Wednesday, February 27, 2008

General Audience: Augustine's Conversion

~translation via Papa Ratzinger Forum

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I would like to conclude my presentation of St. Augustine. After having dwelt on his life, his works, and some aspects of his thought, I wish to go back today to his interior life which made him one of the greatest converts in Christian history.

To this interior experience, I particularly devoted my reflections during the pilgrimage I made to Pavia last year to venerate the mortal remains of this Father of the Church. I wanted to express the homage of the entire Catholic Church but also to show my personal devotion and acknowledgment of a figure to whom I feel very much connected for the part that he has played in my life as a theologian, priest and pastor.

Even today we can retrace the experiences of St. Augustine, thanks above all to his Confessions, written in praise of God and which originated one of the most specific literary forms of the West, the autobiography, that is, a personal expression of one's consciousness about oneself.

Whoever reads this extraordinary and fascinating book, which is still widely read today, will easily realize that Augustine's conversion was neither sudden nor fully realized immediately, but that it could be better defined as a true and proper journey, which remains a model for each of us.

This itinerary certainly culminated in his conversion and baptism, but it did not end on that Easter Vigil of 387 when the African rhetorician was baptized by Bishop Ambrose in Milan.

Augustine's journey of conversion, in fact, continued humbly until the end of his life, so that one can say that its various stages - one can easily distinguish three - made up a unique act of conversion.

St. Augustine was a passionate searcher for the truth - he was from the very beginning and all his life. The first stage of his journey of conversion was his progressively coming close to Christianity. Actually, he received a Christian education from his mother Monica, to whom he was always closely linked, and although he led an undisciplined life in his youth, he always felt a profound attraction to Christ, having drunk love for the name of the Lord with his mother's milk, as he himself underscored (cfr Confessiones, III, 4, 8).

But philosophy, too, especially Platonic, contributed to bring him closer to Christ by showing him the existence of the Logos, creative reason. The philosophers' books showed him that there was Reason, from which the whole world sprung, but they did not tell him how to reach this Logos which seemed so remote.

Only reading about the faith of the Catholic Church in St. Paul's letters revealed the truth fully to him. This experience was synthesized by Augustine in one of the most famous pages of the Confessions: He recounts that, in the torment of his reflections, he retired to a garden, where suddenly he heard a child's voice which repeated to him a lullaby he had never heard before, "Tolle, legge, tolle, legge..." (Take and read, take and read) (VIII, 20,29).

He then remembered the conversion of St. Anthony Abbot, the father of monasticism, and with great urgency, he turned to the Pauline epistolary which he had in his hands earlier, opened it, and his glance fell on the passage from the Letter to the Romans where the Apostle exhorts the Romans to abandon the ways of the flesh and 'put on the Lord Jesus Christ' (13, 13-14).

He understood that at that moment, those words were addressed to him, that it came from God through the Apostle, and showed him what to do right then. Thus, he felt the shadows of doubt dissolve and he found himself finally free to give himself completely to Christ: "You converted my being to you", he commented (Confessiones, VIII, 12,30). This was his first and decisive conversion.

The African rhetorician reached this fundamental stage of his long journey, thanks to his passion for man and for the truth, a passion which brought him to look for God, great and seemingly inaccessible. Faith in Christ made him understand that God, apparently so remote, was really not. In fact, that he had made himself close to us by becoming one of us.

In this sense, faith in Christ fulfilled Augustine's long search along the path of truth. Only a God who made himself 'tangible', one of us, was a God to whom one could pray, for whom and with whom one could live. But it is a way to follow with courage as well as humility, opening us to a permanent purification of which each of us is always in need.

With that Easter Vigil Baptism of 387, as we said earlier, Augustine's journey was not done. He returned to Africa where he retired with a few friends to dedicate themselves to a life of contemplation and study. This was the dream of his life. He was called to live totally for the truth, with the truth, in friendship with Christ who is the Truth.

It was a beautiful dream that lasted three years, until when, against his wishes, he was consecrated a priest in Hippo, destined to serve the faithful, continuing to live with Christ and for Christ, but in the service of all.

This was very difficult for him, but he understood from the beginning that only by living for others, and not only for his private gratification, could he really live with Christ and for Christ. Thus, renouncing a life of pure meditation, Augustine learned, often with difficulty, to offer the fruit of his intelligence for the benefit of others.

He learned to communicate his faith to simple people, and living that way in what became his city, he carried out tirelessly a generous and onerous service that he described in these words in one of his beautiful sermons: "To preach continuously, discuss, reiterate, edify, be at the disposal of everyone - it is an enormous responsibility, a great weight, an immense effort" (Serm. 339,4).

But he took this weight on himself, understanding that this way, he was closest to Christ. To understand that one reaches others with simplicity and humility was his true and second conversion.

But there is a third stage in the Augustinian journey, a third conversion: that which brought him every day of his life to ask God's forgiveness. Initially, he had thought that once he was baptized - in a life of communion with Christ, in the Sacraments, in the celebration of the Eucharist - he would attain the life proposed in the Sermon on the Mount: the perfection given in Baptism and reconfirmed in the Eucharist.

In the latter part of his life, he understood that what he had said in his first preachings about the Sermon on the Mount - that is, that we Christians would thereafter live that ideal permanently - was wrong. That only Christ himself was the true and complete realization of the Sermon on the Mount.

We are all always in need of being 'washed' by Christ, who washes our feet, and to be renewed by him. We need permanent continuing conversion. Up to the end we need the humility to recognize that we are sinners on a journey, until the Lord gives us his hand conclusively and introduces us to eternal life. In such an attitude of humility, lived day after day, Augustine died.

This attitude of profound humility before the one Lord Jesus introduced him also to the experience of intellectual humility. Augustine, in fact, who is one of the greatest figures in the history of ideas, wished during his final years to place all his numerous works under lucid critical examination.

That was the origin of Retractiones(Revisions) which, in this way, placed his theological thinking, which was truly great, within the humble and holy faith of what he called simply with the name Catholic, that is, the Church.

"I understood," he wrote in this very original book (I, 19,1-3), "that only one is truly perfect, and that the words of the Sermon on the Mount are completely realized only in one - in Jesus Christ himself. The whole Church, instead - all of us, including the Apostles - must pray every day: forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."

Converted to Christ, who is truth and love, Augustine followed him the rest of his life and has become a model for every human being, for all of us in search of God.

That is why I wished to conclude my pilgrimage to Pavia by symbolically offering to the Church and to the world, at the tomb of this great lover of God, my first encyclical, Deus caritas est.

In fact, the encyclical owes a great deal, especially in the first part, to the thought of St. Augustine. Even today, as in his time, mankind needs to recognize, and above all, to live, this fundamental reality: God is love, and the encounter with him is the only response to the anxieties of the human heart. A heart that is inhabited by hope, perhaps still obscure and even unconscious in many of our contemporaries, but which for us Christians, already opens the future, such that St. Paul wrote, "in hope we are saved" (Rom 8,24).

I dedicated my second encyclical, Spe salvi, to hope, and even that owes a great deal to Augustine's thoughts and his encounter with God.

In a very beautiful text, Augustine defined prayer as the expression of desire, and stated that God responds by opening up our hearts to him. On our part, we should purify our desires and our hopes in order to receive the kindness of God (cfr In I Ioannis, 4, 6). Only this, in fact, opening us up to others, saves us.

Let us pray therefore that in our life we may be granted to follow everyday the example of this great convert, encountering like him, in every moment of our life, the Lord Jesus, the only one who saves us, purifies us, and gives us true joy and true life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bravo,Dear Papa!