The Holy Father went back to Augustine in today’s audience. Teresa Benedetta translated:
Dear brothers and sisters!
Today, as last Wednesday, I wish to speak of the great Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine.
Four years before he died, he wanted to name his successor. So on Sept. 26, 426, he assembled the faithful in the Basilica of Peace in Hippo, to present his choice to the faithful.
He said: “In this life we are all mortal, but the last day of life for anyone is always uncertain. Nevertheless, in our childhood, we expect to reach adolescence; in adolescence, young age; in young age, adulthood; in adulthood, maturity; in maturity, old age. We are not sure of reaching all these stages, but we hope. Old age, on the other hand, has nothing more to look forward to, and its own length is uncertain… By the will of God, I came to this city in the vigor of my life, but now my youth has passed, and I am an old man” (Ep 213,1).
At this point, Augustine gave the name of his designated successor, the priest Heraclius. The assembly erupted in approving applause, repeating twenty times, “Thanks be to God! Praise be to Christ!”
With other acclamations, the faithful greeted what Augustine said about his intentions for his future: he wanted to dedicate the years left to him to a more intense study of Sacred Scriptures (cfr Ep 213, 6).
In fact, there followed four years of extraordinary intellectual activity. He was able to finish important works, he undertook some more which were less demanding, and he held public debates with heretics – he always sought dialog – and intervened to promote peace in the African provinces besieged by barbarian tribes from the south.
This is the context in which he wrote to the Count Darius, who had come to Africa to repair a dispute between Count Boniface and the imperial court, which the Mauritanian tribes were taking advantage of to make their incursions.
“The greatest title of glory,” he wrote, “is to kill war itself with words, instead of killing men by the sword, and to obtain and maintain peace with peace, and not through war. Certainly. even those who fight wars, if they are good men, want peace, but at the cost of spilling blood. You, on the contrary, have been sent here precisely to prevent that anyone should seek to shed the blood of others” (Ep 229,2).
Unfortunately, the hope for a pacification of the African territories was destined to be disappointed: in May 429, the Vandals, invited to Africa by Boniface himself out of spite, went beyond the Strait of Gibraltar and poured into Mauritania. The invasion quickly spread through the other rich provinces of Africa.
In May and June 430, “the destroyers of the Roman Empire” as Possidius described the barbarians (Vita, 30, 1), had surrounded Hippo, which they besieged.
Boniface had sought refuge in Hippo, having reconciled too late with the court, and now he tried in vain to keep the barbarians at bay. Possidius describes the sorrow of Augustine: “More than usual, tears became his bread day and night, and having now reached the end of his days, bitterness and mourning marked his old age” (Vita 28,6).
He explained: “In fact, he saw, this man of God, the massacres and destruction in the city; the houses in the countryside levelled and their inhabitants killed by the enemy, or forced to flee in confusion; the churches deprived of priests and ministers; the sacred virgins and the religious dispersed all over – some of them placed under torture, others killed with the sword, others made prisoner, losing the integrity of body and soul and even their faith, reduced to a long and sorrowful slavery at the hands of the enemy” (ibid., 28,8).
Even if he was old and tired, Augustine nevertheless stayed on the job, comforting himself and others with prayer and meditation on the mysterious designs of Providence. He spoke at this time about the “aging of the world’ – and the Roman world at that time was old – he spoke of this aging, as he did years earlier to comfort the refugees who had come from Italy, when the Goths under Alaric invaded Rome in 410.
In old age, he said, ailments abound: coughing, colds, blindness, anxiety, exhaustion. But if the world grows old, Christ is perpetually young. Thus, his invitation: “Do not refuse to be rejuvenated in union with Christ, even in an old world. He tells you, Do not be afraid, your youth will be renewed as that of the eagle” (cfr Serm. 81,8).
Therefore, the Christian should not allow himself to be knocked down even in difficult situations, but to adapt himself in order to help those who are in need. It is what the great Doctor suggested, responding to the Bishop of Tiabe, Honoratus, who had asked him if, under pressure from the barbarian invasions, a bishop, a priest or any man of the Church could flee to save his life: “When the danger is common for all – for bishops, clergy and laymen – those who have need of others should not be abandoned by those whom they need. In this case, they should all transfer to safer places. But if anyone has to remain, they should not be abandoned by those who have the duty to assist them with the sacred ministry, in such a way that either they are saved together, or together suffer what our Father wills them to do” (Ep. 228,2).
He concluded: “This is the supreme test of charity” (ibid.,3). How can we not recognize in these words the heroic message that so many priests, in the course of centuries, have grasped and made their own?
Meanwhile, the city of Hippo resisted. The monastery-house of Augustine had opened its doors to welcome his fellow bishops who had asked for hospitality. Among them was Possidius himself, who was already one of his disciples, and therefore he was able to leave us his eyewitness account of Augustine’s last tragic days.
“In the third month of that siege,” he wrote, “he was laid up in bed with a fever. It was his last ailment” (Vita, 29,3).
The sainted old man used his finally free time to dedicate himself more intensely to prayer. He used to say that no one – bishop, religious or layman – no matter how irrepressible in life, could face death without adequate penance. That is why, weeping, he always repeated the penitential psalms that he had recited so many times with his flock” (cfr ibid., 31,2).
The more his condition worsened, the more the dying bishop felt the need for solitude and prayer: “In order not to be disturbed during his meditations, he asked – about 10 days before his soul finally left his body – not to let anyone enter his room outside of the times the doctors came to visit him or when his meals were brought in. His wishes were followed to the letter, asnd all that time, he spent in prayer” (ibid., 31,3).
His life ended on August 26, 430. His great heart finally rested in God. “For the deposition of his body,” Possidius tells us, “the Sacrifice was offered to God, which we attended, and then he was buried” (Vita 31,5).
His body, at an unknown date, was transferred to Sardinia, and from there, around 725, to Pavia, at the Basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d’oro, where he rests today.
His first biographer had this concluding judgment of him: “He left the Church a numerous clergy, as well as monasteries for men and women that were full of persons who had vowed chastity and obedience to their superiors; and libraries filled with books and the discourses by himself and other saints – from which we can see his merit and greatness, by the grace of God, in the service of the Church, and in which the faithful will always find him alive” (Possidius, Vita, 31,8).
It is a verdict we can share: in his writings, even we can “find him alive’. When I read the writings of St. Augustine, I do not have the impression that this is a man who has been dead 1600 years, but I feel him as a man of today: a friend, a contemporary who speaks to me, who speaks to us, with a faith that is always fresh and actual.
In St. Augustine who speaks to us, who speaks to me, in his writings, we see the permanent actuality of his faith, the faith that comes from Christ, eternal word incarnate, Son of God and son of man.
We can see that this faith is not a thing of the past, even if it was preached in the past. It is always of today, because Christ is – yesterday, today and always. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
In this way, St. Augustine encourages us to entrust ourselves to this Christ who is ever living and to find thereby the way of life.