The Bones of Augustine

It just doesn’t get better than this.

Benedict XVI and Augustine of Hippo

This gives me shivers.

Years ago in the hallway of the Palazzo del Sant’Uffizio where I was working, just after the release of the CDF document on the Vocation of the Theologian, I ran into Cardinal Ratzinger.  I often had the chance to chat with him and ask him questions and he was very kind and helpful.

On this occasion, I said that I had read the document.  He asked what I thought of it. (!)   I said I wasn’t entirely satisfied.  He looked at me with a bit of surprised and asked me why.  I said, "You never really say who the theologican is."  He thought about this for a while and said, "Why don’t you tell us?"  (!!)  "You study at the Augustinianum [the Patristic Institute across the square from the Palazzo].  You are reading the Fathers.  Who would Augustine say the theologian is?" 

Bammo.  I had the topic of my first thesis from Joseph Ratzinger:

A couple years ago, Augustine’s bones were brought to Rome.  Inside the Vatican published my article on the event.

Here is the article with some added emphases:

“So,” [God says] “O man, did I make you for this, before you even existed, so that you would not believe me [about the resurrection of the body]?  That you could not return to be what you were before, who were able to be that which once you were not?” “But look, God”, man says, “at what I see in the tomb.  There’s ash, and dust, and these bones.  And that is going to receive again life, skin, muscles, flesh and rise again?  These ashes and bones I see in the tomb?”  “So you see ashes and bones in a tomb.  In your mother’s womb, there was nothing!  … Before you even were, there weren’t any ashes, there weren’t any bones there at all.  In spite of that, you were in fact made even though you were completely lacking in being before.  And do you now not believe that these bones… will receive the form they had, since you received what you did not have?  O believe!  For if you will have believed this, then your soul will be raised to new life!”  (St. Augustine, Sermon 127, 11, 15 – my trans.)

Rome had a visitor not seen for over 1600 years: St. Augustine of Hippo.  Augustine  (+ AD 430) had first been in Rome from AD 383-4 before going to the imperial court in Milan as the official rhetor, and finally in 387-8 when he was on his way back to North Africa.  The remains of the Bishop of Hippo were brought to Rome for the week of 7-15 November dubbed “Agostino Tra Noi… Augustine In Our Midst”, from the northern Italian city Pavia, just south of Milan.  They rested for a few days near the Pantheon and Piazza Navona in the basilica named for him and wherein is the tomb of his mother, St. Monnica  (+ AD 387 – and yes, that is the more accurate spelling).   This 13 November marked the 1650th birthday of the great Bishop and Doctor of the Church, born to Monnica and her husband Patrick in Thagaste in modern day Algeria.   They gave their son a rare and audacious name, Augustinus – “Little Augustus”, in the 4th century tantamount to “the little emperor”.  Biographer and scholar of Augustine, Serge Lancel, remarks, “Bearing this diminutive, a child would grow whose posthumous glory would one day eclipse that of the masters of the world.”  To mark the 1650th anniversary of Augustine’s birth, son and mother were for a fleeting few days reunited.

Most visitors to the Eternal City find it puzzling and wondrous that Monnica’s remains would be in Rome and even more so that Augustine’s should be in northern Italy, or that we have them at all.  How did this come to pass?  Monnica died at age 56 of a malarial fever at Ostia, Rome’s port city, not far from where modern Rome’s port, DaVinci airport, is situated.  After Augustine’s baptism in 386 by Milan’s bishop St. Ambrose (+ AD 397), Monnica and Augustine together with his brother Navigius, Adeodatus the future bishop’s son by his concubine of many years whom Monnica had forced Augustine to put aside, and friends Nebridius, Alypius and the former Imperial secret service agent (agens in rebus) Evodius were all waiting at Ostia to return home to Africa by ship.  They were stuck there for some time because the port was blockaded during a period of civil strife.  As she lay dying near Rome, Monnica told Augustine (conf. 9): “Lay this body anywhere, let not the care for it trouble you at all. This only I ask, that you will remember me at the Lord’s altar, wherever you be.”  She was buried there in Ostia.  In the 6th century she was moved to a little church named for St. Aurea, an early martyr of the city, and there she remained until 1430 when her remains were translated by Pope Martin V to the Roman Basilica of St. Augustine built in 1420 by the famous Guillaume Card. D’Estouteville of Rouen, then Camerlengo under Pope Sixtus IV.  As fate or God’s directing have would have it, in December 1945, some children were digging a hole in the courtyard of the little church of St. Aurea next to the ruins of ancient Ostia.  They wanted to put up a basketball hoop, probably having been taught the exciting new game – so different from soccer – by American GIs.  While digging they discovered the broken marble epitaph which had marked Monnica’s ancient grave.  Scholars were able to authenticate the inscription, the text of which had been preserved in a medieval manuscript.  The epitaph had been composed during Augustine’s lifetime by no less then a former Consul of AD 408 and resident at Ostia, Anicius Auchenius Bassus, perhaps Augustine’s host during their sojourn.  It is possible that Anicius Bassus placed the epitaph there after 410 which saw the ravages of Alaric the Visigoth and the sacking of Rome and its environs.  One can almost feel behind these traces of ancient evidence Augustine’s plea to his old friend sent by letter from the port of Hippo Regius over the waves to Ostia.  Hearing of the devastation to the area, far more shocking to the ancients than the events of 11 September were for us, did Augustine, now a renowned bishop, ask his old friend to tend the grave of the mother whom he had so loved and who in her time had wept for her son’s sins and rejoiced in his conversion?

Augustine died in 430, an ancient man by ancient standards, attaining the age of 76.   He had poor health and decades of constant crushing labor, both as a spiritual leader and civil authority.  In May 429 the Vandal armies, swollen to 80,000 by the tribes of the Alani and Goths, adherents of the Arian heresy, crossed the Straights of Gibraltar thus sealing North Africa’s fate.   By May of 430 Hippo was under siege by land, the port and escape by sea having been cut off by Vandal ships.   Some bishops of the area had fled, leaving their flocks, but Augustine remained.   In perhaps that last letter the old bishop was able to send before the fortifications of the Hippo were closed against the enemy he wrote (ep. 228, 2):

When the danger is the same for bishops, clerics and congregations, those who have need of others must not be abandoned by those whom they need.  Let everyone withdraw to fortified places, but those who are forced to stay must not be abandoned by those who owe them the aid of the Church.

Several months into the siege, with its attendant horrors, Augustine fell ill with a fever.  He convalesced in his room and requested that a few psalms be copied out in large letters for his elderly eyes and posted where he could see them from his bed.  He died on 28 August 430.  In his years, Augustine defended the Church’s faith and flock from the heresies of Manichaeism, Donatism, Pelagianism, Arianism, Gnosticism and the paganism which was still deeply rooted.  He coped with social ills and economic upheavals, schisms and clerical scandals that could be taken straight from the pages of the Boston Globe today.  Read him in a fresh and accurate translation, and you will find that Augustine’s words are still thrillingly current.  And there are a lot of them.  The proposed but still unofficial patron saint of the internet, St. Isidore of Seville (+ AD 636) quipped that anyone claiming to have read all of Augustine is a liar.  Of his works that have survived the centuries we have only a fraction of his output, but this fraction still amounts to over 5,000,000 words, according to scholar James J. O’ Donnell, now of Georgetown University.   Augustine was so rooted in Sacred Scripture that a great share of the Bible could be reconstructed from his works.  

Augustine’s city Hippo was burned by the Vandals, but his library, with his own manuscripts, survived, probably removed to Carthage ahead of time.  We can hear the very voice, mind and heart of the bishop preaching, for he had rapid writing stenographers present at all public appearances and liturgies.  They even at times recorded the noises of the crowds or the distractions in the street outside together with the bishop’s reactions.   He preached nearly every day for over thirty years, but we have only a few hundred of his sermons.  Nevertheless, the body of his work is still growing!  A few years ago, 30 hitherto unpublished letters were discovered in manuscript collections in Paris and Marseilles, and new sermons were uncovered in the city library of Mainz.  Augustine exerted decisive influence on the development of monasticism, forged theories of history and politics still in evidence today, provided an approach to education holding sway up to very recently, contributed to aesthetics the philosophy of beauty and the apt, bequeathed to the Church the formulation of her doctrine of grace, and perfected a literary genre of spiritual autobiography.  Augustine wrote on everything from music to diocesan finances, from living the happy life to the care of the dead.  A scan of the index of a handbook of the Church’s doctrine edited by Messers Heinrich Denzinger and Adolf Schönmetzer reveals that more than Pope felt the need to remind people not to confuse what Augustine said across the board for the Church’s dogmatic teaching.  It is not exaggerating to claim that the Church and therefore Western Civilization owes much of its present shape and content to St. Augustine of Hippo.

We don’t know preciously the chain of events, and how they survived the Vandals, but Augustine’s bones and library were removed from N. Africa to Sardina by St. Fulgentius (+533) perhaps around 508 to avoid further desecration by heretic Arian Vandals and then again to Pavia near Milan by the Lombard King Luitprand (+744) sometime between 710-30 to avoid the raids of pirates and sacking by Moors.   They were interred anew in Pavia’s Church San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, the very same church where Augustine’s philosophical descendent, another member of the Anicius family, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (+ AD 524 or 525) was buried.  With little mutual cordiality different groups of Augustinian canons held the church and jealously looked after the precious relics (and the revenues generated by pilgrims).  The actual location of the bones would eventually be forgotten, though everyone supposedly knew where they were until, of course, you asked to see them.  It was not uncommon to lose track of bodies: the secret of the location was intended to protect them from theft or other unholy acts and finally the secret itself would fade from remembrance.  But, according to the recent book by Harold Stone, St. Augustine’s Bones: A Microhistory (2002), on Tuesday morning of 1 October of 1695, some workman doing maintenance on an altar rediscovered a marble reliquary which was determined to hold the bones of the bishop, saint and Doctor of the Church.  He has lain under the main altar of the church since then.

Last year Augustine began to get out a little more.  He dramatically was reunited for a time in Milan with St. Ambrose who helped the young materialist philosopher get a grip on the concept of an immaterial God and soul, had helped to open his heart through the chants he composed for church, and after Augustine’s conversion had baptized him in 386 in the baptistery of the Church of St. Tecla adjacent to what is now the Cathedral of Milan.  You can visit the excavated baptistery of St. Tecla now and see the actual baptismal font.  This year, however, Augustine was reunited with his mother in Rome. 

Each year Augustine’s presence and importance is brought into focus by literally hundreds of new monographs, scholarly articles and books.  Students at nearly every level of mature learning encounter him in some way, often in his works The City of God or his autobiographical prayer to God called Confessions.  There is virtually no field in the liberal arts or many of the sciences that does not owe something vital to the Augustinian tradition, extending through Boethius, John Eriugena, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, Dante Alighieri, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz and a myriad of others.  His anti-materialist philosophical and theological writings even stand up to the challenges of modern physics, such as the Uncertainty Principle elucidated by Werner Heisenberg.

Augustine has particular relevance today.  As do many of the Father’s of the Church, they can teach us again to read Scripture, freed from the over emphasis on the often sterile and text killing historical-critical method which gripped the Church like a vice for so long, liberated from the “hermeneutic of suspicion” by which so many priests and scholars were taught to assume that what Scripture said was false unless provable with critical tools.  Most of the central doctrine and formulas describing what we believe as Catholics, indeed as Christians, were hammered out in the crucible of those turbulent centuries and no one made a greater contribution than Augustine.  Augustine could help enormously with a revival of doctrinally sound and useful preaching.  Always practical, the great and lofty orator shunned any style of discourse that went over the heads of his flock.  He thought that being understood, and helping people to love God and live properly through the living sermon of your own holiness was paramount.   Augustine wanted his clerics and the bishops he trained to be holy more than they were erudite.  As a matter of fact in the last book of De doctrina christiana… On Christian Doctrine (4, 24), which the old bishop completed near the end of his long career, he very practically said from his long experience that rather than risk being misunderstood it is better to use the barbaric sounding word for “bone” ossum rather than the Latinly correct os which with the North African accent of those days might have be mistaken for the word for “face”.  An appropriate example to illustrate merely one dimension of Augustine’s applicability.  And he could defend his choices, ironically, in breathtaking word plays, nearly impossible to put into English: “It is better that you should understand me with my barbarism, than that you should be flooded by my fluency” (en. ps. 36, 3, 6 – quam in nostra disertitudine vos deserti eritis).  Augustine can clarify for us how to be clear a time when moral and doctrinal clarity is so clearly needed.

I had the privilege to attend many of the major events scheduled during Augustine’s time among us in Rome, and this was easy since I live directly across the street from the Church of St. Augustine and I am writing my doctoral thesis, at the “Augustinianum”.   The sincere interest and piety of the people who came to see and venerate the relics of the saint were impressive.   In our age of skepticism and cynicism, many condescendingly sneer at such public displays of pious devotion as that which is given to the relics and images of saints.   What I observed in Rome reinforced what I witnessed during the 1990’s when the remains of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse de Lisieux had their world tour. 

As the scholar of Augustinian monasticism Fr. George Lawless, OSA told me recently, invoking the bible image of old wine in new skins, it was once thought that a sermon without a citation from Augustine was like having wine cellar without wine.  The widely published Fr. Lawless, who teaches in Rome at the “Augustinianum”, one of the sites chosen for the exposition of the saints relics, also shared with me something he will have given in a conference by the time this goes to press, and it is entirely to him that I owe credit for this marvelous insight he recalled from the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, namely, that post-Reformation doctrine had become so many bones without flesh, while pastoral practice and spirituality was now flesh without bones.  Fr. Lawless sees in Augustine’s gifts to us, these bones and flesh together.  This is a marvelous image to reflect on while the bones of Augustine were present with us all in Rome, near for the first time in 16 centuries to the mother who, by her cooperation with God, brought to light of the world this towering figure who took flesh and bone from her.  May we take spiritual and doctrinal flesh and bones from him in the years to come while we await the unification of the same in the coming of the Lord.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. jh says:

    How Wonderful

    It seems that poor St Augustine has taken a bashing nowadays. It seems it again the fashionable thing to do. I know in my conversation with Orthodox and on blogs where we are in discussion about how Othodox and Catholic can find common ground on “original Sin” we Catholics if not careful tend to dish him a little. Of course he is about to take another bashing regarding all the “limbo” talk the next couple of weeks.

    I am glad that the Pope took time to do this and may it be a blessing on him and on the whole Church.

    If anyone here comes across a text of the Holy Fathers words at the Tomb of Augustine please post it. I would love to read it.

  2. Andrew says:

    Fr. Z:

    Very interesting and inspiring post. If I may add one comment:

    Some might be led to believe that for S. Augustine eloquence took second place somehow, first thing being the need to cater to the hearer’s ability to understand. But it is not so. Surely, he thought that eloquence for its own sake was not only useless but also dangerous, especially if it was used to teach error. But, of itself, the issue for Augustine was not one of “either, or”. Rather, eloquence, as he explains, was inseparable from true wisdom (de pectore sapientis procedere intellegas tamquam inseparabilem famulam … eloquentiam). He also says that if “one can say something wisely, even if not eloquently, it will be useful for the hearers, but not as useful as if he could also say it eloquently.” Finally, he says that he could, if he had the time, demonstrate to those who are inflated thinking that their authors (secular poets) excelled in eloquence the Holy Scriptures, how the sacred authors were way ahead. (De doctrina christiana, IV, vi, 10).

  3. Andrew: You can’t say everything in a magazine article.

  4. John Polhamus says:

    Moving, indeed, is the thought that Augustine was seen in the midst of the Eternal City again, after such a long lapse. It should give us pause, to think how much we take for granted Our Lord’s DAILY re-appearance upon the altars of every Catholic church in Christendom. If some people thought of His coming amongst us in the same sense, they might be less inclined to take the liturgy as lightly as they often do. Not that I’m casting aspersions, I’m not. I’m just pointing out. Perhaps that might be one of the fruits of a reawakening, in our age, of reverance for Holy relics. Just a thought.

  5. John Polhamus says:

    WONDERFUL article, by the way, Father. :-)

  6. Fr Gregoire Fluet says:

    An excellent, even moving, post Father! Good bless you for this work!

  7. Joe says:

    Father – thanks fo this. St Augustine is such a great role model for today, a wonderful theologian, but also a sinner like the rest of us – but one who knows Christ from the heart. How apt is his oft-repeated phrase “Late have I loved thee”.

    When I was confirmed as a child, I really had no idea what name to take in Confirmation, so I decided to take the same name as my father – Augustine. While my father was, without doubt, a perfect role model for me, I’m drawn more and more to the patron whose name I took then. Maybe there was more to it, that I was then unaware of, than simply taking my dad’s name.

    I’ve been delving into his works recently as part of a course of studies. He is so accessible, but some of the available translations are rather dated – and that might put off some people from reading him. Have you any thoughts on the better of the more modern translations?

  8. Bill White says:

    Dear Joe and all,

    I took Augustine’s name, too, after reading Henri Daniel-Rops’ 70-page biography of him in his “The Church in the Dark Ages” just before my Confirmation. I seem to recall that the late Fr John Rotelle, OSA, was leading a project to translate all of Augustine into English.

    Ah – there’s a mention of Fr Rotelle here along with other texts and translations.

    Cheers –


  9. nab says:

    I haven’t read all of this yet. I just wanted to say THANK YOU for the photograph. I have a deep love for Augustine (second only to Thomas Aquinas) and I was really hoping I’d see some pictures from the Pope’s visit.

  10. Geometricus says:

    I have often wanted to know much more about Augustine. Your article both quenched that thirst and made me thirst for more. Thanks, Father.

    As for jh’s comment: I have a friend who is Evangelical turned Orthodox, and by the things he says, most Orthodox are very down on Augustine, so I can see the temptation for Catholics to talk bad about Augustine so they can get along better with the Orthodox.

    What I would like to know is when in history did the Orthodox stop revering the memory of this decidedly Western saint? I could probably guess, but it would just be a guess.

  11. Mark says:

    Thank you for writing this Father!

    I was confirmed last Saturday after “reverting” back to the Church of my birth, gaining something I have never experienced in my lifetime – some 30 years after being a “self-professed” agnostic – Faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

    As a neurobiology major and with a philosophy minor, I drifted further and further away from any belief in God. I simply lacked faith – not any longer!

    It was a Mortal Sin and the words of Augustine droping out of a book I had just purchased from eBay dating from 1748 which read:

    Malus fuisti heri: Hodie bonus esto – If I’m not mistaken (off the top of my head) Mezzo 8 Tractus 33. It was a commentary of John which related to my mortal sin.

    On the back side of this note read: Beatus, qui de luce vigilaverit ad illam – Sapien. 6.

    Looking at the paper that had fallen out (from what apprears to be from the same time period of 1748) I was overcome with emotion and after researching to context of the note(s) that evening, I when to Mass the next day. I haven’t missed a Mass since that time (1st Sunday in May, 2006).

    For I too was a philanderer – and like the woman accused of Adultry, I too was guilty of this sinister crime against my wife and my Lord, God and I heeded the words of Augustine and of Christ – who have saved me from my wretchedness!

    I took the name Augustine as my confirmation name – Mark Vincent Augustine Franks.

    My studies of Latin started 2 years ago, after reading the Iliad and the Odyssey. I decided I wanted to learn Latin so I could read the Aeneid in the original Latin. No pressure to speak the language – just needed to learn to read the Language. I had failed to learn French after a number of false starts begining in high school. I learned more Latin in one year than all the French I had taken over the years.

    Who would have thought that the movie “Troy” would inspire me to finaly read Fageles’ translation of the Iliad and then the Odyssey after purchasing it 5 years earlier. And look what it lead to… my purchasing a book entitled: Theologia Moralis Universa by R P Paulo Gabriele Antoine, Societis Jesu Presbytero, Sacrae Theologiae Doctore, & Ex-professore. Guess who was the Pope at the time? Benedicti XIV and who wrote the “Approbatio”

    So tell me Father, what in your opinion is the best translation of Augustine’s Confessions? I’ll find the orininal Latin separately so I can read it side by side.

    Stat crux dum volvitur orbis.

    Con Fides,


  12. Paul Murnane says:

    Fantastic article, Father! Thank you for the post.

    For a while now you have had two biographies of St. Augustine in your “What I Am Reading” sidebar – which would you recommend reading? Also, in your mind, is there a “definitive” work on St. Augustine?

    I have read the excerpt (Ch. 1) of “Christ and the Just Society” at Amazon and the text seems very accessible to a novice. Is this a work you would recommend? Thank you.

    Godspeed, Father and may you land safely in Minnesota.

  13. Paul: Wait until the second chapter.

    If you want a classic biography of A. in English, try Peter Brown’s revised edition. I really liked Lancel. For biography and more theology, try G. Bonner.

  14. Paul Murnane says:

    Hi Father,

    LOL! I went again to the “Search Inside” utility and selected “surprise me.” Indeed it was a surprise as I found myself in over my head. I now know why they excerpted Ch. 1. :)

    Thank you for the book recommendations.

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