Feast Day–August 28
Very few men have had such an impact on Christianity as St. Augustine. He was born in AD 354 in North Africa, at that time a strong and dynamic Christian region. His father was a prominent pagan, but his mother, Monica, was a devout Christian. She intended that Augustine be baptized, but in his adolescence he distanced himself from the Church and did not want to be baptized. He studied Latin literature and became a follower of an esoteric philosophy known as Manichaeism.
He had a mistress with whom he lived for fifteen years. She bore him a son, but he later broke off with her while living in Milan, where they had gone because he had been given a teaching position there. He found himself gradually more attracted to Christianity as he listened to the preaching of St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. But he resisted conversion, though his mother prayed persistently for him.
In a book entitled The Confessions, written in his later years as a spiritual and theological reflection on his life, Augustine describes the final steps to his conversion. He had felt the tension between attachment to his sinful ways and attraction to Christ and the Gospel. One day in the year 386, he went crying into the garden of the house where he was staying with friends. He was weeping because of his inability to make a decision for conversion. But then he heard the voice of a child from a neighboring house singing the refrain, “Take it and read, take it and read.” He picked up the Letters of St. Paul and read the first passage his eyes fell upon: “not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:13- 14). Augustine recognized the grace of God in this reading and embraced conversion.
He was baptized by St. Ambrose in 387 and returned to North Africa in 388. In 391, while visiting the town of Hippo, he was urged by the Christian population to become a priest; he accepted, though reluctantly. In 395 he became bishop of Hippo. As a Christian, priest, and bishop, he wrote numerous books to explain and defend Christian doctrine. His homilies and sermons were written down, and they witness to the depth and power of his preaching. He died in 430.
Augustine knew the damaging effects of sin. In The Confessions, he admits his own sinfulness even as a boy: “Many and many a time I lied to my tutor, my masters, and my parents, because I wanted to play games or watch some futile show or was impatient to imitate what I saw on the
stage.” But he also experienced the greater power of grace, of God’s enabling us to overcome sin and accept the Gospel of his Son. St. Augustine knew God’s mercy in the forgiveness of sins gained for us by Jesus Christ.
Today Catholics encounter this same mercy and forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance.
This article is an excerpt from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2006) 233-234.
Copyright © 2006, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington DC. All rights reserved.
Image: Initial L: The Baptism of Saint Augustine, Master of the Osservanza, The J. Paul Getty Museum