What had happened? After his baptism, Augustine had decided to return to Africa and with some of his friends had founded a small monastery there. His life was then to be totally dedicated to conversation with God and reflection on and contemplation of the beauty and truth of his Word.
In 391, four years after his baptism, he went to the port town of Hippo to meet a friend whom he desired to win over for his monastery. But he was recognized at the Sunday liturgy in the cathedral in which he took part.
It was not by chance that the Bishop of the city, a man of Greek origin who was not fluent in Latin and found preaching rather a struggle, said in his homily that he was hoping to find a priest to whom he could entrust the task of preaching.
People instantly grabbed hold of Augustine and forced him forward to be ordained a priest to serve the city.
Immediately after his forced ordination, Augustine wrote to Bishop Valerius: "I was constrained... to accept second place at the helm, when as yet I knew not how to handle an oar.... And from this derived the tears which some of my brethren perceived me shedding in the city at the time of my ordination" (cf. Letter 21, 1ff.).
Augustine's beautiful dream of a contemplative life had vanished. As a result, his life had fundamentally changed. He could now no longer dedicate himself solely to meditation in solitude. He had to live with Christ for everyone. He had to express his sublime knowledge and thoughts in the thoughts and language of the simple people in his city. The great philosophical work of an entire lifetime, of which he had dreamed, was to remain unwritten.
Instead, however, we have been given something far more precious: the Gospel translated into the language of everyday life and of his sufferings.
These were now part of his daily life, which he described as the following: "reprimanding the undisciplined, comforting the faint-hearted, supporting the weak, refuting opponents... encouraging the negligent, soothing the quarrelsome, helping the needy, liberating the oppressed, expressing approval to the good, tolerating the wicked and loving all" (Sermon 340, 3).
"Continuously preaching, arguing, rebuking, building God's house, having to manage for everyone - who would not shrink from such a heavy burden?" (Sermon 339, 4).
This was the second conversion which this man, struggling and suffering, was constantly obliged to make: to be available to everyone, time and again, and not for his own perfection; time and again, to lay down his life with Christ so that others might find him, true Life.
Further, there was a third, decisive phase in the journey of conversion of St Augustine. After his Ordination to the priesthood he had requested a vacation period to study the Sacred Scriptures in greater detail.
His first series of homilies, after this pause for reflection, were on the Sermon on the Mount; he explained the way to an upright life, "the perfect life", pointed out by Christ in a new way. He presented it as a pilgrimage to the holy mountain of the Word of God. In these homilies it is possible to further perceive all the enthusiasm of faith newly discovered and lived; his firm conviction that the baptized, in living totally in accordance with Christ's message, can precisely be "perfect" in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount.
Approximately 20 years later, Augustine wrote a book called the Retractations, in which he critically reviewed all the works he had thus far written, adding corrections wherever he had in the meantime learned something new.
With regard to the ideal of perfection in his homilies on the Sermon on the Mount, he noted: "In the meantime, I have understood that one alone is truly perfect and that the words of the Sermon on the Mount are totally fulfilled in one alone: Jesus Christ himself.
"The whole Church, on the other hand - all of us, including the Apostles - must pray every day: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" (cf. Retractations I 19, 1-3).
And we, he added, liken ourselves to Christ, the only Perfect One, to the greatest possible extent when we become, like him, people of mercy.
Let us now thank God for the great light that shines out from St Augustine's wisdom and humility and pray the Lord to give to us all, day after day, the conversion we need, and thus lead us toward true life. Amen.
Acknowledgment: We thank the Vatican Publisher for allowing us to publish the Homily of Pope Benedict XVI, so that it could be accessed by more people all over the world; as a source of God’s encouragements to all of us.
HOMILY OF POPE FRANCIS
Basilica of Saint Paul Outside-the-Walls
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
It is a joy for me to celebrate Mass with you in this Basilica. I greet the Archpriest, Cardinal James Harvey, and I thank him for the words that he has addressed to me. Along with him, I greet and thank the various institutions that form part of this Basilica, and all of you. We are at the tomb of Saint Paul, a great yet humble Apostle of the Lord, who proclaimed him by word, bore witness to him by martyrdom and worshipped him with all his heart. These are the three key ideas on which I would like to reflect in the light of the word of God that we have heard: proclamation, witness, worship.
1. In the First Reading, what strikes us is the strength of Peter and the other Apostles. In response to the order to be silent, no longer to teach in the name of Jesus, no longer to proclaim his message, they respond clearly: “We must obey God, rather than men”. And they remain undeterred even when flogged, ill-treated and imprisoned. Peter and the Apostles proclaim courageously, fearlessly, what they have received: the Gospel of Jesus. And we? Are we capable of bringing the word of God into the environment in which we live? Do we know how to speak of Christ, of what he represents for us, in our families, among the people who form part of our daily lives? Faith is born from listening, and is strengthened by proclamation.
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