Pope Benedict and Augustine – Part II



Paul VI Audience Hall
Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Saint Augustine of Hippo (2)

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today, like last Wednesday, I would like to talk about the great Bishop of Hippo, St Augustine. He chose to appoint his successor four years before he died. Thus, on 26 September 426, he gathered the people in the Basilica of Peace at Hippo to present to the faithful the one he had designated for this task. He said: “In this life we are all mortal, and the day which shall be the last of life on earth is to every man at all times uncertain; but in infancy there is hope of entering boyhood… looking forward from boyhood to youth, from youth to manhood and from manhood to old age; whether these hopes may be realized or not is uncertain, but there is in each case something which may be hoped for. But old age has no other period of this life to look forward to with expectation:  in any case, how long old age may be prolonged is uncertain…. I came to this town – for such was the will of God – when I was in the prime of life. I was young then, but now I am old” (Ep 213, 1). At this point Augustine named the person he had chosen as his successor, the presbyter Heraclius. The assembly burst into an applause of approval, shouting 23 times, “To God be thanks! To Christ be praise!”. With other acclamations the faithful also approved what Augustine proposed for his future:  he wanted to dedicate the years that were left to him to a more intense study of Sacred Scripture (cf. Ep 213, 6).

Indeed, what followed were four years of extraordinary intellectual activity:  he brought important works to conclusion, he embarked on others, equally demanding, held public debates with heretics – he was always seeking dialogue – and intervened to foster peace in the African provinces threatened by barbarian southern tribes. He wrote about this to Count Darius, who had come to Africa to settle the disagreement between Boniface and the imperial court which the tribes of Mauritania were exploiting for their incursions: “It is a higher glory still”, he said in his letter, “to stay war itself with a word, than to slay men with the sword, and to procure or maintain peace by peace, not by war. For those who fight, if they are good men, doubtlessly seek peace; nevertheless, it is through blood. Your mission, however, is to prevent the shedding of blood” (Ep 229, 2). Unfortunately, the hope of pacification in the African territories was disappointed; in May 429, the Vandals, whom out of spite Boniface had invited to Africa, passed the straits of Gibraltar and streamed into Mauritania. The invasion rapidly reached the other rich African provinces. In May or June 430, “the destroyers of the Roman Empire”, as Possidius described these barbarians (Vita, 30, 1), were surrounding and besieging Hippo.

Boniface had also sought refuge in the city. Having been reconciled with the court too late, he was now trying in vain to block the invaders’ entry. Possidius, Augustine’s biographer, describes Augustine’s sorrow: “More tears than usual were his bread, night and day, and when he had reached the very end of his life, his old age caused him, more than others, grief and mourning (Vita, 28, 6). And he explains: “Indeed, that man of God saw the massacres and the destruction of the city; houses in the countryside were pulled down and the inhabitants killed by the enemy or put to flight and dispersed. Private churches belonging to priests and ministers were demolished, sacred virgins and Religious scattered on every side; some died under torture, others were killed by the sword, still others taken prisoner, losing the integrity of their soul and body and even their faith, reduced by their enemies to a long, drawn-out and painful slavery” (ibid., 28, 8).

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