Tuesday, August 28, 2018

In this Terrible Time

In this terrible time of testing for the Church, when opposing factions within the Church are going after each other with even more than the usual ferocity, the Church today recalls the life of one of her greatest saints, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), one of the four great Doctors of the Latin Church, along with Saint Ambrose, Saint jerome, and Saint Gregory the Great.

Augustine's greatest boast was that he praised the grace of God, and he is rightly referred to as the Doctor gratiae, the Doctor of Grace. His teaching on grace is reflected in the words - literally lifted from Augustine's writing - which we will pray shortly in the Preface of the Saints, in crowning their [the saints'] merits, you [God] crown your own gifts.

Augustine is one of those few saints whom modern non-Christian thinkers might still take somewhat seriously. Unlike later, medieval Doctors of the Church, Augustine, lived, ministered as a Bishop, and wrote in a world in which the Christian faith and the Church were not not yet quite the unchallenged options, a time when paganism, while definitely in decline, still posed a challenging alternative. Augustine's encounter with all the major philosophical and religious options on offer in his time highlights his continued relevance in our pluralistic world in which Christian faith and the Church are no longer the only or obvious alternatives for those searching for meaningful answers and a fulfilling way of life.

At this particular juncture in our history, however, in this terrible time when opposing factions within the Church are going after each other with even more than the usual ferocity, it is Augustine's intense commitment to the Church and to the Church's unity that may stand out as most relevant right now. We live in a politically polarized society, and those divisions are powerfully present in the Church as well. It has been said that in American society today, our rival political factions are motivated most by their hatred for each other. And I think it not too much of an exaggeration to say that there is some of that - actually too much of that - even in the Church. 

If anything that was even more so in Augustine's time, when the Church in North Africa, was violently (very literally violently) divided by what historians call the Donatist schism. Augustine's commitment to the authentic Catholic Church was simultaneously a commitment to the Church's unity. As Augustine once famously said:

We entreat you, brothers, as earnestly as we are able, to have charity, not only for one another, but also for those who are outside the Church. Of these some are still pagans, who have not yet made an act of faith in Christ. Others are separated, insofar as they are joined with us in professing faith in Christ, our head, but are yet divided from the unity of his body. My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers; and they will only cease to be so when they no longer say our Father. [On Psalm 32CCL 38, 272-273]

Homily on the feast of Saint Augustine of Hippo, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 28, 2018.

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