Divine Mercy 101: The Life of St. Augustine

A weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, the Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy

WEEK 15: The Life of St. Augustine 

St. Augustine was born in 354 A.D. in a small town in what is now Algeria, North Africa. His father was a pagan, but his mother was a devout Christian believer, later canonized and known to the whole Catholic world as St. Monica.

As a young man, Augustine prepared for a career as a teacher of Rhetoric, and subsequently taught in Carthage and in Rome. At this time he also carried out a passionate search for truth, a search which led him first into the religious sect called the "Manichees," and then into the philosophy of Plotinus.

In 386 he moved to Milan to teach, but as a result of hearing the inspired preaching of the Archbishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, as well as the prayers of his saintly mother Monica, he was converted to the Christian faith in the summer of that same year. This conversion involved a profound inner struggle with sins of the flesh, as well as with temptations to intellectual pride - a story recorded for posterity in his famous book Confessions in 397 A.D.

In 395 Augustine was named co-adjutor bishop of Hippo in North Africa, and then bishop of the diocese a few years later.

Intellectual development
St. Augustine's intellectual development after his conversion can be divided into several phases. In the first phase he was still a follower of the philosophy of Plotinus, and sought to interpret and defend the Christian faith with the help of this philosophy (St. Clement of Alexandria in the East had tried much the same thing). After he became a bishop, however, he became more interested in Scriptural exegesis, especially the letters of St. Paul and the Psalms. Divine Revelation became for Augustine more than just the philosophy of Plotinus with the doctrine of Creation (creatio ex nihilo) and the Incarnation thrown in for good measure. Rather, in this period Augustine really began to plumb the depths of what it means for God's grace to come to the aid of a sinful soul, through prayer and the sacraments.

This is the period in his life that produced written works that "moderate Augustinians" would refer to so often. Here Augustine emphasizes that God in His mercy always takes the initiative with the sinner, because the sinner is too weak even to stretch out his hands to God in prayer on his own. Augustine taught that salvation cannot be gained merely by the soul receiving proper moral and doctrinal instruction, and by following the example of Jesus and the saints. Rather, salvation involves the entire inner regeneration of the soul by divine grace, received as a free gift from God through prayer and the sacraments of the Church.

The teachings of this period of St. Augustine's life, such as his treatise "On Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants," became standard fare for theology in the West, both Catholic and Protestant, and were largely endorsed by the western Council of Orange in 529 A.D.

Divine Mercy
Reflections on Divine Mercy can be found in St. Augustine's writings that come from this period of his life. For example, here is his commentary on Psalm 58, from the phrase in the Latin Vulgate version of the Psalm, "my God is my mercy":

Lastly, considering that every type of good thing we may possess-either as gifts of nature, or through education or social relationships, or through the gifts of faith, hope, and charity, or moral goods such as justice, or fear of God-are nothing but [God's] gifts, [the Psalmist] concludes thus: "My God is my mercy".... Now, since none is better than You, none more powerful than You, and none is more generous in mercy than You from whom I received that I be, from You I received [the grace] that I be good.

Later in his life, however, St. Augustine's view of human nature and its corruption took a more pessimistic turn. It is not hard to see the roots of his discouragement with the human species. For example, as Bishop of Hippo he had to contend first with the Donatist schism, which split the North African church for over a century. Finally, forces of imperial coercion were called in to support the Catholic side in the dispute. Augustine's attempts to deal with this ecclesiastical conflict were long, tiring, and somewhat futile. In the end, he reluctantly agreed to support the imperial policy of coercion, as long as it was limited to the use of pressure and "rebuke," rather than crude physical force. However, no sooner was the Donatist situation under control than Augustine faced another mounting heresy, the Pelagian heresy, which denied the need for inner regeneration of the soul by God's invisible, divine grace. This controversy would involve St. Augustine in theological labors that would last most of the rest of his life.

Barbarian invasions
In addition to these ecclesiastical and theological trials and tribulations, Augustine had to contend with the horrors of the barbarian invasions. The whole of western Roman civilization was rapidly crumbling around him. In 407 barbarian tribes overran Roman Gaul, then crossed into Spain in 409, bringing pillage, rape, and murder wherever they went. In 410 the city of Rome itself was sacked by Alaric and the Goths. Refugees poured into North Africa and the safer Christian East. To gain an appreciation of what Augustine and his fellow bishops had to face in those dark times, here is a passage from the historian Henry Chadwick's book The Early Church (Pelican edition, 1967, p. 224) that vividly describes the scene:

Augustine's last letters dealt with the problem of conscience whether clergy might join with the refugees and flee [the oncoming barbarian armies]. In Gaul and Spain the bishops of many cities, such as Toulouse, had been the principal organizers of resistance to the invaders; but some bishops had gone with those who fled before the murdering, plundering hordes. What were the African clergy to do? Augustine did not want all the best priests to be lost in the oncoming massacre. Yet there was a clear duty to be there to minister to those who would be clamoring for baptism or for the last rites before the cruel invaders cut their throats. Augustine recommended that some should go and some should stay, and that to avoid invidious decisions the clergy should cast lots. He himself stayed in Hippo for the Vandal siege, but died on August 28, 430, before the barbarians broke through the defenses.

It was in the midst of this dreadful situation that St. Augustine finished writing his most famous work, The City of God, in which he tried to show that although human history is a record of war and strife, still, the city of God (the Kingdom of Heaven) endures, and it is built up through the means of grace that God gives to us in the Church, which will abide forever, and whose duty it is now to convert the barbarian invaders to the Christian faith.

This was also the time in Augustine's life when he put the final form on his doctrine of salvation, as a manifestation of the Mercy of God. Whether or not Augustine's doctrine in this regard truly manifests God's merciful love in the way that he intended, however, remains a contentious theological point in the Christian world to this very day.

This series continues next week on the theme, "Saint Augustine and Divine Mercy." 

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of The John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.

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