29 August 2018

Homily - 28 August 2018 - The Solemnity of Saint Augustine of Hippo

The Solemnity of Saint Augustine of Hippo

Dear brothers and sisters,

We here in the central plains of Illinois are blessed to have as our patron the Doctor of Grace, a man very much like us from the coast of North Africa in present-day Algeria.

There is hardly a saint who has remained so close to us, so understandable, despite the lapse of centuries, as St. Augustine, for in his writings we encounter all the heights and depths of the human spirit, all the questioning and seeking and searching that are still ours today. He has not unjustifiably been called the first modern man. He was born in an age of crisis and transition that was only too like our own, an age in which faith was not something taken for granted but had to be sought and found in the midst of human experience and of the abysses it opens to the heart of man.[1]

Anyone who has picked up a copy of his Confessions, The Happy Life, or read even a few of his sermons realizes quickly that his questions, answers, and insights resonate in our hearts today, though on the surface we are very different from him.

As a boy, he loved the name of the Lord Jesus and called upon him for help, but as a young man he encountered others he thought were intellectuals and drifted further and further away from his Christian faith. He had given himself over to the pursuits of this world and enjoyed a life of concubinage; he never tells us the woman’s name, but together they had a son, Adeodatus. Slowly – over the course of many years and through the prayers and tears of his mother, Saint Monica – he came to a moment of deep conversion when, while sitting in a garden, he heard a voice say to him, “Tolle, lege! Tolle, lege! (Take, read! Take, read!)” He took up the Bible, opened it 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). Something happened in his heart as he read that verse. Reflecting back on that moment, he wrote, “I neither wished nor wanted 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.”[2]

He then received Baptism from Saint Ambrose in Milan and returned to Thagaste in North Africa. He next settled at Hippo Regia where he established a monastery and sought to live a quiet life in prayer and writing. But God had other plans, and so did the people of Hippo because the reputation of his newfound holiness preceded him.

One day at Mass, Bishop Valerius preached about the need for more priests in Hippo and the people, looking to Augustine, pushed him forward before the Bishop who ordained him a priest against his will. Bishop Valerius entrusted the task of teaching the people to Augustine, who within five years become the next Bishop of Hippo; though he did not want this second office, this time he willingly accepted. On the anniversary of his ordination as Bishop, he said to the Christians of Hippo, “I am fearful of what I am for you, but I draw strength in what I am with you. For you I am a bishop, and with you I am a Christian.”[3] Some time later, surely remembering his more quiet days, he said,

No one would like more than I the steady, tranquil repose of contemplation. Nothing could be better, nothing sweeter, than the study of the divine treasure far away from the noise of the world. Such study is sweet and good. On the other hand, preaching, reprimanding, correcting, building up and attending to the needs of others is a great burden, a great responsibility, and a great weariness. Who would not wish to avoid such a burden? But the Gospel affrights me.[4]

Saint Augustine knew what he wanted to do, but – more importantly – he knew what he had to do, and he did it out of love for God and neighbor.

Last year, on the occasion of this great solemnity, our patronal feast day, we heard these same readings. We reflected then on the great line of Saint Augustine that “our love, like a fire, must first take hold of what is nearest and then spread to what is further off.”[5] We also reflected on the image of his burning heart, which he holds out to us, inviting us to take hold of it and to allow the fire of his love to ignite our own.

If we are honest about love, we know that love is often painful. This is because

…there can be no love without suffering, because love always implies renouncement of myself, letting myself go and accepting the other in his otherness; it implies a gift of myself and therefore, emerging from myself. All this is pain and suffering, but precisely in this suffering caused by the losing of myself for the sake of the other, for the loved one and hence, for God, I become great and my life finds love, and in love finds its meaning. The inseparability of love and suffering, of love and God, are elements that must enter into the modern conscience to help us live.[6]

We might even go so far as to say that “a person who loves relinquishes all freedom of the untouched heart, and becomes chained to the beloved, not by force or necessity, but precisely by love.”[7]

Though it took him nearly half of his life to allow his heart to be touched by God, to repent of his life of sin, and to be chained to God and his people, Saint Augustine did at last allow his heart to be set afire by Love and enkindled this love within the hearts of others. It was through the suffering of love for God and neighbor that he found the peace for which his heart so desperately longed.

Through the intercession of Saint Augustine, may we never shy away from taking up the Bible and doing what we read; may we never be afraid to yield our hearts to the love of God and to lead others into it; and may we never be afraid of the suffering that comes from love so as to find the peace our hearts desire. Amen.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, “Sermon for the Feast of St. Augustine,” in Dogma and Preaching, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Chicago, Illinois: Franciscan Herald Press, 1985), 119.
[2] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, VIII.29. Henry Chadwick, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 153.
[3] Ibid., Sermon 350.1.
[4] Ibid., Sermon 339.
[5] Ibid., 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.
[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Clergy of the Diocese of Belluno-Feltre and Treviso, 24 July 2018.
[7] Romano Guardini, The Rosary of Our Lady (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 1998), 49.

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