Sunday, August 28, 2016

Saint Augustine of Hippo, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

In the Novus Ordo liturgical calendar, today (August 28) is the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo, (354-430), one of the more successful of all converts to the Faith (after the original Apostles, of course, who were all converts!)  However, the feast is superseded by the weekly Sunday solemnity, so it may not be mentioned at Mass.

Augustine is widely recognized as one of the most brilliant theologians in Christian history. He is among the 36 men and women designated as Doctors of the Church.  What does this mean? According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

"The requisite conditions are enumerated as three: eminens doctrina, insignis vitae sanctitas, Ecclesiae declaratio (i.e. eminent learning, a high degree of sanctity, and proclamation by the Church). Benedict XIV explains the third as a declaration by the supreme pontiff or by a general council. But though general councils have acclaimed the writings of certain Doctors, no council has actually conferred the title of Doctor of the Church. In practice the procedure consists in extending to the universal church the use of the Office and Mass of a saint in which the title of doctor is applied to him. The decree is issued by the Congregation of Sacred Rites and approved by the pope, after a careful examination, if necessary, of the saint's writings. It is not in any way an ex cathedra decision, nor does it even amount to a declaration that no error is to be found in the teaching of the Doctor. It is, indeed, well known that the very greatest of them are not wholly immune from error. No martyr has ever been included in the list, since the Office and the Mass are for Confessors. Hence, as Benedict XIV points out, St. Ignatius, St. Irenæus, and St. Cyprian are not called Doctors of the Church." [Note: although this entry is from the "old" C.E. which dates back to the first half of the 20th Century, the procedure and requisites for naming a Doctor of the Church remain essentially the same today.]
Augustine was an original party animal, who spent his youth and early adulthood pursuing an openly hedonistic lifestyle, to the great distress of his mother, (St. Monica, who prayed for his conversion for many years), before he finally took instruction in the Christian Faith from St. Ambrose of Milan and was baptized. His prolific writings are a source of many famous quotations. One of my favorites: "Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depends on you."
My other favorite is: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."

Despite Augustine's towering intellect and years of study, even he was unable to develop a rational way to understand the greatest of all Christian mysteries, the Holy Trinity. At the conclusion of a lengthy and densely-reasoned treatise on the subject, (nearly 100 pages in my English translation), Augustine concluded that the Trinity is beyond human comprehension. Heck, I could have told him that in a lot fewer words.

One very interesting thing about St. Augustine's writings is the degree to which some Protestants purport to be subscribers to his theology.  Calvinists, especially, are inclined to do this.  Their adherence to Augustine's thought is, of course, highly selective, ignoring the many aspects of his writings which are undeniably and completely Catholic.  But I still find it fascinating, and it is, I think, an indication of just how brilliant Augustine's theology is.

St. Augustine, ora pro nobis!

Laudator Jesus Christus 

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