Saint Augustine, whose feast day is celebrated by the universal Church on August 28th , is “the greatest Father of the Latin Church”, according to many Popes, but in this instance Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He was a man who underwent a radical conversion, and whose intellect and skill as a pastor and theologian, left a profound impact on Christianity as a whole and Western civilization. In Saint Augustine, the undercurrents of Western Culture, its philosophical and theological influences, and the past and present meet in his works. His additions to Catholic thought in both philosophy and theology continue to shape the minds of members of the Church and non-Catholics alike. His Confessions are still considered one of the greatest works of literature in Western civilization. He is read in the classrooms of both secular and Catholic universities. Pope Paul VI said of him, “It may be said that all the thought-currents of the past meet in his works and form the source which provides the whole doctrinal tradition of succeeding ages.”
Augustine was born in Tagaste in the Roman Province of Numidia in Africa on November 13, 354. His father, Patricius, was a pagan and his mother, whom we know as St. Monica, was a devout Christian. There is little doubt that the fervent prayer, fasting, and devotion of St. Monica had a great influence on St. Augustine’s eventual conversion to Christianity. As is often the case on the journey to truth, Augustine’s life was impacted through the works of a non-Christian, in this instance, the pagan Cicero. When Augustine went to study in Carthage, he read Cicero’s, Hortensius. In hisConfessions, Augustine explains his response to Cicero, “The book changed my feelings…every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardor in my heart.”
After reading Cicero, Augustine began to read Scripture because he came to believe that Jesus Christ was the only answer. He knew that while the wisdom of Cicero was a starting place, it was incomplete and erroneous in many areas. Augustine’s first introduction to Scripture did not go well. He found it unsatisfying and the Latin style of the translation of Sacred Scripture was lacking in many regards. He was deeply disappointed in his first reading and study of Scripture.