St. Augustine of Hippo: Never a Pagan

[Fr. Abraham B. Latoza OAR
University of Negros Occidental-Recoletos
Campus Minister/Campus Director]

This statement crosses the pedestrian of centuries old traffic of perception that St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) was pagan, a non-believer. What it is to be a pagan? From what St. Augustine was converted to?

For the second time now that I have been attending this Workshop on Augustinian Spiritual Exercise, facilitated by the Team Servants of Prayer of the Province of St. Ezekiel Moreno, mandated by the Secretariat of Spirituality; this statement “St. Augustine was not a pagan” serves as a corregendum (correction) to the long standing knowledge about the intelligent and saintly man Augustine from Thagaste, Numidia, Africa now identified as Souk Ahras, Algeria who became converted, received baptism and then later promoted bishop of Hippo.

This song lyrics has already been changed for wider usage but reflects a different perception about St. Augustine as pagan, non believer and a glorious doubter.

“Augustine the once non believer
Keep us strong with unswerving faith
Augustine the vain glorious doubter
Lead us on to the pearly gate
Augustine the once ingrained pagan help us ever to live the truth
Augustine the one bane of Christians drive us from evil sin to loathe.”

In my interview with Fr. Enrique A. Eguiarte Bendimez, OAR, Leading Chairman of the Instituto de Augustinologia OAR in Madrid and Rome, long time editor of Augustinus and Mayeotica, and a prolific writer about Augustine’s thoughts available for the lay readers. He pointed out to the Confessions of St. Augustine the answer to the long standing query.

For the benefit of those who have no background in Augustinian studies, The Confessions of St. Augustine is the written account of his life of conversion and gratitude to God for calling him back to God’s grace. In the later part of this essay, I will treat conversion of St. Augustine in a considerable paragraph.

Being a pagan, paganus in Latin or heathen, in the historical understanding means a person that is uncivilized, inferior being that has no reference to any godly affairs, no religion at all. The second connotation of being a heathen means having a polytheistic faith, believing in so many gods as in the ancient Roman era and Greek world. Paganism in the time of St. Augustine during the 4th to 5th Century is closer to the second meaning I have mentioned.

In his personal narrative of The Confessions of St. Augustine, the man fromThagaste pinpoint to Book I about the early stage of his life. It is interesting and worth-reading to know why he was Baptized only later at age 33. What were some of the ecclesiastical regulations then? What did he do? What happened to him?
We know from Church history that Christian converts before they can be admitted to the Church as new members they must be first of all enrolled as catechumens. It was a long tradition too, to understand this development in the Catholic Church as far as Sacraments of Initiation are concerned. In the Apostolic Tradition for instance, they wanted to secure the small group of believers who are following the Way, (the Christians) from betrayal, infidelity, heresy, persecution and apostasy. So, the recruitment for a new convert was tough. Only the adults can first be enlisted as catechumens. They can be officially enrolled as catechumens on Easter Sunday and wait for an indefinite period to assess the candidate’s readiness and mastery of the Christian doctrine before Baptism. Upon enrolment as catechumens they should undergo a ritual.

Among the Latins, and especially at Rome, breathing accompanied with a form of exorcism and placing in the mouth a little exorcised salt, was employed in addition to the signing with the cross and the imposition of hands. Other rites were the opening of the ears (Mark 7:34) and anointing.
This practice continues for a very long time, until one Bishop from Africa, St. Cyprian of Carthage made a proposal to admit the infants for Baptism. In 249 A.D., St. Cyprian made a rather convincing statement that “infants should be Baptized or they remain in darkness.”
The Christian parents of Carthage and the surrounding regions then started to cling to that custom by bringing in a child to the Church to be dedicated, to be prepared for Baptism.

Book I, 17 of the Confessions St. Augustine provides us the answer.
“As a boy, then, I had already heard of an eternal life, promised us through the humility of the Lord our God stooping to our pride; and even from the womb of my mother, who greatly hoped in Thee, I was sealed with the mark of His cross and salted with His salt.” (Excerpt From: Augustine, Saint. “The Confessions of St. Augustine.” iBooks.)

Fr. Eguiarte commented that receiving that sign of the Cross and the putting on of the salt by the mouth already signal the infants’ preparation for Baptism. The infants who underwent such ritual during the time of St. Augustine were called “christianus”, that is why St. Augustine was always a Christian since he was a baby. When he received baptism in the year 387, he became one of the “fideles”, that is those who were Christians and Baptized.

The next question now is: From what St. Augustine was converted to?
Obviously it was not a conversion from paganism of polytheistic slant to Christianity.
He was converted from his life of dissipation to a fully renewed Christian life, breathing out God’s goodness, and his soul is continuously praising the Lord in the Confessions how he was raised from darkness of sin to the light and life of grace.

As a final note I will quote Fr. Eguiarte’s remarks during the Workshop.
“St. Augustine was well-known for his search for Truth. Some people are simply searchers like social media finders.
However, they don’t make any commitment in finding out what they have searched for.
They don’t make any deeper involvement in what they have found out. St. Augustine really searched and really found what he was searching for and made a lifetime commitment to the Truth (Eternal God) he had finally found.”