Saintly Augustine shaped Christianity through the ages

  • September 1, 2013

Toronto’s patron is St. Michael. Canada’s patron is St. Joseph. So why name the seminary established to train priests for Toronto and Western Canada after a fourth-century North African bishop?

St. Augustine of Hippo has been acclaimed a saint since his death, declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Boniface VIII in 1298, venerated as a saint and blessed in the Orthodox Church, is a saint to the world’s 80 million Anglicans, and he remains a hero and touchstone for the Protestant churches of the Reformation. The author of City of God and Confessions, Augustine has shaped the collective mind of Christianity through the centuries.

As the name for a seminary in early 20th-century Canada it might not have been what everybody expected, but nobody could object.

The name was likely proposed by Eugene O’Keefe. The richest Catholic in Toronto had already honoured his deceased wife Monica by financing St. Monica’s Church in north Toronto. St. Monica is honoured as the patient and faithful mother of St. Augustine, who had raised her son as a Christian despite her pagan husband and then endured her brilliant son’s years as a Manichean and philosophical sceptic. She stayed with him through those years and saw him finally baptized in 387 at the age of 33.

After O’Keefe lost his own 31- year-old son to accidental death, honouring St. Augustine must have seemed the next logical step to the aging philanthropist. Archbishop Fergus McEvay would have approved. Here was the saint who had defined the idea of conversion for Christians down through the centuries and illustrated it in his own life.

Augustine’s Confessions practically invented a new form of literature which treated his inner life of faith and emotion as historically significant — not just the source of meaning for his personal life, but also the path to universal, transcendent truths. Catholic theology, even in the 21st century, simply does not exist without reference to St. Augustine’s concepts of original sin, grace, just war, predestination and the relationship between the soul and the body.

Augustine was born a well-off Roman citizen in 354, in what is today Algeria. Patricius, his father, was pagan.

His Christian mother, Monica, was likely Berber — part of the overwhelmingly Christian tribal majority colonized under Roman rule. Well educated in Carthage, Augustine became an ambitious young professor of rhetoric. At 29 he set up his own school in Rome. He quickly moved up to the position of professor of rhetoric in Milan — a prominent, public role which could have opened the way to a political career.

Instead, Augustine accepted baptism from St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, in 387 and moved back to Africa. The Christian scholar then sold his family lands and distributed the funds to the poor. He lived as a monk with a few friends in his family house and was ordained a priest in 391 and bishop in 395.

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