28 August 2017

Homily for the Titular Solemnity of the Parish - On Saint Augustine of Hippo

The Solemnity of Saint Augustine of Hippo

Dear brothers and sisters,

In his monumental history of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, Joseph J. Thompson recorded something curious about the origins of this parish:

During the first year of [the original church’s existence], it was attended as a mission from Petersburg by Reverend Augustine Sauer. Doubtless, it was that good Father who gave it the name of his patron which it still proudly bears.[1]

With our American sensibilities favoring independence and personal autonomy, we do not speak much about patrons today because doing so would be to acknowledge that we are not as strong as we think we are. The word patron comes from the Latin patronus and refers to a protector, a defender, or an advocate. In her maternal care for us, Mother Church assigns a heavenly patron to each parish so that we will have someone in heaven to look after us, to pray for us, and someone to whom we can look to learn how to better follow Jesus Christ.

So it is, then, that we have come together today around the altar of the Lord to celebrate the life of our heavenly patron, Saint Augustine of Hippo, a Bishop and Doctor of the Church, and to seek his continued intercession on our behalf.

Saint Augustine was in the North African city of Thagaste, in modern day Algeria in 354 to Patricius, a pagan who converted to Christianity, and Monica, a Christian of tremendous faith. His father installed within him a great love of Latin and of its literature. Because of his studies in the great literary masters, when Augustine read a poor Latin translation of the Bible, he thought Christianity to be beneath him, something only for the uneducated, and so he turned to the dualistic faith of the Manicheans. They believed the spiritual, immaterial world was good and the temporal, physical world was evil. As Augustine continued to learn from them, questions continually arose within his mind, but none could answer his questions. He realized then that Manicheism did have the truth and so he abandoned it; he knew his heart was restless.[2]

Even when he initially rejected his mother’s Christian faith as being too unintellectual, Augustine “was always fascinated by the figure of Jesus Christ; indeed, he said he had always loved Jesus but had drifter further and further away from ecclesial faith and practice, as also happens to many young people today.”[3] Augustine’s departure from Christianity was a source of great pain for his mother, Monica, who never ceased praying for the conversion of her son because she saw him living in grave sin for many years. Augustine settled in with a concubine for more than fifteen years, with whom he conceived a son, Adeodatus. Here, again, Augustine is not unlike many people today; he knew his heart was restless.

As he wrestled with his quest for the truth and sought the answers to his questions, he came to realize that he was “in love with love,” as he put it.[4] He went on to say, “To me it was sweet to love and to be loved, the more so if I could also enjoy the body of the beloved.”[5] He knew the way in which he was living was wrong, that it was not in keeping with the truth, but he enjoyed his life. So it was that he prayed to God, saying:

“Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” I was afraid you might hear my prayer quickly, and that you might too rapidly heal me of the disease of lust which I preferred to satisfy rather than suppress. I had gone along ‘evil ways’ (Exodus 2:10) with a sacrilegious superstition, not indeed because I felt sure of its truth but because I preferred it to the alternatives, which I did not investigate in a devout spirit but opposed in an attitude of hostility.[6]

Here, again, he like a great many people today; he knew his heart was restless.

One day while he was reflected on his life and his many sins, Augustine “heard a voice from a nearby house chanting as if it might be a boy or a girl (I do not know which), saying and repeating over and over again ‘Pick up and read, pick up and read’.” [7] He picked up a copy of the Bible and opened it, seemingly at random, and read these words from Saint Paul: “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts” (Romans 13:13-14). With that, his worries departed and he “neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.”[8] He would never be the same again because, as he said, “it cannot be that the son of these tears should perish.”[9]

With his heart finally at rest, he converted to Christianity on 15 August 386 and was baptized on 24 April 387. Somewhat against his will, at the instigation of those who recognized his holiness, his intellect, and his zeal, he was ordained a priest in 391 and bishop of Hippo – modern day Annaba, Algeria - in 395. He died on 28 August 430 as the Vandals were besieging the city of Hippo for a third month. There is, of course, much more to say about his life, but this brief sketch will suffice for now. After his baptism, he devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures and realized the Lord’s will for him was that he should share the fruit of his studies with the people of Hippo.

When considered the fruit of the studies of the Doctor of Grace, Pope Benedict XVI once said,

“When I read Saint Augustine’s writings, I do not get the impression that he is a man who died more or less 1,600 years ago; I feel his is like a man of today: a friend, a contemporary who speaks to me, who speaks to us with his fresh and timely faith.”[10]

The same is true for us who are blessed to have so a great an intercessor before the throne of God.

The statue of Saint Augustine outside of the church depicts our patron as holding out his heart to us, a heart with a flame coming out from within it. It is a symbol referring to these famous words of Saint Augustine: “You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”[11] However, this flaming heart might also refer to something he said about the passage we heard from Saint John’s first letter: “Our love, like a fire, must take hold of what is nearest and then spread to what is further off.”[12]

As Saint Augustine holds his heart out to us and shares his journey with and in Christ with us, let us hold our hearts out to Jesus. Let us ask him to set our hearts afire with his love that we, with Saint Augustine, might be fully converted to the Lord. Then, let us hold our hearts out to others and take the risk of love. May Saint Augustine intercede for us, that the fire of our love will shine brightly, drawing others toward the peace that comes only from Christ. May our love, like that of Saint Augustine, take hold of what is nearest and spread to is further off, so we might attain our rest in Christ. Amen.

[1] Joseph J. Thompson, Diocese of Springfield in Illinois: Diamond Jubilee History (Springfield, Illinois: Hartman Printing Co., 1923), 418.
[2] Cf. Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, I.1. Henry Chadwick, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience Address, 9 January 2008.
[4] Confessions, III.1.
[5] Confessions, III.1.
[6] Confessions, VIII.17.
[7] Confessions, VIII.29.
[8] Confessions, VIII.29.
[9] Confessions, III.21.
[10] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience Address, 16 January 2008.
[11] Confessions, X.38.
[12] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Ten Homilies on I John, 8.1. In Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. XI: James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2000), 214).

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