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St. Augustine's Last Days

1/20/2008 - 08:35 PST

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"Though the World Grows Old, Christ Is Forever Young"

VATICAN CITY, JAN. 20, 2008 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered today at the general audience in Paul VI Hall. The reflection is the second in a series on St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

Today, as I did last Wednesday, I would like to discuss the great bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine. Four years before he died, he wanted to nominate his successor. To this end, on Sept. 26, 426, he gathered the people in the Basilica of Peace in Hippo so he could present them with his choice for this task.

He said: "We are all mortal, but no individual can be sure of his last day in this life. In any case, in childhood we hope to reach adolescence, in adolescence we aspire toward adulthood, in adulthood toward middle age and in middle age we look to reaching old age. We are never sure we will get there, but that is our hope.

"Old age, however, is not followed by another stage of life toward which we can aspire; its duration is unknown. I arrived in this city in the vigor of my life, but now my youth has gone and I am an old man" (Ep. 213,1).

At this point Augustine told them the name of his chosen successor, the priest Heracles. The people burst into applause of approval and repeated 23 times: "Thanks be to God! Praise be to Christ!" They continued to exclaim approval when Augustine told them of his plans for the future. He wanted to dedicate his remaining years to a deeper study of holy Scripture (Ep. 213,6).

The following four years were indeed of an extraordinary intellectual activity: Augustine carried out important works, he undertook new ones that were no less demanding, he held discussions with the heretics -- he always sought dialogue -- and he intervened to promote peace in the African provinces that were harassed by the southern barbarian tribes.

For this reason he wrote to Count Darius, who had come to Africa to put an end to the disagreement between Count Boniface and the Imperial Court, which the Mauri tribes were taking advantage of for their raids. "A greater title for glory," he affirmed in his letter, "is to kill war with words, rather than to kill men with the sword, and to get or maintain peace through peace and not through war. Certainly the fighters, if they are good, are also seeking peace, but at the cost of shedding blood. You, on the contrary, have been sent to prevent blood being spilt on any side" (Ep. 229, 2).

Unfortunately, the hope for peace in the African territories was not fulfilled: In May 429, the Vandals, invited to Africa out of spite by Boniface himself, crossed the Gibraltar strait and entered Mauritania. The invasion rapidly spread to other rich African provinces. In May or June 430, "the destroyers of the Roman Empire," as Possidius called these barbarians ("Vita," 30,1), laid siege to Hippo.

Boniface also sought shelter in town; he had reconciled too late with the Court and was now trying to stop the invaders, but to no avail. The biographer Possidius describes Augustine's pain: "More than usual, his tears became his bread day and night, and arriving almost to the end of his life, he was, more than others, dragging his old age into bitterness and mourning" ("Vita," 28,6). He explains: "That man of God was in fact witnessing the massacre and destruction of the cities; homes in the countryside destroyed and residents killed by the enemy, or forced to flee; churches deprived of their priests and ministers; sacred virgins and monks displaced; among them, some were tortured and killed, others murdered by the sword, others taken prisoners; they lost faith and the integrity of their soul and body, reduced to a grievous and long slavery by their enemies" (ibid., 28,8).

Despite being old and tired, Augustine remained strong, providing comfort for himself and others through prayer and meditation on the mysteries of God's will. He spoke of "the world's old age" -- and this Roman world really was old. He spoke of this old age as he had done years earlier to console the Italian refugees when the Goths from Alaric invaded the city of Rome. In old age sickness abounds: coughs, catarrh, anxiety, exhaustion. Though the world grows old, Christ is forever young.

So he invited them: "Don't refuse to be young again united with Christ, even in an old world. He tells you: Do not fear, your youth will be renewed like the eagle's youth" (cf. Serm. 81,8). Therefore, the Christian should not be let down even in difficult situations, but he must help those in need. This is what the great doctor advised, answering Honoratus, bishop of Tiabe, who had asked him whether a bishop, a priest or any man of Church could flee to save his life when under barbarian invasions: "When the danger is shared by all -- bishops, clergymen and laymen -- those in need should not be ...

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