the development of Western political thought and for a Christian theology of history — was written between 413 and 426 and consists of 22 books. It was prompted by the sacking of Rome by the Goths in 410.
Many pagans as well as many Christians who had survived were saying, “Rome has fallen, so now the God of the Christians and the apostles cannot protect the city. When the pagan gods were among us, Rome was the caput mundi (the capital of the world), and no one could envision it falling into the hands of its enemies.
Now, with the Christian God, this great city no longer seems safe. Therefore, the Christian God did not protect and cannot be a God in whom a person can trust.”
St. Augustine responded to this objection, which deeply touched the hearts of Christians as well, in his magnificent work De Civitate Dei by making clear what we should and should not expect from God and by clarifying the relationship between the political sphere and the sphere of faith — the Church.
Even to this day this book is a source that is used to distinguish the jurisdiction of secular society from the jurisdiction of the Church, that true and great hope that faith gives us. His book presents the history of mankind as being governed by divine Providence but currently divided between two loves.
The foundation of his plan and his interpretation of history is the struggle between these 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 from one’s own self for others in the light of God.
This, therefore, is perhaps St. Augustine’s greatest book and of enduring importance.
Equally important is De Trinitate (The Trinity), a work consisting of 15 books, which deals with the core of Christian faith: faith in a Trinitarian God. It was written during two periods. Between 399 and 412, Augustine wrote the first 12 books, which were published without his knowledge. He completed and revised the entire work around the year 420. Here he reflects on the face of God and tries to understand this mystery of the God who is one, the one Creator of the world and of us all, and who, at the same time, is trinitarian, a circle of love. Augustine seeks to understand this unfathomable mystery: The trinitarian being in three Persons is precisely the most real and most profound expression of the unity of the one God.
Another book, De doctrina Christiana (The Christian Faith) is, on the other hand, truly a cultural introduction to interpreting the Bible as well as to Christianity itself, which was of decisive importance in the formation of Western culture.
Despite all his modesty, Augustine was certainly aware of his intellectual stature. Nevertheless, he considered it more important to bring the Christian message to ordinary people than to create major works of great theological breadth. This was the deeper intention that guided his entire life, which is revealed in a letter written to his colleague, Evodius, where he announces his decision to temporarily suspend work on the books 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).
Thus, it was more useful for him to communicate the faith in a way that everyone could understand than to write great theological works. The responsibility he keenly felt for spreading the message of Christianity is, therefore, at the origins of such writings as De Catechizandis Rudibus (The Catechizing of the Uninstructed), a theory as well as a practical work on catechesis, or Psalmus contra partem Donati.
The Donatists were the major problem in Africa during St. Augustine’s times and propagated a deliberately African schism.
The Donatists maintained that true Christianity was African Christianity. They were a force that was in opposition to the unity of the Church.
This great bishop fought his whole life against this schism and tried to convince the Donatists that it was only in unity that the African way could be authentic.
Since ordinary people would not be able understand this great rhetorician’s Latin, Augustine wrote in a simplified Latin, complete with grammatical mistakes. He did this above all in his Psalmus, a kind of simple poem against the Donatists, to help people understand that only it is only in the unity of the Church can we truly make our relationship with God a reality and encourage peace throughout the world.
Among the works destined for a wider audience, Augustine’s numerous sermons play an important role. Often given extemporaneously, they were transcribed by stenographers while he was preaching and immediately circulated. His Enarrationes in Psalmos, which were widely read during the Middle Ages, are especially noteworthy.
Indeed, this practice whereby thousands of Augustine’s sermons were published — often without any control by the author — explains not only their widespread circulation but also their vitality.
Because of the author’s reputation, his lectures were immediately sought after and were used as models by other bishops and priests, who adapted them to ever-changing contexts.
In the iconographic tradition, apparent in a Lateran fresco dating from the sixth century, St. Augustine is represented with a book in his hand, which expressed on one hand his literary production that has such a great influence on the mentality and the thinking of Christianity, and, on the other hand, expressed his love for books and for reading and his knowledge of the great culture that preceded him.
Possidius tells us that when he died he did not leave anything, but “he urged to always conserve diligently for posterity the church’s library with all its codices,” especially his own writings.
Possidius emphasizes the fact 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 is truly alive in his works, he is present with us, and this is how we see the ongoing vitality of the faith to which he dedicated his entire life.