Augustine’s bones

Augustine died on 28 August 430. His friend and biographer Possidius describes his last days during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals. Sometime before the early 8th century, Augustine’s remains were translated from N. Africa to Sardinia for fear of desecration. It is possible that St. Fulgentius of Ruspe took Augustine’s body to Sardinia. Fulgentius had run afoul of the Arian Vandal overlords in N. Africa and was driven out.

During the 8th century Augustine’s remains were in danger again, but this time by another gang of vandals called Arabs, who were swarming all over the Mediterranean as pirates and brigands. Sometime between 710 and 730 King Liutprand of the Lombards translated Augustine a second time and, on some 11 October, had him interred in Pavia in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro. It is thought that Liutprand had to pay a huge ransom the bones from some muslim thug. (Hard to believe, I know.) Eventually, with the passage of time people simply forgot where the saints bones actually physically were in the church. Eventually the church itself came to be controlled by two different Augustinian groups, the Canons Regular and the Hermits. Let’s just say their relations were strained and leave it at that. Then something happened that set off the war between them.

In 1695 a group of workman were excavating under the altar in the crypt of the church. They found a marble box containing human bones. The box apparently had some charcoal markings spelling the part of the word "Augustine", though those markings disappeared. Great chaos ensued.

Benedict XIIIThe memory of just where the relics of Augustine were placed in the church had been lost through the passing of the years. Finding them again set off a rather unedifying battle for their control between the Augustinian Hermits and the Canons Regular. Eventually Rome had to step in to resolve things. Pope Benedict XIII, a Dominican who changed his numbering from XVI to XIII so as to avoid counting an anti-pope, got involved personally. He was very interested in saints and canonized the huge number of 18! This was also at the time when the future Pope Benedict XIV, Propsero Lambertini, published his fourth and final volume On the beatification of the servants of God and of the canonization of the blessed. Pope Lambertini would give us the legislation for the canonical processes of canonizations that has lasted with some few changes to today.

In any event, Benedict XIII sent a letter to the Bishop of Pavia telling him to get their act together and figure out the questions of authenticity and control. Additional studies were made under someone appointed by Benedict and by 19 September of 1729 things were wrapped up. Processions were held, solemn proclamations made about the authenticity of the relics, a great Te Deum was sung and there was a fireworks display, and anyone who decided to disagree and start the bickering again would be excommunicated. Ah! Those were the days, no? The next year under Pope Clement XII the Cardinal Secretary of State (and a patron of the Canons Regular) commissioned the carving of the large main altar with its reliefs, completed in 1738, and which you can now see today in the church where Augustine’s tomb is even now.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. DoB says:

    Thanks for this Fr Z,
    Sometimes I am quite troubled with the state of affairs in the Catholic Church. The more I read your blogs and listen to your podcazts the more I realise that she seems to trundle along suffering one crisis after another being saved in the nick of time, everytime. It makes me laugh and fills me with great joy and hope. How is it that we kept “loosing” the graves of our great men and women (thugs aside), should one conclude that, at some point our Church must not have held them in such esteem? On the otherhand, could it be that the veneration of saints was simply evolving?
    Thank you for the Podcazt 37 link. I am still trying to get my hands on that Te Deum. Do you having any info on the recording so that I can acquire it. I would be most grateful.
    Anyway happy feast day, good old Augustine is obviously one of your favourites, and I’m glad he is.

  2. William says:

    Benedict XIII sent a letter to the Bishop of Pavia telling him to get their act together and … anyone who decided to disagree and start the bickering again would be excommunicated.

    Maybe this is the example Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wanted to follow when he chose his name after being elected Pope?


  3. Padre, thanks for the background! I had the immense pleasure of seeing the tomb and sarcophagus in Pavia this summer but didn’t have the full background of the saints remains. St. Augustine is a hero of reason and faith and will continue to have a great impact on the world.

  4. Marcus says:

    St. Augustine is one of those rare men who are larger than life, even in his death! He must have been impossible to keep up with. We could certainly use a few more like him these days.

  5. Robert of Rome says:

    Go Hermits!!

  6. jaykay says:

    But… but… HOW could they just have “forgotten” where the bones were? I mean, they weren’t dealing with some minor saint (of probably dubious provenance anyway). Like, this was one of the biggies! A pezzo novanta. The BIG A himself! O.k., I might leave the house occassionally and forget my raincoat but this is in a different league of forgetfulness altogether.

    Picture the scenario: medieval pilgrim in tatters finally arrives at door of cathedral after journey of years, drops to knees and offers fervent thanksgiving, approaches Augustinian canon on steps and says: “Show me the resting place of the Holy Saint to which I have come after so arduous a pilgrimage”.

    Canon: “Ummm…weeeelll…erm…look, it’s a bit difficult, actually… I don’t quite know how to put this but…(shuffles sandalled feet)

  7. Jordan Potter says:

    DoB, Jaykay, in the long passage of centuries — with wars and disasters and bad weather and bad-tempered Christians — it’s not at all surprising, shocking, or scandalous for saints’ relics to be translated multiple times or even temporarily or permanently lost. Churches get destroyed or remodeled all the time, and we have to remember that the Muslims and other invaders frequently caused problems in Italy back in those days. You know, it was only a few months ago that the Vatican announced the re-discovery of St. Paul’s tomb. Everyone knew its general location, but that’s not the same thing as knowing exactly where it is. So there’s nothing odd about people forgetting where in a huge, ancient church a saint’s relics are buried. What if most of the people who knew their location were massacred by an invading army, the church pillaged, and the survivors who remembered their location scattered to other parts of Europe, never committing their knowledge to writing?

  8. jaykay says:

    LoL :) Yes, indeed, Jordan P… just a small attempt at levity on my part :)

    And in the most famous case, of course, the actual whereabouts of St. Peter’s remains, while “generally” known, weren’t uncovered until the excavations sponsored by Pius XII Fascinating story in its own right.

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