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Wednesday's Audience - On the Writings of St. Augustine

"He Truly Lives in His Works, He Is Present With Us"

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 21, 2008 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the greetings Benedict XVI gave Wednesday at St. Peter's Basilica to those who could not be accommodated in Paul VI Hall for the general audience, and a translation of the catechesis he delivered in the Vatican auditorium. This is the fourth address the Pope has dedicated to the figure of St. Augustine.

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[Greetings at St. Peter's Basilica in English]

I am pleased to greet all the English-speaking pilgrims gathered here in the Basilica of St. Peter. Lent is a privileged time for all Christians to recommit themselves to conversion and spiritual renewal. In this way, we rekindle a genuine faith in Christ, a life-giving relationship with God and a more fervent dedication to the Gospel. Strengthened by the conviction that love is the distinguishing mark of Christian believers, I encourage you to persevere in bearing witness to charity in your daily lives.

[Catechesis in Paul VI Hall]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

After last week's break for spiritual exercises we return today to the great figure of St. Augustine, about whom I have repeatedly spoken during the Wednesday catecheses. He is the Father of the Church who has left the most works and I intend to discuss these briefly today.

Some of the Augustinian writings are of major importance not only for the history of Christianity but also in terms of the development of Western culture as a whole: The clearest example of this is his "Confessions," without doubt one of the most frequently read books of ancient Christianity -- even today. As other Fathers of the Church in the early centuries, but vastly more influential, the Bishop of Hippo has in fact exercised an extensive and persistent influence as demonstrated by the abundance of manuscripts of his works, which are truly numerous.

He personally reviewed these in the "Retractationes" a few years before his death, and shortly after his death they were carefully recorded in the "Indiculus" (list) attached to the biography of St. Augustine, "Vita Augustini," by his faithful friend Possidius. The list of works by Augustine was created with the express purpose of safeguarding them as the destructive Roman invasion rampaged across Africa, and is made up of more than 1,030 writings numbered by their author, plus others that "cannot be numbered because he did not give them a number." Possidius, bishop of a nearby town, dictated these words in Hippo --where he had taken refuge and had witnessed the death of his friend -- and almost definitely based these comments on Augustine's personal library.

Today more than 300 letters and 600 sermons from the bishop of Hippo have survived. Originally there would have been many more, perhaps even 3,000 or 4,000, fruit of 40 years of preaching by the ex-rhetorician who decided to follow Christ and not to speak just to important individuals in the imperial court, but to the ordinary population of Hippo.

In recent years the discovery of a group of letters and sermons have enriched our knowledge of this great Father of the Church. His friend, the Bishop Possidius wrote: "Many books were written and published by him, many homilies were given in Church and then transcribed and edited, both to refute various heresies as well as to interpret Sacred Scriptures for the edification of the children of the Church. These works are so numerous that a scholar could hardly find it possible to read all of them and learn them" ("Vita Augustini," 18, 9).

Within Augustine's literary production -- more than 1,000 publications subdivided into philosophical, apologetic, doctrinal, moral, monastic, exegetic, and anti-heretical writings, as well as the letters and sermons -- are some exceptional works of great theological and philosophical intensity.

Above all it is necessary to remember the already mentioned "Confessions," written in 13 books in praise of God between 397 and 400. It is a sort of autobiography in the form of a dialog with God. This literary genre reflects St. Augustine's life, which was not a reclusive life, not dispersed in many things, but was a life mainly lived like a conversation with God, a life shared with others. Already the title "Confessions" shows the specificity of his autobiography.

In the Christian Latin developed in the tradition of the Psalms, the word "confessiones" has two meanings that are interlinked. In the first place "confessiones" is the confession of one's own weaknesses, and of the misery of sins; at the same time "confessiones" means praise of God, gratitude to God.

Seeing one's misery in the light of God becomes praise for God and gratitude because God loves us and accepts us, he transforms us and raises us toward him. In the "Confessions" -- which were already largely successful during St. Augustine's life -- he wrote: "They exercised such action on me while I was writing them and do so even now when I reread them. There are many brothers who like these writings" ("Retractationes," II, 6). I should also mention that I am one of these "brothers."

Thanks to the "Confessions" we can follow step by step the inner journey of this extraordinary man who was fascinated by God.

Less well-known but equally important are the "Retractationes," composed in two books around 427, in which St. Augustine, now an old man, puts together a "revision" (retractatio) of all his writings, thus leaving us a particular and precious literary document, but also a teaching of sincerity and intellectual humility.

"De Civitate Dei" (The City of God) -- a decisive and imposing work in the development of modern political thought in the West and in Christian historical theology -- was written between 413 and 426 and was made up of 22 books. It was prompted by the sacking of Rome by the Goths in 410.

Many pagans who had survived, and also many Christians, had said: "Rome has fallen; the Christian God and the Apostles cannot protect the city. During the presence of the pagan gods, Rome was the 'caput mundi,' the capital of the world, and no one thought it could fall into the hands of its enemies. Now, with a Christian God, this great city no longer seems safe. The Christian God therefore did not protect and could not be a God in which one could trust."

It is this charge that was deeply felt by the Christians that St. Augustine answered with this magnificent work, "De civitate Dei." He clarified what we should and should not expect from God. Even today, this book is the source used to clearly define secular and clerical responsibilities, as well as the competences of the Church, the true and great hope that gives us faith.

This great book is a presentation of the history of humanity as governed by divine Providence, but actually divided by two loves. This is the fundamental design, his interpretation of history, which is the struggle between two loves: love of oneself, "even to the point of showing indifference toward God," and love of God, "even to the point of being indifferent toward oneself" ("De Civitate Dei," XIV, 28 ), which leads to full freedom to be for others in the light of God. This, therefore, is perhaps St. Augustine's greatest book, of enduring importance.

Equally important is "De Trinitate," a work comprising 15 books on the main linchpin of Christian faith, God as part of the holy Trinity. It was written between 399 and 412. The first 12 books were published without Augustine's knowledge, who completed and revised the work around the year 420. He reflects on the face of God and tries to understand this mystery of a God which is unique: creator of the world, of all of us, and yet part of a trinity -- a circle of love. He seeks to understand the unfathomable mystery: the Trinitarian being, in three persons, as precisely the most real and most profound expression of teh unity of the one God.

"De Doctrina Christiana" however is a true cultural introduction of the interpretation of the Bible and on Christianity, which had a decisive influence on the formation of Western culture.

Even if modest, Augustine was certainly aware of his intellectual magnitude. Nevertheless, he considered it more important to carry the Christian message to the ordinary people than to realize major works of high theological relevance. His deeper intention, that drove him all his life, is revealed in a letter written to his colleague Evodio, where he announces his decision to temporarily suspend the dictation of "De Trinitate," "because they are too laborious and I think they may be understood only by a few; more urgent are texts which I hope will be useful to many" ("Epistulae," 169, 1, 1).

Therefore he found it more useful to communicate the faith in a comprehensible manner to all, than to write large theological works. The responsibility he felt toward the popularization of the Christian message is the reason for writings such as "De Catechizandis Rudibus," a theory as well as a practice of the catechesis, or the "Psalmus Contra Partem Donati."

The Donatists were the big problem in St. Augustine's Africa, a definitively African faction. They affirmed that true Christianity was African and opposed the unity of the Church. The great bishop fought all his life against this split, trying to convince Donatists that only in unity could the African way be true.

In order to be understood by ordinary men, who could not understand the great rhetorician's Latin, he said: I should write with grammatical mistakes, in a very simplified Latin. He did this above all in his "Psalmus," a simple poem against Donatists, to help everybody understand that only through the unity of the Church can we truly realize our connection with God and can encourage peace in the world.

In this production destined to a wider public, the numerous sermons play an important role. Often given extemporaneously, they were transcribed by the stenographers during the preaching and immediately distributed. Among them stand out the attractive "Enarrationes in Psalmos," which were widely read during the Medieval age.

It is the actual routine of publication of the thousands of sermons by Augustine -- often without the control of the author -- that explains their spread and successive dispersal, but also their vitality. Because of the author's reputation, immediately his lectures became very sought after and were used as models by other bishops and priests, and adapted to ever-new contexts.

The iconographic tradition, which we can see in a Lateran fresco dating from the 6th century, represents St. Augustine with a book in his hand to express his literary production that highly influenced Christian mentality and thinking, but also to express his love for books, for reading and knowledge of the great cultures.

Possidius tells us that at his death he did not leave anything, but "he urged to always conserve diligently for posterity the library of the Church with all its codices," as well as his own writings. Possidius underlines that Augustine is "always alive" in his works and helps those who read them, even if, he concludes, "I believe that those who saw and heard him when he preached in Church had profited more from that contact, but most of all, those who had experience of his daily life among the people" (Vita Augustini, 31).

Indeed, it would have been wonderful to listen to him when he was alive. But he truly lives in his works, he is present with us, and this is how we see the permanent vitality of his faith to which he had dedicated all his life.

[Translation by Laura Leoncini]

[After his address, the Holy Father greeted the pilgrims in various languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In today's catechesis, we continue to focus on Saint Augustine, a prolific and widely influential author. Perhaps Augustine's best-known work is the "Confessions," a prayerful reflection on his life, in which he perceives his own sinfulness and extols the Lord's grace and mercy. In "De civitate Dei," Augustine describes the tension between two cities: the earthly city that springs from love of self and indifference to God, and the heavenly city born from love of God and "indifference to self". In "De Trinitate," Augustine expounds the core belief of the Christian faith: one God in three persons -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Although Augustine is renowned for his towering intellect and vast body of writings, his primary concern was always to spread the Christian message. He continually strove to express the Gospel in a way accessible to every man, woman and child, so that all might come to know its saving truth: Jesus Christ. May we follow his example in sharing the Good News with others.

I cordially greet all the English-speaking pilgrims present at today's audience. I extend a particular welcome to parishioners from the Church of Our Lady of Loretto in New York, as well as Benedictines participating in an intensive course on the rule of their order. A blessed Lent to you all!

(c) Copyright 2008 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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