St. Augustine on playing for keeps

In the following excerpt from The Liturgical Year, Dom Gueranger narrates the startling reaction of today’s saint, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, to the threats of opponents whose reach extended even to directing the output of bakeries (sound familiar?):

Before Augustine’s arrival in Hippo, the Donatists were so great a majority of the population that, as he himself informs us, they could even forbid anyone to bake bread for Catholics. When the saint died, things were very different; but the pastor, who had made it his first duty to save, even in spite of themselves, the souls confided to him, had been obliged to spend his days and nights in this great work, and had more than once run the risk of martyrdom.

Pastoral zeal seems to have been exercised with a cruder vigor at that faraway time as compared with today’s more enlightened and refined practices, wouldn’t you say?

The leaders of the schismatics, fearing the force of his reasoning even more than his eloquence, refused all intercourse with him; they declared that to put Augustine to death would be a praiseworthy action, which would merit for the perpetrator the remission of his sins.

“Pray for us,” he said at the beginning of his episcopate, “pray for us who live in so precarious a state, as it were between the teeth of furious wolves. These wandering sheep, obstinate sheep, are offended because we run after them, as if their wandering made them cease to be ours. — Why dost thou call us? they say; why dost thou pursue us? — But the very reason of our cries and our anguish is that they are running to their ruin. — If I am lost, if I die, what is it to thee? what dost thou want with me?

“Encounter”? “Dialogue”? Perhaps a bit more than that:

“What I want is to call thee back from thy wandering; what I desire is to snatch thee from death. — But what if I will to wander? What if I will to be lost? — Thou willest to wander? thou willest to be lost? How much more earnestly do I wish it not! Yea, I dare to say it, I am importunate; for I hear the Apostle saying, ‘Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season.’ In season, when they are willing; out of season, when they are unwilling. Yes then, I am importunate: thou willest to perish, I will it not. And He wills it not, who threatened the shepherds saying: ‘That which was driven away you have not brought again, neither have you sought that which was lost.’

Augustine, having cited Chapter xxxiv of the Old Testament book of the prophet Ezechiel — words not without applicability in our modern, relevant, up-to-date Church — continues:

“Am I to fear thee more than Him? I fear thee not; the tribunal of Donatus cannot take the place of Christ’s judgment seat, before which we must all appear. Whether thou will it or not, I shall call back the wandering sheep, I shall seek the lost sheep. The thorns may tear me; but however narrow the opening may be, it shall not check my pursuit; I will beat every bush, as long as the Lord gives me strength; so only I can get to thee wherever thou strivest to perish.'”

Driven into their last trenches by such unconquerable charity, the Donatists replied by massacring clerics and faithful, since they could not touch Augustine himself. The bishop implored the imperial judges not to inflict mutilation or death upon the murderers lest the triumph of the martyrs should be sullied by such a vengeance. Such mildness was certainly worthy of the Church; but it was destined to be one day brought forward against her in contrast to certain other facts of her history, by a school of liberalism that can grant rights and even pre-eminence to error.

And which has once again burrowed its way into the Church at peril to souls. Let us ask St. Augustine to intercede that God may send his successor to us swiftly.

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