The Solemnity of Saint Augustine of Hippo, Bishop and Doctor
Dear brothers and sisters,
It is a curious thing that on this day on which we celebrate our heavenly patron and guide for the Christian life that Mother Church has us hear these words of the Lord Jesus: “Do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8). Centuries ago, Saint Augustine of Hippo was given the title of Doctor of the Church, “doctor” being the Latin word for “teacher.” If we have but one teacher, Christ Jesus, how are we to make sense of this?
There are some today who take Jesus’ words in this passage to great extremes. They go so far as to say that when Jesus says, “Call no one earth your father,” they insist that priests should not be called father, but then they have no problem referring to their male parent as dad or papa, both of which simply mean father. They hyper-focus on that one line in this passage, but have no difficulty referring to the person who overseas their medical care as doctor, which, again, simply means teacher.
To take Jesus’ words to such an extreme is to ignore much of the rest of the New Testament, which, of course, is the inspired word of God. Saint Paul, for example, calls himself “a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (I Timothy 2:7)” and says he “was appointed a preacher and teacher” (II Timothy1:11). Saint Paul also makes it clear that he is not the only teacher of the faith when he says “God has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers” (I Corinthians 12:28) and that “his gifts were that some should apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11). When Jesus says, “Do not be called ‘Rabbi’ [teacher],” he is not speaking literally but hyperbolically.
The same is true when Jesus says, “Call no one on earth your father,” as we clearly see in the writings of Saint Paul. The Apostle calls Saint Timothy “my beloved and faithful child in the Lord” (I Corinthians 4:17). Writing to the Church in Corinth, Saint Paul says to them, “I became your Father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (I Corinthians 4:15). Saint Paul and Saint John both speak in similar ways of the people to whom they write.
Jesus does not mean we should literally call no person on earth teacher or father or master; what he means is to place no person on earth higher than God. The Church, then, honors Saint Augustine with the title “Doctor of the Church” because through his teaching of the Christian faith and through the witness of his holy life he strove “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13). In the Litany of Saint Augustine, we call him “our father” because he passes the faith on to give us and gives us life through this faith.
These sixteen centuries later, Saint Augustine’s voluminous words, so rooted in the Sacred Scriptures and the experience of life, remain a sure path by which we can steadily and surely approach “the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering” (Hebrews 12:23). If Saint Augustine, assisted by God’s grace, could at last make his way to the great wedding banquet of the Lamb then you and I can do the same. What do I mean?
To grasp the full import of what it means that Augustine is now counted among the greatest of the saints, we have to recall something of his life.
Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, reared him in the Catholic faith, but he did not follow her example. A lively, witty and exuberant teenager, Augustine undertook the study of rhetoric, giving brilliant performance and showing enormous promise. He loved life and its pleasures, displayed a profound gift for friendship, experienced passionate love, adored the theater, sought fun and entertainment. In Carthage, where he went to study, he fell in love with a girl. Since she was of a lower social class, he took her as his concubine, but did not marry. They had a son, Adeodatus (whose name means “God-given”). Augustine, a father at 19, remained faithful to his common-law wife and took responsibility for the “family” ménage. On reading Cicero's Hortensius, Augustine’s whole way of seeing the world experienced a change. Happiness, Cicero taught him, consists of things that do not perish: wisdom, truth, virtue. Augustine decided to dedicate his whole life to their pursuit.
Having been reared in a Christian house, Augustine turned first to the Bible. He was not prepared to receive the wisdom of Sacred Scripture, however, and found holy writ gross and illogical. He then joined the sect of the Manichees (a group dedicated to a basically dualistic form of eclectic esoterism). Returning to Thagaste, he opened a school of “grammar” and rhetoric with the help of a benefactor, but the life he led did not please him, so he returned to Carthage with hope for a better future there. He continued to be dissatisfied. His thirst for truth was not slaked by the Manichaean doctrine. The young and promising rhetor went in search of new shores, and in 382, he moved to Rome with his companion and son, without informing his mother, who had reached Carthage in the meantime. In the Imperial city, however, Augustine maintained his contacts with the Manichaeans, from whom he received financial support and encouragement… His career began to advance full-sail, and in 384 he earned the chair of rhetoric in Milan. Nevertheless, his inner turmoil continued to torment him.
Augustine’s ambition is satiated at Milan, but his heart continued restless. To refine his ars oratoria, he listened to the sermons of Bishop Ambrose. He wanted to overwhelm Ambrose’s dialectics, and instead the words of the Bishop touched him to the quick. Meanwhile, his mother Monica came to join him in Milan, and she accompanied him with her prayers. Augustine grew ever closer to the Catholic Church, and entered the catechumenate. Desiring a Christian wife, he sent his concubine to Africa. Still troubled, Augustine devoured philosophical texts and plunged into Sacred Scripture. Tempted by the experience of Greek thinkers, and attracted to the lifestyle of Christian ascetics, he cannot make up his mind. One day in August, 386, disoriented and confused, weeping in a garden, he seemed to hear a voice: Tolle! Lege! (which means, “Pick it up and read”). He considered the voice an invitation to turn to Paul’s letters, a copy of which was on a nearby table, and opened them at random. “"Let's trade honestly, as in the daytime, not in the midst of orgies and drunkenness, not among lusts and impurities, not in litigation and jealousy. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ instead of letting go of the fleshly desires (Rm 13, 13-14).” The lines were decisive for him. He decided to change his life and to devote himself to God. He was baptized by Ambrose in the night between April 24 and 25, 387, and wishing to return to Africa, travels to Rome to embark from the port city, Ostia, where his mother, Monica, died before taking ship.
Augustine founded his first community in his hometown, Thagaste. Between the end of 390 and the beginning of 391, he found himself perchance in Hippo, in the basilica where Bishop Valerius was talking to his faithful about the need for a priest in his diocese. Alerted to his presence among them, the congregation pushes Augustine to the fore, and insists that Valerius ordain him. Though he had been convinced of his calling to live in a vowed religious state, Augustine, studying and meditating on the Scriptures, came to understand that God had else in store for him. He eventually became Bishop of Hippo, succeeding Valerius, and left countless writings behind, in which he carried forward his lifelong project of truth-seeking through faith and reason.
Augustine’s life is a fascinating and there are many ways by which one approach him.
Francis reminds us that Saint Augustine’s life has much to say to us today. In
particular, the Bishop of Rome says:
I would like to tell those who feel indifferent to God, to faith, and those who are far from God or who have distanced themselves from him, that we too, with our “distancing” and our “abandonment” of God, that may seem insignificant but are so numerous in our daily life: look into the depths of your heart, look into your own inner depths and ask yourself: do you have a heart that desires something great, or a heart that has been lulled to sleep by things? Has your heart preserved the restlessness of seeking or have you let it be suffocated by things that end by hardening it? God awaits you, he seeks you; how do you respond to him? Are you aware of the situation of your soul? Or have you nodded off? Do you believe God is waiting for you…?
Let us not
nod off or ignore or be afraid of the deepest longings of hearts, of the
restlessness of our hearts. Let us instead, with Saint Augustine as our teacher
and father, wrestle with them until we, with Saint Augustine, at last are made
perfect by, in, and through the love of God which inflames our hearts (cf.
Hebrews 12:23). Amen.
 Vatican News, “St. Augustine, Bishop of Hyppo and Doctor of the Church,” 28 August 2022. Accessed 28 August 2022. Available at https://www.vaticannews.va/en/saints/08/28/st---augustine--bishop-of-hyppo-and-doctor-of-the-church.html?fbclid=IwAR1sSCTkdg-7Ds3fzOEu0-8UYGfaALWpbWskg3MWqC42p9czEjmtpFsl4po.
 Pope Francis, Homily, 28 August 2013. Accessed 28 August 2022. Available at https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130828_capitolo-sant-agostino.html.