St. Augustine was born in 354 to a pagan father, Patricius, and a Christian mother, Monica, whose feast the Church celebrates a day before that of her son. He was born in the Roman African city of Tagaste, which is known today as Souk Ahras in Algeria. At sixteen, he left for Carthage (in modern Tunisia), where he studied law, rhetoric, and philosophy.
St. Augustine’s journey of conversion according to Pope Benedict XVI
Although his mother provided him with a Christian education, he was affiliated for ten years with Manicheanism, a religion that was founded in Persia in the 3rd century and was divided into two principles: good and evil. His real Christian conversion, however, did not begin until his late twenties and early thirties, when he went to Milan and met its bishop. Pope Benedict XVI, on whom St. Augustine exercised a significant influence, said that the journey of conversion of the African saint did not end with his baptism but “continued to the very end of his life.”
In one of the five general audiences that the Pope dedicated to the saint, he described three steps on his journey to conversion. The first was his “progressive nearing to Christianity” and his desire to know Christ. That came about when he described, in his book The Confessions, a voice that told him to “pick up and read” (tolle, lege) leading him to read a passage of Paul’s letter to the Romans (Rom 13: 13- 14), in which the Apostle urged him to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”
The second step took place when he went back to Hippo and founded his community. He understood once he became a bishop that to live for Christ and with Christ, Who is the truth, he must live for other people and make his knowledge and faith available for them.
Recognizing his humility was the third step on his conversion journey. It is the daily realization that humans are sinners and need always to be washed by Christ.
At the Easter Vigil in 387, Augustine, aged 33, received the Sacrament of Baptism from St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and a Father of the Church. Later on, the Catholic Church designated the saint as a Father and Doctor of the Church alongside St. Ambrose, St. Jerome and St. Gregory the Great.
St. Augustine: A Father and Doctor of the Church
A distinction exists between a Father and a Doctor of the Church, though there is an overlap.
Four characteristics are required to be considered a Father of the Church: antiquity, doctrinal orthodoxy, personal sanctity, and approval by the Church. A Father of a Church is someone who lived in the early Church, not after the 8th century, because of his leadership in the Church, especially in defending, expounding, and developing Catholic doctrines and teachings.
“Doctor of the Church,” from Latin docere “to teach,” is a title bestowed on a saint who advances, contributes, and defends the Church’s knowledge of God and faith. His or her writings are deemed to be of universal importance to the Church. He or she needs to have eminent learning, a high degree of sanctity, declared so by the Pope. However, these saints are not limited to a specific time and continue to be proclaimed today by the Church.
St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome and St. Gregory the Great were named the original Doctors of the Church in 1298.
St. Augustine Basilica in Annaba, Algeria
The construction of the St. Augustine Basilica started in 1881 and was completed in 1900. The Basilica, which stands on a hill, overlooks the Basilica of Peace that St. Augustine built, preached his homilies at, and founded his religious community. In October 2013, the Augustinian Basilica was reconsecrated after three years of restoration and 100 years of its dedication on April 24, 1914. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI made a personal contribution to the restoration work.
The remains of St. Augustine are said to have been removed from Algeria, via Sardinia and Pavia, to the Basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in 720, where his tomb is currently. In 1842, his right forearm was brought to Annaba, Algeria, during a pilgrimage from Pavia. It is displayed at the Basilica.
Pilgrimages in footsteps of St. Augustine in Algeria and Italy
Algeria is home to several Christian pilgrimages in footsteps of saints who had lived there; among them are Charles de Foucault and St. Augustine. Christian Pilgrims visiting the African country can tour the Augustinian landmarks in Souk Ahras (formerly Thagaste), where they can tour his birthplace and the city of M’daourouch (formerly Madaure), where he studied. In Annaba, people can go to see the Basilica of St. Augustine and the ruins of the Church of peace that he built.
In 2010, a pilgrimage was organized by Christians and Muslim converts from Algeria, Morocco, and France to follow in the footsteps of St. Augustine to Milan, where he was baptized, and Pavia, where his relics are conserved. The idea of the pilgrimage was born out of their interest to learn more about the Christian figures of the first centuries, who originated from their homelands in Al-Maghreb like St. Augustine, St. Cyprian and Tertullian.
St. Augustine in the Art
Many Renaissance artists have featured St. Augustine in their artworks, including Raphael, Sandro Botticelli, Filippo Lippi, and others. Depictions of the African saint in the Art include paintings, frescoes, and sculptures. In some images, he is recognized by his episcopal vestments, miter and staff, and carrying a flaming or an arrow-pierced heart. In others, he appears with the Virgin Mary and Child, with the other Fathers of the Church or by himself in his study. The Trinity, which is a subject he wrote about in his work, is also a theme that is featured in several paintings.
Augustinians of the Assumption (the Assumptionists) in Jerusalem
The “Augustinians of the Assumption,” on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1882, established a branch of the Congregation in Jerusalem. Today, the religious institute, which is active in 30 countries, administers the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu with the help of the Oblate Sisters of the Assumption. According to their official website, “they are dedicated to education, social and missionary work, in particular through pilgrimages.”
As for their spiritual life, the Assumptionists live by the Rule of St. Augustine. In addressing the Rule, the superior and treasurer of the community Fr. Cézar Andrei pointed out that the religious men and women of the congregation live first and foremost in community life. Their first work is to make sure that everyone orients towards God. He also believes that the Rule works “to transform the person from the inside.” The introspection that the Assumptionists do, Fr. Cézar adds, not only helps them to understand themselves better but to find the “traces” of God in them.