To Touch St. Augustine’s Tomb

In time for the feast of St. Augustine, a visit to his burial place — the Basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, Italy. By Barbara Hults.

Pavia, Italy

Until I read of Pope Benedict’s pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Augustine this past April, I assumed the Church’s most influential intellectual had been laid to rest in Milan or Rome, where he studied and taught. In fact, I learned, he died in North Africa, where he was born.

Then I heard about his interment in lovely Pavia (pa-VEE-a), south of Milan, home of the Augustinian order. More on that in a moment.

This great theologian — a Father and Doctor of the Church — is, unlike most saints, more widely read than read about. His Confessions is a classic not only of Christian apologetics and theology but also of world literature. It’s considered the first autobiography, too, as it candidly chronicles his spiritual journey into the Catholic faith.

And it was only a tiny part of his total output. As the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia puts it: “St. Augustine of Hippo was one of the most prolific geniuses that humanity has ever known, and is admired not only for the number of his works, but also for the variety of subjects, which traverse the whole realm of thought. … (He has been praised for) his extraordinary suppleness of expression and his marvelous gift of describing interior things, of painting the various states of the soul and the facts of the spiritual world.”

Born in 354 in Tagaste, in present-day Algeria, Augustine grew into a restless young man who dismayed and worried his mother. Monica, a Catholic of Berber stock, prayed for her wayward boy constantly. But, as a brilliant young scholar believing himself too sophisticated for Christianity, he became a Manichaen.

At the age of 17 he began a 14-year affair with a woman he never married. They had a son, Adeodatus, who later went with him to Rome.

Augustine began to teach philosophy and rhetoric in Tagaste, Rome and Milan. His ever-attentive mother, Monica, made sure she was nearby, as readers of the Confessions know.

It wasn’t until he reached Milan and heard the stirring orations of St. Ambrose, then bishop of Milan, that, after a long personal struggle, Augustine was baptized. We can only imagine what his mother was feeling that day in 386.

Soon afterward, Augustine returned to North Africa. He became a priest and then bishop of Hippo, articulating an irrefutable defense of the Church’s teachings on the Holy Trinity. His mother, unfortunately, died at Ostia, Rome’s port, while they were awaiting a ship to take them back to Africa. Her value to him and his faith is clear in the Confessions and she, of course, was awarded sainthood.

The Church celebrates their feasts on consecutive days — Monica’s on Aug. 27 and Augustine’s on Aug. 28.

Church Town

In Pavia, there are many places to contemplate Augustine’s words, which require concentration that is hard to come by in the world of instant messaging and instant annoyance with subjects that require deep and careful thought.

Even casual reading of his texts or those about him will elicit some new curiosity on the reader’s part. In Pope Benedict’s book Introduction to Christianity he quotes St. Augustine as saying, “In God there are no accidents, only substance and relation.” He calls this a revolution in thinking — no small praise from a teaching Pope who is not given over to hyperbole.

In Pavia, a town of elaborate churches, we see a rather plain façade that belies the beauties of the interior at the Basilica di San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro. The first record we have comes from the year 604, describing an earlier, paleo-Christian church with simple columns and a wooden ceiling that had flecks of gold, which accounts for its name of Ciel d’Oro (golden sky). The great Italian writers Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio mentioned the church in their Renaissance-era works.

Today, the basilica we see is designed in Romanesque Lombard style, and it was consecrated by Pope Innocent II in 1132. Beyond the imposing three naves, we see the magnetic object of our pilgrimage, the elegant Arch of St. Augustine that shelters the tomb. This masterpiece of 12th-century Lombard art was commissioned by the Augustine prior of the time. The 95 statues and many bas reliefs of the arch depict scenes from the saint’s life, such as his baptism by St. Ambrose with St. Monica kneeling alongside; his teaching and studying; and miracles performed by him after his death in 430.

Benedict’s Augustine

Above the arch a fresco shows the Redeemer with Sts. Peter and Augustine beneath. In back of the arch, in the pavement, we see another object of awe, a piece of the mosaic from the saint’s church in Hippo, where he was bishop from 395 to 430.

Being next to the relics of this great saint is apt to move you to prayer, if not tears. In the crypt below, impressive on its own with 24 columns, we see another bit of awe-inspiring history. A pilaster conceals the tomb of the Lombard King Liuprando, who had the saint’s relics brought here from Sardinia in 724, having paid the Saracens with gold for them. This was a time when relics were stolen and sold throughout Europe and the East. Fortunately, the king was able to barter for these.

The sacristy is also worthy of a visit. It showcases elegant, decorated vaulting and a canvas of the saint conferring with St. Jerome. (Undoubtedly every word would be subject of an essay if we could hear them.)

Pope Benedict counts St. Augustine among his most beloved teachers. While there on his spring pilgrimage, the Holy Father remembered Augustine’s words that Christ “came mainly so that man might know how much God loves him.”

The Pope also blessed a cornerstone of a new Augustinian cultural center. To be named Benedetto XVI, it will be built through contributions from foundations and individual devotees.

St. Augustine, pray for them — and for us.

Barbara Coeyman Hults is

based in New York City.


Basilica of San Pietro   in Ciel d’Oro

Piazza San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro 2 - 27100

Pavia, Italy

Planning Your Visit

A solemn pontifical Mass will be celebrated here Aug. 28 in honor of St. Augustine. Italy in August is typically hot, sometimes stiflingly so. If you go, take a sun hat, water, sunscreen and devotional material to read while waiting in lines. And pray to St. Monica for the virtue of patience.