by Maureen McKew
August 28 marks the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Yes, he’s been called the greatest philosopher of western civilization. Yes, he was a prolific author. Yes, he was the bishop of the very complex diocese of Hippo-Regius in North Africa. One could go on and on about his accomplishments. The record of his life and works can be a little daunting. However, there is another side to him that comes to my mind each August as the summer holiday winds down and our parish religious education programs start to gear up.
Now what could a bishop who died nearly 1,600 years ago have to say to a new catechist who is about to face a class for the first time? Well, I suspect he would be sympathetic for he had been a teacher himself. Of course, he didn’t teach children. The littlest members of the late Roman Empire in which he lived were, like their mothers, largely invisible.
In St. Augustine’s day, the faith was handed on to adult males who, like Augustine, were coming into the church through the catechumenate or what we also refer to as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The catechumenate process involved intense faith formation. Augustine made a point of teaching these incoming Christians himself. If you want to know more about that, read Augustine and the Catechumenate (rev. edition 2014) by William Harmless, SJ. It’s available in hard copy and online editions.
Augustine also wrote what might be considered the first catechists’ handbook, On Catechizing Beginners in the Faith. You might enjoy reading the document. It will give you some insights on heart and mind of this towering intellectual, who never lost his sense of wonder and gratitude for his own gift of faith.
I like to think that today’s catechists, no matter what age the people they teach, share Augustine’s enthusiasm for handing on the faith into which they themselves were initiated, most of them through infant baptism which, by the way, is one of Augustine’s contributions.
Just an aside: you’ll note that I refer to this saint in a rather familiar manner. That’s because I spent 12 years at the Augustinian Villanova University, where this long-dead saint and scholar remains a very lively presence – so lively, in fact, that I wouldn’t have been shocked to see him walking in the halls of the liberal arts building that bears his name.