Of Vandals and Coadjutors

St. Augustine

Several times already in the life if this still young blog I have used the Roman saying “Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro…A pope dies, ya’ make another”.  I have done this very deliberately. 

Lately, I have been musing about the concept of coadjutors.   Here is a Patristic riff on the topic.

St. Augustine of Hippo came into his role as priest and then bishop by being a coadjutor, to the “old man” Valerius (senex used as a term of endearment), who had spotted in Augustine a good thing when he saw it.  Even though a coadjutor was an oddity in N. Africa in the 4th century and perhaps even against the Church’s law, Valerius made Augustine his successor.  In his turn, when Augustine came into his twilight years he provided for a successor by finding a coadjutor, a fellow well-known in Hippo named Heraclius. 

When in 426 a clerical property scandal was rocking the Church at Hippo (cf. s. 355 & s. 356 for a fascinating look into the life of the ancient Church), Augustine was able to present Heraclius, then a deacon, as a model.  Augustine explained how Heraclius, a monk, had under Augustine’s direction retained ownership of property so that by administering it he could construct the important pilgrimage chapel in honor of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, decorated with mosaics showing the saints death with verses written by Augustine.  He gave income to the Church which Augustine says was constantly living on the thread barest of shoestrings. 

Heraclius had the distinction, and the pressure, of following Augustine.  He seemed to know what he was up against.  Two of Heraclius’ sermons survive, one of which he preached in old man’s presence on the very day he was made Augustine’s successor (PL 39 :1717-19 or Rev. bénédictine 71 (1961) 3-21 and P. Verbraken’s critical text).  On 26 September 426 at Hippo, in the Basilica of Peace, with the clergy gathered, Augustine announced that upon his death Heraclius would succeed him. 

It is really quite moving.  Augustine makes the announcement and goes to sit down.  Heraclius goes to the center and begins to speak.  

First, he invokes an image Augustine had used many times to describe the burden carried by a bishop, the sarcina, the Roman solider’s backpack, and begs the help of the people.  He uses Augustine’s codeword for love, pondus, or literally “weight”.  He plays with the word of Eccl 32, 5: Loquere, senior: decet enim te … Speak, older man, for it is fitting that you do so” saying istead “Loquere, iunior: delectat enim me….Speak, younger man, for it pleases that you do.” 

Heraclius says: “Hoc ergo tacente, nos loquimur.  Hoc, inquam, tacente nos loquimur.  Ciclada clamat, et Cygnus tacet: sed non tacet loquentibus nobis, quia ipse loquitur et in nobis.  …  Therefore, while this man is keeping silent, we are speaking.  While this man, I say, is silent, I am speaking.  The cricket chirps and the swan is silent.  But he is not silent for me as I am talking, for he himself is also speaking in us.”

In a way I am reminded of the many tributes given by Pope Benedict to his great predecessor during the first year of his pontificate.

Sometime in 427/428 Heraclius took the reins of the diocesan administration. 

Augustine lived just long enough to see North Africa destroyed.  His life’s work in the diocese was laid waste.  Cities were sacked.  People were tortured and killed, put to flight as refugees before the Vandals, enslaved.  Churches were burnt.  The sacraments were abandoned.  Bishops deserted their flocks and fled.  In one of his last letters, which was sent out just before the Vandal siege descended on Hippo and the gates were barred, Augustine, who remained with Heraclius, exhorted fellow bishops not to abandon their people: “Let no one dream of holding our ship so cheaply, that the sailors, let alone the captain should desert her in time of peril! (ep. 228.11).  He laid down the conditions under which they could flee, as for example when they went together with their people.  Some bishops, in fact, made it into the fortified Hippo with their people.  Among them was one of Augustine’s old students and colleagues, Possidius, a bishop in his own right. 

The old bishop Augustine died on 28 August 430, gazing at the words of the psalms written out and pinned up beside his bed. 

Possidius got Augustine’s library  – with all of Augustine’s manuscripts and works and this first sermon of his coadjutor Heraclius – out of the wreckage of Hippo.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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