Paying homage to Saint Augustine


In Pavia, one great theologian-bishop is visiting another.

St. Augustine of Hippo

This past week, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated both his 80th birthday and, today, his second anniversary as pope. A special Mass at St. Peter’s last Sunday marked the two occasions, and the gifted pianist attended a classical musical concert in his honour at the Vatican on Monday night. I suspect, though, that Benedict will consider his visit this weekend to the Italian town of Pavia a more special gift still, for that is where Saint Augustine — the fifth-century North African convert, bishop and doctor of the Church — is buried. Across the centuries, one great theologian-bishop is going to visit another.

St. Augustine is more than the principal intellectual influence on Benedict; the greatest of the first millennium’s Christian scholars is the Pope’s constant intellectual companion. His preaching and teaching are unfailingly leavened with Augustinian quotations. If John Paul II was a great philosopher pope, teaching the wisdom of Saint Thomas Aquinas to the late 20th century, Benedict is doing the same for Augustine in the 21st.

“Augustine defines the essence of the Christian religion,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger once said. “He saw Christian faith, not in continuity with earlier religions, but rather in continuity with philosophy as a victory of reason over superstition.”

It is a favourite theme of Pope Benedict, one that provided the high point of his papacy thus far, the world-shaking address at Regensburg last year, when he argued that to act contrary to right reason was to act contrary to God — a critical message in an age of religously motivated violence.

Benedict argues that God’s revelation of Himself to Abraham began a definitive break with the world of pagan superstition and the fearful gods of the ancient world. That revelation, first to the children of Israel, finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ, who shows forth the Father’s mercy in offering Himself to atone for our sins. The contrast with gods of the ancient world could not be more complete. Whether the pagan gods of the Roman Empire, the gods of Greek mythology, the Egyptian gods of the river or the harvest, or, in this part of the world, the gods of the Aztecs or Mayas, the ancient world was dominated by gods who were feared and needed to be appeased, and whose arbitrary power could be exercised to subordinate man, or destroy him altogether.

Benedict follows St. Augustine in seeing the Christian logos, the divine Word that rationally orders all things, an entirely different conception of God. Here is a God who is rational, whose creation reflects the order and goodness of right reason, and who can be known by human beings, made in His image and able to reason themselves. And even more extraordinary than that, this God revealed Himself as one who was love — a love that creates, redeems and calls His creation to Himself. The logos of philosophy becomes the God who is love, as Benedict put it in his first encyclical.

“Augustine defines the essence of the Christian religion,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger once said. “He saw Christian faith, not in continuity with earlier religions, but rather in continuity with philosophy as a victory of reason over superstition.”

The God of Judeo-Christian revelation is not merely the god of the philosophers, acting as a remote first cause or principle of motion. Rather this God is a rational person, the principle of rationality and truth. This God can be approached by human creatures in truth — both the natural truths of science, and the revealed truths of faith. The ancient gods of the Nile or Mount Olympus, with their need for power and domination, had no standing in the world of philosophy. They belonged to a world of superstition. St. Augustine demonstrated how the God of Abraham belonged the world of philosophy, but pointed beyond it to the world of salvific love.

Benedict argued at Regensburg that the meeting of Biblical faith with Greek philosophy constitutes an essential part of Christian revelation. It was St. Augustine in whom that encounter was lived most deeply in the early Church.

Augustine is also a saint — one who not only knows about the things of God, but loves God and follows Him. This too, Benedict argues, is consistent with reason, for what other reason could there be for an omnipotent and self-sufficient God to create angels and human beings and animals and lakes and mountains except out of love? The ancient philosophers sought after the cause of being. Biblical faith responds that the reason for being is nothing other than divine love. And the reasonable response to love is to love in return.

Observers have wondered why Benedict’s first two years have not been focused on contemporary controversies, but on preaching the love of God, and looking repeatedly to the first centuries of the Church for wisdom and teaching. Perhaps it’s because Benedict knows that the world today lacks confidence in the possibility of reason to know the truth, and in the possibility of true love. The man buried in Pavia is one of the great witnesses that in God this world’s restless heart can indeed find both.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Paying homage to Saint Augustine." National Post, (Canada) April 19, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2007 National Post

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