30 March 2016

Patristics (2016): 4, The Latin Fathers

Seven Fathers of the Church carved above the south door of Lichfield Cathedral (from left): Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Introduction to Patristics,

Brown Room,

Wednesdays, 10.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.

Outline of Module:

10.30 a.m., 23 March 2016: Introducing Patristics

2, 11.30 a.m., 23 March 2016: The Apostolic Fathers

3, 10.30 a.m., 30 March 2016: The Greek Fathers

4, 11.30 a.m., 30 March 2016: The Latin Fathers

5, 10.30 a.m., 6 April 2016: The Desert Fathers

6, 11.30 a.m., 6 April 2016: The Legacy, especially for Anglicans

Wednesday, 30 March 2016:

11.30 a.m., 23 March 2016: The Latin Fathers


We have been looking at the Greek Fathers, especially their role in defining the canon of scripture, the creeds of faith, and in combatting early heresies.

We know turn West to the Latin Fathers of the Church were Saint Cyprian of Carthage, Saint Hilary of Poitiers, Saint Ambrose of Milan, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Vincent of Lérins and Saint Gregory the Great.

The setting: The Apologists

The Apologists are those early Christian writers who wrote between 120 and 220, addressing the task of a finding a reasoned defence of the faith against outside critics. They include Aristides, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tatian, Theophilus and Tertullian.

Saint Justin Martyr (ca 100-ca 165):

Saint Justin Martyr … argued that Christianity was a true philosophy

Saint Justin Martyr was born to pagan parents and converted to Christianity ca 130. He taught first at Ephesus and later in Rome. When he refused to offer sacrifices to the emperor, he was beheaded.

In his First Apology and Second Apology, Justin Martyr argued that Christianity was a true philosophy. He developed the concept of the “generative” or “germinative” Word, who had sown the seed of truth in all humanity and had become incarnate as Christ. He used the doctrine of the Logos to explain why Christians, while remaining monotheists, worshipped Jesus Christ, regarding him as the incarnation of the Logos, “in second place” to God.

Tertullian (ca 160-ca 225)

Tertullian … introduced the term Trinity as the Latin Trinitas to the Christian vocabulary

Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florente Tertullianus) (ca 160-ca 225) was a prolific author in Early Christianity and a notable early Christian apologist. He was the son of a Roman centurion, was raised in Carthage as a pagan, and at first practised as a lawyer in Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. He was converted to Christianity ca 197.

Although Tertullian wrote three books in Greek, he was the first great writer of Latin Christianity, and so is sometimes known as the “Father of the Latin Church.” He was a notable lawyer.

In his early work, De Praescriptione Hareticorum, he attacked all heresies in principle, arguing that the one true Church possesses the authentic tradition and that it alone has the authority to interpret Scripture.

In Against Marcion, he defended the identity of the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament, and the Messiah of prophecy with Jesus Christ.

In Against Praxeas, he exposed the unscriptural and unhistorical teachings of Modalism, and formulated a positive doctrine of the Trinity. Tertullian introduced the term Trinity as the Latin Trinitas to the Christian vocabulary, the formula “three Persons, one Substance” as the Latin “tres personae, una substantia” (from the Koine Greek, treis hypostases, homoousios), and the terms vetus testamentum (Old Testament) and novum testamentum (New Testament).

In his Apologeticus, Tertullian is the first Latin author to speak of Christianity as the vera religio, and he systematically relegated the classical religion of the empire and other accepted cults to the position of mere superstitions.

His De Animae prefigures Augustine’s concepts of original sin.

Although in all these works Tertullian devoted himself to denouncing heretical teachings, Tertullian later joined the Montanists, an apocalyptic and heretical sect that appealed to his rigour and asceticism.

Saint Cyprian of Carthage (ca 200-258):

Saint Cyprian of Carthage … argued that the sacraments are only valid within the Church

Saint Cyprian was consecrated Bishop of Carthage in 248, was banished in 257 and was later beheaded. He argued that the sacraments are only valid within the Church, and identified the Christian ministry with the priestly and sacrificial functions in the Old Testament. He was the author of the dictum: “Habere non potest Deum patrem qui ecclesiam non habet matrem” (“he cannot have God as his father who does not have the Church as his mother”).

In his account of the Last Supper, Saint Cyprian only quotes part of a Gospel narrative. He uses “blessed” (the word used by Matthew for the bread) rather than “give thanks” (used by both Matthew and Mark) for the cup. He also uses the future tense “will be poured out” rather than the present.

Cyprian, in his Letter of Cyprian to a Certain Magnus (ca 255), wrote: “Finally, the sacrifices of the Lord proclaim the unity of Christians, bound together by the bond of a firm and inviolable charity. For when the Lord, in speaking of bread which is produced by the compacting of many grains of wheat, refers to it as his body, He is describing our people whose unity He has sustained, and when He refers to wine pressed from many grapes and berries, as his blood, He is speaking of our flock, formed by the fusing of many united together.”

In Ephesians (ca 258 AD), he wrote: “The priest who imitates that which Christ did, truly takes the place of Christ, and offers there in the Church a true and perfect sacrifice to God the Father.”

The Lord’s Prayer, Chapter 18 (252 AD):

As the prayer proceeds, we ask and say: ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ This can be understood both spiritually and simply, because either understanding is of profit in divine usefulness for salvation. For Christ is the bread of life and the bread here is of all, but is ours. And as we say ‘Our Father,’ because He is the Father of those who understand and believe, so too we say ‘our Bread’' because Christ is the bread of those of us who attain to His body.

Moreover, we ask that this bread be given daily, lest we, who are in Christ and receive the Eucharist daily as food of salvation, with the intervention of some more grievous sin, while we are shut off and as non-communicants are kept from the heavenly bread, be separated from the body of Christ as He Himself declares, saying: ‘I am the bread of life which came down from heaven. If any man eat of my bread he shall live forever. Moreover, the bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world.’

Since then He says that, if anyone eats of His bread, he lives forever, as it is manifest that they live who attain to His body and receive the Eucharist by right of communion, so on the other hand we must fear and pray lest anyone, while he is cut off and separated from the body of Christ, remain apart from salvation, as He Himself threatens, saying: ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you.' And so we petition that our bread, that is Christ, be given us daily, so that we, who abide and live in Christ, may not withdraw from His sanctification and body.

Letter of Cyprian to a Certain Magnus, 6 (76), 5 (255 AD):

Finally, the sacrifices of the Lord proclaim the unity of Christians, bound together by the bond of a firm and inviolable charity. For when the Lord, in speaking of bread which is produced by the compacting of many grains of wheat, refers to it as His Body, He is describing our people whose unity He has sustained, and when He refers to wine pressed from many grapes and berries, as His Blood, He is speaking of our flock, formed by the fusing of many united together.

Saint Hilary of Poitiers (ca 300-ca 368):

Saint Hilary of Poitiers … the ‘Athanasius of the West’

Saint Hilary (Hilarius) of Poitiers (ca 300-ca 368) was Bishop of Poitiers and is a Doctor of the Church. He was sometimes referred to as the “Hammer of the Arians” (Malleus Arianorum) and the “Athanasius of the West.” His name comes from the Latin word for happy or cheerful.

Hilary was born at Poitiers at the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century. His education included some knowledge of Greek, and he later studied Old and New Testament writings, so that he abandoned his Neo-Platonism for Christianity, and with his wife and his daughter was baptised and received into the Church.

He was unanimously elected Bishop of Poitiers ca 350/353. At that time, Arianism was a major threat to the Western Church. Hilary secured the excommunication of Saturninus, the Arian Bishop of Arles, and of Ursacius and Valens, two of his prominent supporters.

He wrote to Emperor Constantius II described the persecutions the Arians used to try to crush their opponents (Ad Constantium Augustum liber primus, ca 355), but he was banished, along with Rhodanus of Toulouse, to Phrygia, where he spent four years in exile, traditionally for refusing to subscribe to the condemnation of Athanasius and the Nicene faith.

From Phrygia, he continued to govern his diocese, and wrote two of the most important of his contributions to dogmatic and polemical theology. His De synodis or De fide Orientalium (358), addressed to the Semi-Arian bishops in Gaul, Germany and Britain, supported the teachings of the Eastern bishops on the Nicene controversy. His De trinitate libri XII (359/360), is the first successful Latin expression in Latin of the decisions in Greek by the Council of Nicaea.

Hilary also attended several synods he was in exile, and attacked the Emperor Constantius as Antichrist and persecutor of orthodox Christians. Eventually, he returned to Poitiers in 361, shortly after the accession of Emperor Julian.

Back in his diocese in 361, Hilary spent most of the first two or three years trying to persuade the local clergy to abandon Arian subordinationism.

According to Saint Jerome, Saint Hilary died in Poitiers in 367.

His work shows many traces of vigorous independent thought. He wrote the first Latin commentary on Saint Matthew’s Gospel to survive in its entirety. This was strongly influenced by Tertullian and Cyprian, and made use of several classical writers. He also wrote an early commentary on the Psalms.

His major theological work was his 12 books now known as De Trinitate, written largely during his exile and completed after his return to Gaul.

Some consider Saint Hilary as the first Latin Christian hymn writer, because Saint Jerome says he produced a liber hymnorum, and three hymns are attributed to him. He is the pre-eminent Latin writer of the fourth century (before Ambrose). Saint Augustine calls him “the illustrious doctor of the churches.” For English and Irish educational and legal institutions, Saint Hilary’s festival lies at the start of the Hilary Term which begins in January.

Saint Eusebius of Vercelli (ca 283-371):

‘Martyrium, Heiligen, Eusebius, Vercelli’ by Gaetano Gandolfi (1784)

Eusebius of Vercelli (ca 283-371) was a bishop in Italy. Along with Athanasius, he affirmed the divinity of Christ against Arianism.

Born in Sardinia, he became the first bishop in Vercelli in northern Italy, probably sometime in the mid-340s. At some point he led his clergy to form a monastic community modelled on that of the Eastern cenobites.

In 354, Pope Liberius asked Eusebius to bring a request to the Emperor Constantius II at Milan, pleading for him to call a council to end the dissentions over the status of Athanasius of Alexandria and the debate about Arianism. The synod was held in Milan in 355. When Eusebius refused to condemn Athanasius he was exiled, first to Scythopolis in Syria, where his jailer was of the Arian bishop Patrophilus, then to Cappadocia, and lastly to the Thebaid, in Upper Egypt.

On the accession of Julian, he was free to return to his see in 362. On his way back, Eusebius visited Alexandria, where he attended Athanasius’s synod of 362 which confirmed the divinity of the Holy Spirit and the orthodox doctrine concerning the Incarnation.

He took the synod’s decisions to Antioch, where the Church was divided by schism.

Back in Vercelli in 363, he continued to be a leader with Hilary of Poitiers in defeating Arianism in the Western Church, and was one of the chief opponents of the Arian Bishop Auxentius of Milan. He died in 370/371. Later legends of his martyrdom have no historical basis.

Saint Ambrose of Milan (ca 340-397):

Saint Ambrose of Milan … the reluctant bishop

Aurelius Ambrosius, or Saint Ambrose (ca 340-397), was Archbishop of Milan and one of the most influential church figures in the fourth century. He is one of the four original doctors of the Church, and is notable for his influence on Saint Augustine.

Ambrose was born into a Roman Christian family ca 340 and was raised in Trier. His father was the praetorian prefect of Gaul, and his mother was a woman of intellect and piety.

After the early death of his father, Ambrose followed his father’s career in law and public administration. He was the Governor of Aemilia-Liguria in northern Italy in 374 when he was elected the Bishop of Milan.

In the late fourth century there was a deep conflict in the Diocese of Milan between the Orthodox Christians and the Arians. The Arian Bishop of Milan, Auxentius, died in 374, and the Arians challenged the succession. Ambrose went to the church where the election was to take place, to prevent an uproar, but his address was interrupted by a call: “Ambrose, bishop!” – a cry that was taken up by the whole assembly.

At first he refused, for he was neither baptised nor theologically educated. He tried to hide in a colleague’s house seeking to hide, but his host gave him up and within a week Ambrose was baptised, ordained and consecrated Bishop of Milan.

As bishop, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, gave his money to the poor, and gave away his lands.

According to tradition, Ambrose immediately and forcefully stopped Arianism in Milan. He studied theology, Greek, the Old Testament and Greek authors like Philo, Origen, Athanasius, and Basil of Caesarea, with whom he exchanged letters.

His rhetorical abilities impressed Augustine of Hippo, who hitherto had thought poorly of Christian preachers.

Two Arian leaders, Bishop Palladius of Ratiaria and Bishop Secundianus of Singidunum, tried to persuade the Emperor Gratian to call a general council. Instead, however, he called a council of the Western bishops, and a synod of 32 bishops met at Aquileia in 381. Ambrose was elected president and Palladius and Secundianus were deposed. But in 385/386 the Emperor and his mother Justina, along with many clergy and laity, especially military, professed Arianism. Ambrose refused the Arian demand for two churches in Milan for the Arians, despite the imperial position.

Bishop Ambrose declared: “If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.”

Two incidents give rise to accusations against Ambrose of anti-semitism. In a sermon, he warned young Christians against intermarriage with Jews. Then in 388, the Bishop of Callinicum in Mesopotamia and many monks led a mob that attacked and razed the local synagogue. When the Emperor Theodosius the Great ordered the synagogue rebuilt the at the expense of the rioters, including the bishop, Ambrose protested to the Emperor:

“Shall the bishop be compelled to re-erect a synagogue? Can he religiously do this thing? If he obey the emperor, he will become a traitor to his faith; if he disobey him, a martyr. What real wrong is there, after all, in destroying a synagogue, a ‘home of perfidy, a home of impiety’' in which Christ is daily blasphemed? Indeed, he must consider himself no less guilty than this poor bishop; at least to the extent that he made no concealment of his wish that all synagogues should be destroyed, that no such places of blasphemy be further allowed to exist.”

In 390, Ambrose excommunicated the Emperor Theodosius for the massacre of 7,000 people in Thessaloniki in 390, and readmitted the emperor to the Eucharist only after several months of penance. Theodosius died in Milan in 395, and two years later, on 4 April 397, Ambrose also died.

Ambrose ranks with Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, as one of the Latin Doctors of the Church. He is compared with Hilary of Poitiers, who falls short of Ambrose’s administrative excellence but demonstrated greater theological ability.

Ambrose also displayed a kind of liturgical flexibility that kept in mind that liturgy was a tool to serve people in worshiping God, and ought not to become a rigid entity that is invariable from place to place. His advice to Augustine of Hippo on this point was to follow local liturgical custom. “When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are.”

He refused to be drawn into a false conflict over which particular local church had the “right” liturgical form where there was no substantial problem. His advice remains: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

His spiritual successor, Augustine, whose conversion was helped by Ambrose’s sermons, owes more to him than to any writer except the Apostle Paul.

Sayings of Saint Ambrose:

“There is no time of life past learning something.”

“No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks. Neither angel, nor archangel, not yet even the Lord himself (who alone can say ‘I am with you’), can, when we have sinned, release us, unless we bring repentance with us.”

“The Church of the Lord is built upon the rock of the apostles among so many dangers in the world; it therefore remains unmoved. The Church’s foundation is unshakable and firm against assaults of the raging sea. Waves lash at the Church but do not shatter it. Although the elements of this world constantly beat upon the Church with crashing sounds, the Church possesses the safest harbour of salvation for all in distress. There is a stream which flows down on God’s saints like a torrent. There is also a rushing river giving joy to the heart that is at peace and makes for peace.”

“I can revel in none of my deeds, I have nothing to boast about; therefore, I will glory in Christ. I will not glory because I am just, but I will glory because I have been redeemed. I will not glory because I am exempt from sins, but I will glory because my sins have been forgiven. I will not glory because I have been a help nor because someone has helped me, but because Christ is my advocate with the Father, and Christ’s blood was poured out on me. My sin has become for me the price of the Redemption through which Christ came to me. For my sake, Christ tasted death. Sin is more profitable than innocence. Innocence had made me arrogant, sin made me humble.”

Saint Maximus of Turin (ca 380-ca 465):

Saint Maximus of Turin … author of numerous discourses

Saint Maximus of Turin is the first known Bishop of Turin. He was probably born in Rhaetia in the Alps ca 380, and died shortly after 465. We know only two reliable dates in his life. In 451, he was at the synod of Milan where the bishops of Northern Italy accepted Pope Leo I’s celebrated letter (Epistola Dogmatica) setting forth the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation against the Nestorians and the Eutychians. The second date is 465, when he was at the Synod of Rome.

He is the author of numerous discourses, including 118 homilies, 116 sermons, and six treatises or tracts.

Among the many topics discussed in his discourses are: abstinence during Lent; no fasting or kneeling at prayers during Paschal time; fasting on the Vigil of Pentecost; the impending Barbarian invasion and the Barbarian destruction of the Church of Milan; pagan superstitions; and the supremacy of Saint Peter.

Saint Jerome (ca 347-420):

Saint Jerome removes a thorn from a lion’s paw … a painting by Niccolò Antonio Colantonio

Saint Jerome (Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, Εὐσέβιος Σωφρόνιος Ἱερώνυμος) is a theologian and historian, and one of the four Latin Doctors of the Church, along with Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose, and Pope Gregory I. He is best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), and his commentaries on books of the Bible. After Saint Augustine, Jerome is the second most voluminous writer in ancient Latin Christianity. He is the he only Latin Father named in the 39 Articles (see Article 6).

Saint Jerome was born at Stridon ca 347, on the borders of Dalmatia and Pannonia. He was not baptised until ca 360-366, after he went to Rome to study rhetoric and philosophy. There he learned Latin and some Greek.

On Sundays the sepulchres of the Apostles and martyrs in the catacombs, an experience that reminded him of the terrors of hell: “The black night closed around and there came to my mind the line of Vergil, Horror ubique animos, simul ipsa silentia terrent (‘On all sides round horror spread wide; the very silence breathed a terror on my soul’).”

After several years in Rome, he travelled to Gaul, settled in Trier where he studied theology and copied works by Hilary of Poitiers, including his commentary on the Psalms and the treatise De synodis. He then moved to Aquileia before setting out in 373 on a journey through Thrace and Asia Minor into northern Syria.

In Antioch, he had a vision that led him to lay aside his secular studies and devote his life to God. He spent time in the desert of Chalcis, south-west of Antioch, and made his first attempt to learn Hebrew.

Back in Antioch in 378/379, he was ordained by Bishop Paulinus. He then went to Constantinople to study Scripture under Saint Gregory Nazianzus. He was in Rome for the synod of 382, called to end the schism in Antioch. He remained in Rome to revise of the Latin Bible, basing his work on the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. He also updated the Psalter based on the Septuagint. This marks the beginning of his work on what became the Latin Vulgate Bible, his most important achievement.

In 385, he left Rome and returned to Antioch with several friends, and later that winter they visited Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the holy places of Galilee, and then Egypt, including the Catechetical School of Alexandria.

He returned to Palestine in 388, and spent the rest of his life in a hermit’s cell near Bethlehem. There he worked on his most important works: his translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew text, his scriptural commentaries, his catalogue of Christian authors, his dialogue against the Pelagians, his treatises against Origenism.

By 390, he turned to translating the Old Testament from Hebrew, having previously translated portions from the Septuagint from Alexandria. He believed that the Council of Jamnia, or mainstream rabbinical Judaism, had rejected the Septuagint as valid Jewish scriptural texts because of what were ascertained as mistranslations along with Hellenistic heretical elements. He completed this work by 405. He died near Bethlehem on 30 September 420.

Prior to Jerome’s Vulgate, all Latin translations of the Old Testament were based on the Septuagint not the Hebrew. Jerome’s decision to use a Hebrew text instead of the Septuagint went against the advice of most other Christians, including Augustine, who thought the Septuagint inspired.

Modern scholarship questions the actual quality of Jerome’s knowledge of Hebrew, and many scholars believe the Greek Hexapla is the main source for his iuxta Hebraeos translation of the Old Testament.

Unlike his contemporaries, he emphasises the difference between the Hebrew Bible Apocrypha and the Hebraica veritas of the proto-canonical books. We can see evidence of this in his introductions to the Solomonic writings, the Book of Tobit and the Book of Judith.

Saint Chromatius of Aquileia (d. ca 406/407):

Saint Chromatius of Aquileia ... opposed Arianism zealously

Saint Chromatius, Bishop of Aquileia, grew up in Aquileia, and was ordained priest there ca 387 or 388. He was one of the most celebrated bishops of his time and was in correspondence with his contemporaries such as Saint Ambrose and Saint Jerome. At his encouragement, Rufinus translated the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius into Latin.

In the bitter quarrel between Saint Jerome and Rufinus concerning Origenism, Chromatius, while rejecting the false teachings of Origen of Alexandria, attempted to make peace between the disputants.

Chromatius opposed Arianism zealously and rooted it out of his diocese. He gave loyal support to Saint John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, during his trials.

Quotation from Saint Chromatius of Aquileia:

“The Lord has shown that we cannot have the good work of perfect love if we only love those from whom in turn we know the return of mutual love will be paid in kind. Hence the Lord wishes us to overcome the common law of human love by the law of Gospel love, so that we may show the affection of our love not only toward those who love us but even toward our enemies.”

Saint Paulinus of Nola (ca 354-431):

A Gothic revival stained glass window in Linz Cathedral, Austria, showing Saint Paulinus of Nola (Photograph: Wolfgang Sauber/Wikipedia)

Saint Paulinus of Nola (Pontius Meropius Anicius Paulinus), who was born in Bordeaux, was a Latin poet and letter-writer, and a convert to Christianity faith. His renunciation of wealth and a political career in favour of an ascetic life was held up as an example by many of his contemporaries, including Augustine, Jerome, Martin of Tours and Ambrose.

After his marriage to Therasia, he converted to Christianity and was baptised ca 389. After the death of their infant child, the couple decided to live a secluded religious life, and he was ordained a priest on Christmas Day 393/394.

In 395, they moved from Spain to Nola, near Naples, where she died ca 408. Soon after her death he was ordained Bishop of Nola, perhaps in 410. He died in Nola on 22 June 431.

In later life, Paulinus took part in many church synods investigating various controversies of the time, including Pelagianism, and he may have been indirectly responsible for Augustine’s Confessions.

Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430):

The Vision of Saint Augustine, or Saint Augustine in His Study, by Vittore Carpaccio (1502)

Many of us are familiar with Augustine’s famous prayer: “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” But one of my favourite quotes from him is: “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

Augustine was Bishop of Hippo Regius, present-day Annaba in Algeria, in the Roman province of Africa in the mid-fourth century. His writings influenced the development of Western Christianity, and his thoughts profoundly influenced the mediaeval worldview.

The American writer Thomas Cahill considers Augustine the first mediaeval man and the last classical man. Many Protestants, especially Calvinists, consider him to be one of the theological fathers of the Reformation because of his teachings on salvation and divine grace.

The Old Court in Corpus Christi College ... part of Corpus Christi College stands on the site of the Augustinian foundation in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Augustine’s early life

In his early years, Augustine was heavily influenced by Manichaeism and later by the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus. After his conversion to Christianity and his baptism in the year 387, he developed his own approach to philosophy and theology, accommodating a variety of methods and perspectives. He believed grace is indispensable to human freedom, and he framed the concepts of ‘Original Sin and the ‘Just War.’

As the Roman Empire fell apart in the West, Augustine developed his concept of the Church as a spiritual City of God, in his book of the same name, distinct from the material earthly, secular city.

Augustine was born in 354 in Thagaste (now Souk Ahras in Algeria) in Roman Africa. His father, Patricius, was a pagan, and his mother, Monica, was a Christian. His ancestors may have included Berbers, Latins and Phoenicians, and his mother, Monica, was probably of Berber descent.

At the age of 11, Augustine was sent to school at Madaurus (now M’Daourouch), a small Numidian city about 19 miles south of Thagaste. There he became familiar with Latin literature, as well as pagan beliefs and practices. At home in 369 and 370, he read Cicero’s lost dialogue, Hortensius, which left a lasting impression on him and sparked his interests in philosophy. At 17, he went to Carthage – now a suburb of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia – to continue his education in rhetoric.

Hedonist and Manichaean conflicts

Monica raised Augustine as a Christian, but much to her despair he left the Church to follow the dualist cult of Manichaeism, a synthesis of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. Manichaean ways of thinking later influenced the development of some of his ideas, including the nature of good and evil, the idea of hell, the separation of groups into elect, hearers, and sinners, and his hostility to the flesh and sexual activity.

Meanwhile, Augustine was living a hedonistic lifestyle, and during this period he uttered his famous prayer: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet” (da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo). In Carthage, he began an affair with a young woman who remained his lover for over 13 years and together they had a son Adeodatus.

After teaching grammar in Thagaste and rhetoric in Carthage, he moved to Rome in 383 to establish a school of rhetoric. From Rome, he moved to Milan in 384 to teach rhetoric at the imperial court.

Conversion, baptism, ordination

In Milan, his life changed and he had begun to drift away from Manichaeism, partly because of a disappointing meeting with the Manichean bishop, Faustus of Mileve. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, then came to have great influence on Augustine. Ambrose was a master of rhetoric like Augustine, but older and more experienced.

Monica followed her son to Milan, where she arranged a marriage for him. He abandoned the woman he had loved and lived with for so long, and later, in his Confessions, described how he was hurt by this, although claiming that over time the experience decreased his sensitivity to pain.

Yet, while waiting for his 11-year-old fiancée to come of age, he found another lover. Eventually, he broke off his engagement, never renewed his relationship with the woman he had lived with for so many years, and then abandoned his second lover too. He later said that he could not live a life in the love of wisdom if he married.

In 386, inspired by the Desert life of Saint Antony, Augustine had a deep personal crisis. He converted to Christianity, abandoned his teaching career in Milan, gave up any ideas of marriage, and decided to devote himself entirely to God, to the priesthood, and to celibacy. He said his conversion was prompted by a child-like voice telling him: “tolle, lege” (“take up and read”).

Ambrose baptised Augustine, along with his son, Adeodatus, at the Easter Vigil in Milan in 387. A year later, in 388, he returned to Africa. On the journey back, Monica died, and Adeodatus died soon after. Back in Africa, Augustine completed his apology, On the Holiness of the Catholic Church, sold property he had inherited and gave the money to the poor. He kept only the family house, but turned this into a monastic foundation for himself and a group of friends.

In 391, he was ordained priest in Hippo Regius (now Annaba in Algeria). There he became a famous preacher – more than 350 of his sermons may have survived – and he was noted for combating the Manichaean religion, to which he had once adhered.

Siege and death

In 396, he was made coadjutor bishop of Hippo, and became the diocesan bishop soon after, remaining there until he died in 430. Much of his later life was recorded by his friend Possidius, Bishop of Calama (present-day Guelma, Algeria). Possidius admired Augustine for his intellect and his gifts as an orator. He describes a man who ate sparingly, worked tirelessly, despised gossip, shunned the temptations of the flesh, and exercised prudence in the financial stewardship of his diocese.

Shortly before Augustine’s death, Roman North Africa was invaded by the Vandals, who had converted to Arianism. They besieged Hippo in the spring of 430, while Augustine was on his sick bed.

He died on 28 August 430, while Hippo was still under siege. He spent his last days in prayer and repentance, with the penitential Psalms hung on his walls so he could read them. Shortly after his death, the Vandals lifted the siege of Hippo, but they returned later and burned the city.

Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, stands on the site of an earlier Augustinian foundation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A prolific writer

Augustine was a prolific author, and the list of his surviving works consists of more than 100 separate titles, including apologetic works against the heresies of the Arians, Donatists, Manichaeans and Pelagians, texts on doctrine, Biblical commentaries, sermons and letters.

He is probably best known for his Confessions (13 books), an account of his earlier life, and Of the City of God (22 books), written to restore the confidence of Christians badly shaken by the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. In his On the Trinity, he developed his ‘psychological analogy’ of the Trinity; this is seen by many as one of the greatest theological works of all time. He also wrote On free choice of the Will, considering why God gives humans free will that can be used for evil.

Augustine as a philosopher:

In his philosophical and theological reasoning, he was greatly influenced by Stoicism, Platonism and Neo-Platonism, particularly the work of Plotinus. In addition, he was influenced by the works of Virgil, Cicero and Aristotle. Although he later abandoned Neo-Platonism, some ideas can still be found in his early writings. His generally favourable view of Neo-Platonic thought contributed to the acceptance of Greek thought among Christians and later in the European intellectual tradition.

Saint Thomas Aquinas took much of Augustine’s ideas while creating his own unique synthesis of Greek and Christian thought after the rediscovery of the work of Aristotle. Augustine’s thinking influenced Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, and Reformation theologians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin were inspired by him later.

Augustine’s early writings on the human will also inspired or challenged many philosophers, from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

An interesting example of Augustine’s advanced philosophical thinking is found in his writings on the concept of time. Augustine believed that everything in the universe was created simultaneously by God, and not in six calendar days, as a literal interpretation of Genesis might require. He argued that the six-day structure of creation presented in Genesis represents a logical framework, rather than the passage of time in a physical way – it was a spiritual, rather than physical, meaning. One reason for this interpretation is a passage in Sirach 18: 1: “He created all things at once.” He took this as proof that the days in Genesis had to be taken non-literally.

In the City of God, Augustine rejected the immortality of the human race proposed by pagans. He does not envision original sin as the origin of structural changes in the universe, and even suggests that Adam and Eve were already created mortal before the Fall. Augustine recognises that the interpretation of the creation story is difficult, and suggests we should be willing to change our minds about it as new information comes up.

The latter part of his Confessions consists of an extended meditation on the nature of time. Bertrand Russell said it is “a very admirable relativistic theory of time ... It contains a better and clearer statement than Kant’s of the subjective theory of time – a theory which, since Kant, has been widely accepted among philosophers.”

Augustine believed God exists outside of time in the “eternal present.” He said time only exists within the created universe because only in space is time discernible through motion and change.

His meditations on the nature of time are closely linked to his consideration of the human ability of memory. His descriptive approach to intentionality, memory, and language as these phenomena are experienced within consciousness and time has both anticipated and inspired the insights of modern phenomenology and hermeneutics.

Augustine’s theology of lust, sex, war and the Church

As a theologian, Augustine’s most controversial thoughts are in the areas of free-will, ‘Original Sin’ and pre-destination; his views on sex and lust; his ecclesiology or theology of the Church; and his foundational thinking on the ‘Just War’ theory.

Augustine, free will, lust and ‘Original Sin’:

Augustine’s concept of ‘Original Sin’ was developed in his works against the Pelagians.

Augustine taught that Adam’s guilt, which was transmitted to his descendants, much enfeebles their freedom of will, but does not destroy it. For Augustine, the ‘Original Sin’ of Adam and Eve was either an act of foolishness followed by pride and disobedience to God or the opposite: pride came first. The first couple disobeyed God, who had told them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2: 17). The tree was a symbol of the order of creation. Self-centeredness made Adam and Eve eat of it, and so they failed to acknowledge and respect the world as it was created by God, with its hierarchy of beings and values. They would not have fallen into pride and lack of wisdom if Satan had not sown into their senses “the root of evil” (radix mali). Their nature was wounded by concupiscence or libido, which affected human intelligence and will, as well as affections and desires, including sexual desire.

Augustine’s understandings of the consequences of original sin and of the necessity of redeeming grace was developed in the struggle against Pelagius – who may have been of Irish birth – and his disciples, the Pelagians. They did not agree that libido wounded human will and mind, insisting that human nature was given the power to act, to speak, and to think when God created it. Human nature cannot lose its moral capacity to do good.

The Pelagians insisted that human affections and desires were not touched by the fall either, and that immorality, including fornication, is exclusively a matter of will. But Augustine argued that the apparent disobedience of the flesh to the spirit is one of the results of original sin, and the punishment of Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience to God. (see Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 1.31-32.)

By malum (evil), he was referring primarily to concupiscence, which he regarded as a dominant vice that causes moral disorder in men and women.

So, were Augustine’s beliefs in this area rooted in his long involvement with the Manicheans, who taught that the original sin was carnal knowledge?

Or was he influenced more by the neo-Platonist Plotinus, who taught that only through disdain for the desires of the flesh could one reach the highest state of humanity?

Or, as some writers suggest, was Augustine’s attitude to expressions of human sexuality and sex shaped by his need to reject his own highly sensual nature?

Augustine teaches that human sexuality has been wounded, together with the whole of human nature, and requires redemption. That healing is a process realised in conjugal acts. The virtue of continence is achieved through the grace of the sacrament of Christian marriage, which becomes therefore remedium concupiscentiae – a remedy for concupiscence. But, he says, the redemption of human sexuality is fully realised only in the resurrection of the body.

Augustine believed the sin of Adam is inherited by all humans and that ‘Original Sin’ is transmitted by concupiscence, which he regarded as the passion of both soul and body, making humanity massa damnata (a mass of perdition or condemned crowd). Because of ‘Original Sin’, he said, humanity’s free will was much enfeebled, though not destroyed.

For Augustine, the evil was not in the sexual act itself, but in the emotions that accompany it. He contrasts love and lust: “By love I mean the impulse of one’s mind to enjoy God on his own account and to enjoy oneself and one’s neighbour on account of God, and by lust I mean the impulse of one’s mind to enjoy oneself and one’s neighbour and any corporeal thing not on account of God.” (See Confessions 3.37).

Proper love, he says, exercises a denial of selfish pleasure and subjugates bodily desire to God. Chastity, he says, is “a virtue of the mind, and is not lost by rape, but is lost by the intention of sin, even if unperformed.” His life experience led him to consider lust to be one of the most grievous sins, and a serious obstacle to the virtuous life.

He speaks of members of the Church being divided into “the roses of martyrs,” “the lilies of virgins,” “the ivy of married people,” and the “violets of widows.” (see Sermon 304.2). This reflects Augustine’s Platonic approach to hierarchies in creation and in life. But it sounds ugly to my ears to speak of married people as weeds and martyrs, virgins and widows as flowers.

Augustine saw the human being as a perfect unity of two substances: soul and body. In his late treatise On Care be Had for the Dead (section 5, 420 AD), he said the body should be respected because it belonged to the very nature of the human person: “In no wise are the bodies to be spurned … for these pertain not to ornament or aid which is applied from without, but to the very nature of man.”

Augustine’s favourite image to describe body-soul unity is marriage: caro tua, coniunx tua – your body is your wife. Initially, the two elements were in perfect harmony. Since the Fall, though, they are now experiencing dramatic combat between one another.

He said the body is a three-dimensional object composed of the four elements, whereas the soul has no spatial dimensions. Augustine did not go into detail to explain the metaphysics of the soul-body union. They are metaphysically distinct, but to be human is to be a composite of soul and body, and the soul is superior to the body. This is grounded in his hierarchical classification of things into those that merely exist, those that exist and live, and those that exist, live, and have intelligence or reason.

Augustine’s doctrine about liberum arbitrium or the free will and its inability to respond to the will of God without divine grace is interpreted in terms of Predestination: grace is irresistible, results in conversion, and leads to perseverance.

Augustine taught that the eternal fate of the soul is determined at death, and that purgatorial fires of the intermediate state purify only those who die in communion with the Church.

Thomas Aquinas offered a more optimistic view of humanity than that of Augustine and his ideas about original sin leave the reason, will, and passions of fallen humanity with their natural powers even after the Fall. However, Luther and Calvin argued that ‘Original Sin’ completely destroys liberty.

Both Lutherans and Calvinists claim that, according to Augustine, human beings are utterly depraved in nature. According to them, humans are spoiled by the original sin to the extent that the very presence of concupiscence (fomes peccati, incendiary of sin) is already a personal sin.

The Calvinist view of Augustine’s teachings rests on the assertion that God has fore-ordained, from eternity, those who will be saved. The number of the elect is fixed. God has chosen the elect certainly and gratuitously, without any previous merit on their part.

Baptism and ‘Original Sin’:

The concept of ‘Original Sin’ as put forward by Augustine would turn the Sacrament of Baptism into a necessity and a rite for washing the soul free of sin, rather than it being the Sacrament of regeneration and of incorporation into the Body of Christ. It became a ‘pass card’ to heaven, rather than entrance to membership of the Church.

Arguing against the Pelagians, Augustine stressed the importance of infant baptism. However, when it comes to the question of whether baptism is an absolute necessity for salvation, Augustine refined his beliefs during his lifetime, confusing later theologians about his position.

In one sermon, he said: “God does not remit sins but to the baptised” (A Sermon to the Catechumens on the Creed, par 16.) But in his City of God, he indicates he believes in an exception for children born to Christian parents, arguing that in the final days or at the Apocalypse there could not be a scenario where some Christian children have not yet been baptised and whose parents could not “find some way of bringing them to the laver of regeneration.” (see City of God, 20.8.)

Augustine, the Church and Sacraments:

Augustine followed Cyprian in teaching that the bishops of the church are the successors of the apostles. Augustine developed his doctrine of the Church principally as his response to the Donatist schismatics. He taught a distinction between the “church visible” and “church invisible.” The former is the institutional body on earth which proclaims salvation and administers the sacraments; the latter is the invisible body of the elect, made up of genuine believers from all ages, and who are known only to God.

Augustine says the visible church will be made up of “wheat” and “tares,” or good and wicked people (see Matthew 13: 30), until the end of time. This concept countered the Donatists’ claim that they were the only “true” or “pure” Church on earth.

In his City of God, he speaks of the Church as a heavenly city or kingdom, ruled by love, which finally triumphs.

Reacting against the Donatists, Augustine developed a distinction between the “regularity” and the “validity” of a sacrament. Regular sacraments are performed by the bishops and priest of the Church, while sacraments performed by schismatics are considered irregular. In this, Augustine differs from Cyprian, who taught that converts from schismatic movements must be re-baptised.

For Augustine, the validity of the sacraments does not depend on the holiness of the priests who perform them (ex opera operato). He accepts that irregular sacraments are still valid, provided they are done in the name of Christ and in the manner prescribed by the Church.

Augustine’s thinking is reflected later in the 39 Articles, which say that the worthiness of the minister does not affect the validity of the sacrament:

“Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.” (Article 26)

Augustine was convinced of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist: “Christ was carried in his own hands when, referring to his own body, he said, ‘This is my body’ [Matthew 26: 26]. For he carried that body in his hands.”

Augustine explicitly describes the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ: “That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ.

“What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ. This has been said very briefly, which may perhaps be sufficient for faith; yet faith does not desire instruction.”

Augustine and the ‘Just War’ theory:

Augustine agreed strongly with the conventional wisdom of the time that Christians should be pacifists in their personal lives. But he argued that this did not apply to the defence of innocents. In essence, the pursuit of peace must include the option of fighting to preserve peace in the long-term. Such a war could not be pre-emptive, but defensive, to restore peace.

Later, Thomas Aquinas developed Augustine’s thinking to define the conditions under which a war could be deemed to be just:

1, War must be for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain or as an exercise of power.

2, War must be waged by a properly constituted authority such as the state.

3, Peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.

Augustine and education:

Augustine is an influential figure in the theory of education. Teachers should respond positively to questions from students, no matter how much they interrupt teachers. He identified three categories of students, and thought teachers should adapt their teaching styles to each student’s learning style.

The three types of students are: those who have been well-educated by knowledgeable teachers; those who have had no education; and those who have a poor education but believe themselves to be well-educated.

Augustine stressed the importance of showing the third type of student the difference between having words and having understanding, and of helping the student to remain humble with his acquisition of knowledge.

Was Augustine a heretic?

The shrine of Saint Gregory Palamas in Thessaloniki ... some Orthodox theologians argue that Augustine was in error, if not a heretic (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Augustine was canonised by popular acclaim, and was later recognised in the West as a Doctor of the Church in 1298 by Pope Boniface VIII. But most of his works were not translated into Greek until around 1360 by Demetrios Cydones.

Generally, Orthodox theologians see Augustine as a saint whose doctrines have been deformed or distorted by the West and that he erred on certain teachings. Many Orthodox Christians identify errors in his theology – especially his thinking that gave rise to the addition of the filioque in the Nicene Creed – and regard him as one of the major factors in the Great Schism. Although there has never been any conciliar condemnation of Augustine nor of his writings, some Orthodox theologians regard him as a heretic and have excluded him from the list of saints.

The most important doctrinal controversy surrounding his name is the filioque. Other doctrines that are not acceptable in the Orthodox Church are his views on original sin, on the doctrine of grace, and on predestination.

A major Orthodox theologian, Saint Photios, also argues that Augustine erred, but goes on to say that a saint who erred on a doctrine that was instituted after his death is not guilty of heresy and that the holiness of the person was not lessened. He says that while Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome use the filioque, they did not intend to include it in the Creed.

During the debates on Hesychasm in the 14th century, Augustinian theology was condemned as presented by Barlaam, a Calabrian monk who caused the controversy. This resulted in the ultimate condemnation in the councils of the 14th century of western Augustinianism as it was put forward by Barlaam.

Saint Gregory Palamas, who was the principal figure in this debate, maintained that God’s essence is totally transcendent, and he emphasised that we cannot know or comprehend God’s essence. He rejected the Augustinian view of revelation by created symbols and illumined vision, and Augustine’s view that the vision of God is an intellectual experience.

Because of Barlaam’s arguments, the East rejected Augustinian theology, seeing Augustine as accepting the Neo-Platonist presupposition that a saint is able to have a vision of the divine essence as the archetype of all beings. Saint Gregory Palamas calls this the Greek pagan error and maintains that humans attain theosis through participation in the divine energies.

At the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438, bringing together theologians of the Latin West and the Greek East, the authority of Augustine was debated. There, Saint Gennadios Scholarios claimed: “We [the Orthodox] believe in the Church; they [the Latins] in Augustine and Jerome.” He argued that no-one is a “saint” in isolation; if that were the case, the Church would be subservient to the teachers and change according to the whims of strong personalities.

Stating that even saints may err, Scholarios argued against those who based false doctrines on the validity and holiness of Augustine.

Scholarios traces Augustine’s philosophical approach to revelation to the Manichean phase in his life. His pagan and Manichean training remained with him all his life, so that Scholarios says: “Lord deliver us from the Augustinian dialectic.” Scholarios is critical of Augustine’s theology because he feels that he has not discarded the influence of his pagan Greek philosophical training before his conversion to Christianity.

The 18h century Orthodox theologian, Nikodemos the Hagiorite, included the name of Saint Augustine in the synaxaristes or the book of the saints on 15 June. But some Orthodox theologians have condemned Augustine recently as an innovator of heretical teachings. Those who are extremely critical include Father John Romanides and Father Michael Azkoul.

In his doctoral dissertation at the University of Athens, Father Romanides dismissed Augustine as the source of all the western heresies and deformation of dogma. In his Franks, Romans, Feudalism and Doctrine, Father Romanides severely attacks Augustine as heretical. He points to the thrust of Augustine’s theological errors on the filioique, and says his basic mistake lies in his rejection of the “distinction between what persons are and what they have (even though this is a biblical distinction) and identified what God is with what He has.”

Father Romanides says Augustine “never understood the distinction between 1, the common essence and energies of the Holy Trinity; and 2, the incommunicable individualities of the divine hypostases.” He criticises Augustine for speculating on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and claims he confuses “generation” and “procession,” and identifies them with the divine energies.

He says Augustine ignores the Patristic tradition, making presuppositions based on philosophical hermenuetics and not on the Church Fathers. He says Augustine completely misinterprets the Scriptures because he identifies the Divine Essence with the Divine Energies.

Father Michael Azkoul, a conservative, old-calendarist theologian, also attacks Augustine’s theology and his works as heretical. He points out that Augustine was not known in the East and had not, until recently, been listed in the list of saints. He states: “His writings lie at the basis of every heresy which now afflicts the religion of the West.”

Father Azkoul argues that Augustine fell into several heresies and became the source for the heretical West. So he blames Augustine for the deformation of the theology of the West.

Saint Vincent of Lerins (died 445):

Saint Vincent of Lerins: ubique, semper, ab omnibus

Saint Vincent of Lérins (Vincentius), a Gallic author of early Christian writings, was born in Toulouse. He entered the monastery of Lérins (Isle St Honorat), where under the pseudonym of Peregrinus he wrote his Commonitorium (434), in which he refers to the Council of Ephesus (431). He defends calling the Virgin Mary Theotokos, in opposition to the teachings of Nestorius which were condemned at the Ephesus.

Vincent’s object in his Commonitorium is to provide himself with a general rule to distinguish Christian truth from heresy. He commits what he has learnt to writing so he have it for reference as a Commonitory, or Remembrancer, to refresh his memory.

The Commonitorium emphasises the primacy of scripture as the ground of truth He offers three tests of accurate scripture interpretation: universality, antiquity, and consent.

Vincent has been charged with semi-pelagianism, but it is not clear whether he actually held those views, and he never expresses in the Commonitorium. It is possible that he held to a position closer to the Eastern Orthodox position of today.

He certainly seems to have objected to much of what Augustine wrote as “new” theology, he shared Saint John Cassian’s reservations about Augustine’s views on the role of grace, and omits Augustine’s name from his list of theologians and teachers who made significant contributions to the defence and spread of the Gospel.

The famous threefold test of orthodoxy expressed by Saint Vincent of Lérins is: “Care must especially be had that that be held which was believed everywhere [ubique], always [semper], and by all [ab omnibus].” By this triple norm of diffusion, endurance, and universality, a Christian can distinguish religious truth from error.

Quotation from Saint Vincent of Lérins:

“If one yields ground on any single point of Catholic doctrine, one will later have to yield later in another, and again in another, and so on until such surrenders come to be something normal and acceptable. And when one gets used to rejecting dogma bit by bit, the final result will be the repudiation of it altogether.”

Pope Gregory I (ca 540-604):

Saint Gregory the Great ... his papacy marks the recovery of the Latin Church

Only two Popes, Leo I and Gregory I, have been given the popular title of “the Great.” Both served in the difficult times of the Barbarian invasions of Italy.

Saint Gregory the Great (ca 540-604), who was Pope from 590 until he died in 604, is a Doctor of the Church and one of the Latin Fathers. He is revered as a saint in many parts of the Church, including among the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and some Lutheran churches.

His life story bridges the gap between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the end of the dark ages, between the Patristic period and the mediaeval church. His great concerns included reform and innovation in monasticism, pastoral care, ecclesial structures, liturgy and church music.

Saint Gregory was born into a patrician family about 540, and became Prefect of Rome in 573. Shortly afterwards he retired to a monastic life in a community he founded in his ancestral home on the Coelian Hill.

Pope Pelagius II appointed him as his apocrisiarius or Ambassador to Constantinople in 579. Not long after his return home, Pope Pelagius died of the plague, and in 590 Gregory was elected as his successor. He was the first of the popes to come from a monastic background, and his life was a true witness to the title he assumed for his office: “Servant of the servants of God.”

Saint Gregory’s pontificate was one of strenuous activity. He organised the defence of Rome against the attacks of the Lombards, and fed the people from papal granaries in Sicily. He administered “the patrimony of Saint Peter” with energy and efficiency.

Following the Barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome, the recovery of the Latin Church only truly begins with the papacy of Gregory I. His ordering of the Church’s liturgy and chant has moulded the spirituality of the Western Church until the present day. He is respected for his prolific writings, and for his exceptional efforts in revising the Roman liturgy of his day.

Saint Gregory (centre) among seven Fathers of the Church carved on the south side of Lichfield Cathedral (from left): Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Gregory the Great is credited with re-energising the Church’s missionary work in northern Europe. In 596, he sent Saint Augustine on a mission to England. Saint Augustine is counted as the first Archbishop of Canterbury, while the historian the Venerable Bede has called Gregory the Apostle of the English.

He promoted monasticism, made important changes in the liturgy and fostered the development of liturgical music. He gave the Roman Schola Cantorum its definite form. The mainstream form of Western plainchant, standardised in the late eighth century, was attributed to Pope Gregory I and so became known as Gregorian chant.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Gregory is credited with compiling the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts, which is celebrated on Wednesdays, Fridays, and certain other weekdays during Great Lent.

Saint Gregory the Great died on 12 March 604, and was buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Immediately after his death, he was canonised by popular acclaim.

Saint Gregory is a Doctor of the Church and one of the Latin Fathers. He is well known for his writings, which were more prolific than those of any of his predecessors as pope. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition he is known as Saint Gregory the Dialogist because of his Dialogues. For this reason, English translations of Orthodox texts sometimes name him as Gregory Dialogus.

Throughout the Middle Ages, he was known as “the Father of Christian Worship” because of his exceptional efforts in revising the Roman worship of his day.

The Reformer John Calvin admired Gregory the Great and declared in his Institutes that Gregory was the last good Pope.

Some aphorisms and quotations attributed to Saint Gregory the Great:

Non Angli, sed angeli – “They are not Angles, but angels.” These words are said to have been spoken by Saint Gregory when he first encountered pale-skinned English boys being sold in the slave market in Rome. The Venerable Bede says this also inspired his decision to send Saint Augustine of Canterbury to England.

Ecce locusta – “Look at the locust.” Saint Gregory wanted to go to England as a missionary and started. After setting out, his group stopped on the fourth day to eat lunch. A locust landed on the edge of the Bible he was reading and he exclaimed: “Ecce locusta, look at the locust.” However, reflecting on it he saw it as a sign, as loco sta means “stay in place.” Within the hour, an emissary from the Pope arrived to call him back to Rome.

“I beg that you will not take the present amiss. For anything, however trifling, which is offered from the prosperity of Saint Peter should be regarded as a great blessing, seeing that he will have power both to bestow on you greater things, and to hold out to you eternal benefits with Almighty God.”

Pro cuius amore in eius eloquio nec mihi parco – “For the love of whom (God) I do not spare myself from His Word.” The sense is that since the creator of the human race and redeemer of him unworthy gave him the power of the tongue so that he could witness, what kind of a witness would he be if he did not use it but preferred to speak infirmly.”


5, 10.30 a.m., 6 April 2016: The Desert Fathers

6, 11.30 a.m., 6 April 2016: The Legacy, especially for Anglicans

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This lecture on 30 March 2016 was part of the Year I MTh module, Introduction to Patristics.

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