August 28, 2013, marked the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo, a great Catholic figure who is perhaps better known for the order of monks that bears his name (Augustinians) than anything in his own life. That’s unfortunate, since St. Augustine is not only revered by Catholics, but by virtually all Christians around today. In fact, he changed the face of Christianity as we know it. Why is he so important? Read on and find out.
St. Augustine was born in the Roman province of Numidia, North Africa, in year 354 A.D. He came from a mixed marriage: his father was a pagan, and his mother (St. Monica) was a Christian. Because his father did not want him to be baptized, Augustine was raised in the ways of paganism as a young man. He decided to pursue a secular education and career as an adult. Ironically, Augustine’s father later became a Catholic after his son was grown, and was baptized in 371. By this time, however, Augustine had become an adherent of the Manichaean religion. This now forgotten and ancient religious sect regarded matter as evil and promoted “liberation” from the physical world, causing his mother intense grief when her son joined. The sect also focused on the idea of a struggle between good and evil in the world, which fascinated Augustine. He soon became interested in the sermons of St. Ambrose of Milan, although Augustine still had difficulty believing in the Bible. As he began to appreciate and accept the intellectual arguments for God’s existence and Church teaching, Augustine was finally baptized a Christian at the age of 33, shortly before the death of his mother in 387.
Augustine decided to abandon his successful academic career and sold his possessions, becoming a priest in 391. From 396 until his death, Augustine served as the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. It was there that he created the first distinct religious order in Christianity. It was a community of men who lived in apostolic poverty without personal possessions. This is the order of monks that came to be named after him. Augustine spent most of his final years combating heresies against traditional Christian doctrines. Some of these sects denied that Jesus is God; others taught that clergy have no authority; and still others denied original sin and taught that humans could achieve their own salvation. St. Augustine died on August 28, 430.
He was canonized a saint shortly after his death, during the reign of Pope Leo I (the Great). Today, he is considered one of the early church fathers and a preeminent “Doctor of the Church”, as well the patron figure of the Augustinians. He is considered one of the most influential early saints of western Christianity. His memorial is celebrated on the day of his death. He is the patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians, the alleviation of sore eyes, and a number of cities and dioceses. Many Protestants, especially Calvinists, study and admire Augustine because of his teachings on divine grace. Among Eastern Orthodox Christians, he is known as “Blessed Augustine” or “St. Augustine the Blessed”, and his feast day is June 15 instead of August 28. Augustine’s legacy today is his large volume of writings, which set down many modern Christian dogmas into clear written statements for the first time, and are still useful today for articulating Christian theology in simple terms that people can understand. Pope Benedict XVI once described Augustine as his “traveling companion” in life and ministry, and devoted six general audiences to St. Augustine’s life and thought.
One Catholic blog suggested that “every Catholic in the world should read St. Augustine’s Confessions – You cannot do moral theology without the saint, whose feast day is today.” It is certainly a welcome suggestion. As lay Catholics, we tend to be familiar with many people in the modern era that have been canonized. Unfortunately, we often know little about the early saints, aside from those who were martyrs. Far from simply introducing the world to monastic orders, St. Augustine left a rich collection of statements about Christianity that help explain and articulate our faith to the outside world. It’s long overdue to make more of an effort to remember St. Augustine.