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Sermon for the Feast of St. Augustine

Sermon for the Feast of Saint Augustine

by Father Richard Cipolla
Parish of St. Mary
Norwalk, Connecticut

Today we keep the feast of St. Augustine in the Traditional calendar, because St. Augustine is the patron saint of this diocese and therefore takes precedence over the Sunday.  At the end of the Mass we will venerate the relic of St. Augustine that brings grace to this parish church.

I do not think it to be an exaggeration to say that, at least in the West, St Augustine is the most important theologian after St. Paul.  Pope Benedict XVI said:  “Augustine defines the essence of the Christian religion.  He saw Christian faith, “not in continuity with earlier religions, but rather in continuity with philosophy as a victory of reason over superstition.”  The extraordinary volume of his writings impresses us deeply, from his Commentaries on Scripture to his doctrinal works and in a special way to his Confessions, a work of extraordinary beauty and insight, that even when read today has a real contemporary force that speaks to all who read this work.  I taught the Confessions in my senior Latin course when I taught at Brunswick School, a secular school.  The students, most of whom were secular in manner of living, even those who considered themselves Catholic, were always interested and impressed by this so modern baring of the soul of this man. No one has ever read the section on the death of St Monica without being deeply moved.

St Augustine traveled a long road to the Catholic Church, so much intellectual stuff, filled with angst, so much baggage, the biggest baggage of which was himself.  And once he saw the truth, he committed entirely and his whole life was expounding that truth and living that truth.   Much of his Catholic life was a struggle with a powerfully seductive version of Christianity known as Pelagianism, named after the British monk, Pelagius, who espoused and promulgated this version of Christianity that was condemned several times as heretical by Church councils.  I do not intend to give an in depth lecture on Pelagianism and its complexity and its ambiguity.  But why St. Augustine’s life long battle against this heretical form of Christianity is important is that the culture in which we live is one in which Pelagianism has not only triumphed but has been superseded or extended to places that even Pelagius would have disavowed.

The distillation of Pelagianism is this: that man can do what is right on his own without the grace of God except in the sense that the grace of God can give little spurts of good energy when the going gets rough, that I can be good with a little help from my friends, to quote Ringo Starr.  I do not do what I am supposed to do given the Law of Moses and the teaching of Christ because I don’t try hard enough.  But with enough grunt force, perhaps living an ascetic life in the desert, and lifting enough spiritual weights, I can do what is right and achieve salvation.  In this view, what Adam did in the Garden of Eden was something merely personal and had no effect on his progeny or on any one else in human history.  God created man in his own image and therefore man has the innate capability to work out his salvation on his own. 

Augustine saw so deeply that this is a contradiction not only of human history itself but more importantly of St. Paul’s understanding of the meaning of the Cross of Jesus Christ.  Paul’s famous passage from Romans:  For I do not do the good I will, but the evil I do not will, I perform.”  That is the human condition.  Pelagius wanted to preserve the radical accountability of the human person before God and feared that if he acknowledged the reality of original sin, man would relinquish his real freedom.  It is Augustine who saw the falsity of Pelagius’ position, for if man could be good and saved himself by his own effort, then the Cross of Jesus Christ has no meaning.

Augustine’s whole life was a fight against this sentimental optimism about the nature of fallen man.  It may be true that especially in his later years, his view of man became unduly dark, but nevertheless he insisted on the reality of sinful man who cannot be saved except through the grace of God as a sheer gift, that grace coming from the Cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the world.  But the fact is that Pelagianism, despite being condemned by councils of the Church never died.  Its seductive understanding of man has persisted throughout western history.  This can be seen not only in the superman of Nietzsche or the apotheosis of history in Hegel or in other philosophical systems based on the self-salvation capacity of man and of his inevitable self-glorification.  It has been seen constantly within Christianity itself whenever the Christian faith is reduced to a salvation system in which grace plays a role but in the end the reality of grace as a sheer gift of God as God himself is reduced to an almost magical understanding of the Sacraments that almost guarantee success in the next life.

In a real sense secular man is the darling of Pelagianism.  Contemporary secular man believes that with enough effort on our part that all of our problems can be solved.  Now that word “problems” is a euphemism for something much more dark and deep.  According to contemporary secular man there are problems. These problems range from global warming to the instability of the financial system, from the persistence of human violence in all forms to the poverty and hunger of a great number of people in the world, from the persistence of disease and the constant appearance of new viruses like Zika to the persistence of racism in all of its ugly forms.  This is not to mention the problem of tornadoes, earthquakes, plagues, disease and other natural phenomenon that seem inimical to man.  But super-pelagian man assumes that even if the solution to all these problems is not immediately clear and accessible, that there is a solution, if only we apply ourselves vigorously and strenuously and join hands to make this world a better place and use the innate ingenuity and natural good will of man to accomplish all of this. 

Now Christianity does not deny the wonderful capability of man to do great things.  But it does deny that the goal of man is self-fulfillment in the secular  sense and that man is capable of attaining that real fulfillment that is necessarily in reference to God without the sheer gift of grace this is seen and experienced in this world in the person of Jesus Christ and his Cross.  One has a hard time imagining many of our clergy preaching this radical specificity vis-a -vis salvation in the person of Jesus Christ and his Cross.  Many do not, because super Pelagian man has no need of salvation,  let alone in -- from their point of view-- the absurdity of limiting this to one person who lived 2000 years ago and who founded a religion that is one among many.

This is what St. Augustine saw so long ago, what the stakes are.  Whether man is capable of attaining salvation—a term that is denied by secular man-- by his own efforts or whether man is his essential reality must needs depend in a radical way on the sheer grace of God whose source is love for us despite us and which contradiction is seen in the cross of Jesus Christ.  What we are doing here today in this Mass I believe is one of the most powerful antidotes to the super-Pelagianism of the secular world and to the flaccid Pelagianism of much of the contemporary Church.  Because we do not come here to affirm ourselves.  We do not come here to get a shot of Jesus to make us high and slappy happy.  We do not come here to enjoy a moment of community.  We do not come here to get our liturgical jollies.  We come here to participate in the deepest reality possible in this world:  the offering of the Son of God to his Father in sacrifice for the sins of the world, the re-presentation of the Cross of Jesus Christ.  And in this participatio actuosa, this real participation in the offering of the Christ, we are touched by grace, we are filled by that life-giving grace that alone can save and so make us who we have always been called to be:  sons and daughters of the God who is love.