Pope John Paul II on Augustine
LET US ASK this extraordinary man what he has to say to the modern man. I believe he has much to say, both by his example and by his teaching.
He teaches the person who searches for truth not to despair of finding it. He teaches this by his example—he himself rediscovered it after many years of laborious seeking—and by means of his literary activity, the program of which he had fixed in the first letter after his conversion: “It seems to me that one must bring men back . . . to the hope of finding the truth.” He teaches therefore that one must seek the truth “with piety, chastity and diligence” in order to overcome doubts about the possibility of returning into oneself, to the interior realm where truth dwells: and likewise to overcome the materialism which prevents the mind from grasping its indissoluble union with the realities that are understood by the intelligence, and the rationalism that refuses to collaborate with faith and prevents the mind from understanding the “mystery” of the human person.
Augustine’s legacy to the theologians, whose meritorious task is to study more deeply the contents of the faith, is the immense patrimony of his thought, which is as a whole valid even now. Above all, his legacy is the theological methods to which he remained absolutely faithful. We know that this method implied full adherence to the authority of the faith which is one of its origin—the authority of Christ—and is revealed through Scripture, Tradition and the Church. His legacy includes the ardent desire to understand his own faith—“Be a great lover indeed of understanding” is his command to others. which he applies to himself also. Likewise the profound sense of the mystery “for it is better,” he exclaims, “to have a faithful ignorance than a presumptuous knowledge.” Likewise the sure conviction that the Christian doctrine came from God and thus has its own original source, which must not only be preserved in its integrity—this is the “virginity” of the faith of which he spoke—but must also serve as a measure to judge the philosophies that conform to it or diverge from it.
It is well known how much Augustine loved Sacred Scripture, proclaiming its divine origin, its inerrancy, its depth and inexhaustible riches; and it is well known how much he studied Scripture. But the aim of his own study, and of his promotion of study by others, is the entirety of Scripture—so that the true thought or, as he says, the “heart” of Scripture, may be indicated, harmonizing it where necessary with itself. He takes these two principles to be fundamental for the understanding of Scripture. For this reason he reads it in the Church, taking account of the Tradition, the nature and obligatory force of which he forcefully underlines. He made the celebrated statement “I should not believe the Gospel unless I were moved to do so by the authority of the Catholic Church.”
In the controversies that arose concerning the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, his recommendation was that one should discuss “with holy humility, with Catholic peace, with Christian charity,” until the truth itself be grasped, which God “has set . . . upon the throne of unity.” One will then be able to see that the controversy had not broken out in vain, because it “was the occasion for learning” and progress has been made in the understanding of the faith.
Another contribution of Augustine’s teaching to the men and women of today that we may briefly mention is his proposal of the twofold object of study that should occupy the human mind: God and man. “What do you wish to know?” he asks himself. And he replies: “God and the soul are what I wish to know.” Nothing more? Nothing at all. Confronted with the sad spectacle of evil, he reminds modern men and women that they must nevertheless have confidence in the final triumph of the good, that is, of the City “where the victory is the truth; where dignity is holiness; where peace is happiness; where life is eternity.”
Further, he teaches scientists to recognize the signs of God in the things that have been created, and to discover the “seeds” that God has sown into the harmony of the universe. He recommends above all to those who have control over the destinies of the people that they love peace, and that they promote it, not through conflict, but with the methods of peace, because, as he wisely writes, “there is more glory in killing the wars themselves with a word than in killing men with the sword, and there is more glory in achieving or maintaining peace by means of peace than by means of war.”
Finally, I should like to address the young people whom Augustine greatly loved as a professor before his conversion and as a pastor afterwards. He recalls three great things to them: truth, love and freedom—three supreme goods that stand together. He also invites them to love beauty, for he himself was a great lover of beauty.
I have . . . sketched briefly a panorama of the thought of an incomparable man whose children and disciples we all are in a certain fashion, both in the Church and in the Western world itself. I express once again my fervent desire that his teaching should be studied and widely known, and his pastoral zeal be imitated, so that the authoritative teaching of such a great doctor and pastor may flourish every more happily in the Church and in the world, for the progress of the faith and of culture.
By John Paul II
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #15 in 1987]
And a Saint in a Pear Tree . . . ?
Augustine and stolen fruit.Frank A. James III
St. Augustine: Recommended Resources
Resources for further study of Augustine.the Editors
St. Augustine: From the Publisher
Introduction to this issue on Augustine of Hippo.the Editors
St. Augustine: Did You Know . . .
Fascinating facts about Augustine and his times.the Editors