by Desmond O'Grady in Rome
POPE John Paul II has devoted a 20-page tribute to the African whom he calls the "father of Christian Europe": St Augustine.
The occasion is the 1600th anniversary of the reconversion of Augustine who was raised as a Catholic but lost his faith for many years.
The Pope states that whoever wants to understand Augustine's personality, evolution and thought should bear in mind that he described himself as returning "to the religion which had been in his marrow since childhood".
This was a tribute to his mother Monica. She was a Catholic, who had a Berber name, while Augustine's father Patrick was a pagan.
Pope John Paul points out that Augustine was convinced for a time that he could leave the Church without abandoning Christ but was reconverted when he saw Christ and the Church inextricably linked. The Pope quotes Augustine: "We have the holy spirit if we love the Church".
The Pope mentions that his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis was in the Augustinian tradition of finding Christ as the response to the mystery of man's grandeur and misery.
He outlines Augustine's thoughts on faith and reason, God and man, Christ and the Church, liberty and grace and his spiritual teaching conveyed in a stream of books from his conversion at the age of 32 to his death at 76 when he was writing three books — "witness to his tireless efforts and his incomparable love for the Church", says the Pope who suggests the contemporary relevance of Augustine is alloting pride of place to his aim of "giving men hope that they can find the truth".
In the apostolic letter there is no direct response to two frequent objections to St Augustine: that guilt distorted his views on sex or that he was overly pessimistic about human nature, nor does it take up the issue of Augustine favouring coercion, even if it was comparitively mild, to bring donatists back to the Church.
It has no space for some of the warts in Augustine's story which make him one of the most accessible saints. Born in 374 in Thagaste, a small inland hilt town in what is now Algeria, he studied in Carthage and, at the age of 18, had a son, Adeodato from a de facto wife.
Contemptuous of the culturally inferior Catholics in Carthage, he adhered to Manicheism because it seemed to provide an explanation of the problem of evil.
With his wife and son he went to Rome as a teacher of rhetoric. He obtained a teaching position in Milan and, in the autumn of 384, set out along the Via Flaminia in a state carriage, with all expenses paid, for what was then the imperial capital.
His widowed mother Monica, who joined him in Milan, saw the possibility that Augustine could become a provincial governor — but that his uneducated Carthaginian girlfriend was a hindrance she was packed off the Carthage.
There was another, more important Milanese encounter "for Augustine about the same time: he met Ambrose the Archbishop who previously had been a provincial governor. For the first time Augustine was in contact with a Catholic whose learning and intellect were at his
levHeliri His apdrobhleemnesedceadmheelpto. a
climax in a garden of his Milanese home in midsummer 386. He decided to resign his teaching post, abandon his wordly ambitions and marriage. He had "come into harbour after a stormy passage" and Monica's prayers that he regain his faith had been answered.
It is told in his "confessions" with that ability to convey feelings which make Augustine, the heir of the ancient world, the first modern man. All this is to be the object of seminars and conventions in coming months in Milan and nearby Varese.