He therefore had to care for the congregation. These people, although in admiration of him, were nevertheless grasping and very self-seeking. Augustine himself, although personally courageous, did not have a manner to win instant respect from a volatile and potentially violent crowd.
By the time of Augustine, the city of Hippo Regius had already existed for more than a thousand years. Catholic Christians were in a minority, because of the presence of both pagans and schismatic Donatist Christians. The Donatists outnumbered those in the congregation of Augustine. Not long before Augustine had arrived in Hippo, Catholics there had barely been tolerated, and all of the city officials were Donatists. Additionally, Donatists were so strong in the countryside that a Catholic priest could find few places there to live in safety.
His church was at a distance from the centre of town, and more than a kilometre (about a mile) from the harbour. Nearby were the villas of wealthy persons, but Augustine did not intentionally court their friendship. On a Sunday, every orthodox Christian in Hippo could be found jammed into the church of Augustine. The people stood during a service that must have lasted for at least two hours. From the hundreds of sermons of Augustine that still exist, we know about the care and imagination he invested in his preaching. He tailored his remarks to suit the needs and capacity of his audience.
Augustine who had been orator in the presence of the Emperors must have been a great preacher. The emphasis on Scripture and preaching in Augustine's day meant that the Christian people knew their Bible much better than the average modern congregation. Augustine's people, for example, recognised Samson as soon as they heard of the strangled lion (Enar. in psalmos. 88,1,10); he could assume that they knew the story of Tobias (Sermon 88,15,15). In the Church of Oea, the translation of Jonah by St Jerome caused such an uproar that the Jews had to be consulted about the original meaning. When they proved to be of no great help, the bishop had to withdraw Jerome's text, 'not wishing', Augustine said, 'to run the great risk of remaining without a flock' (Ephesians 71,3,5). They took Scripture seriously in those days.
But even the preaching of Augustine did not efface the dignity of the Mass as the central act of worship. Lukewarm believers in the audience attended out of respect for social pressure and a fear of divine anger, but for Augustine, the role of preaching was his central task. The majority of the congregation were dock workers, farmers and small merchants, according to the late Dr Thomas Martin O.S.A. of Villanova University, who re-read his way through the surviving collection of the 396 sermons of Augustine. Thomas Martin claimed that the discourses Augustine delivered at his church in Hippo are fairly easy to identify. "You can generally tell when Augustine is [preaching] in Hippo." "Those sermons have a 'I'm with my people' flavour, whereas the sermons he delivered in Carthage reflected the presence of a more diverse and educated audience, which frequently included officials of imperial Rome."
Augustine served the Church in the place where he had been called and appointed. He had literally been "grabbed" by the people of Hippo, as he himself afterwards described it. But that does not mean that he felt most comfortable there. How did this great Christian writer and speaker communicate with and serve these people who were poor in possessions and weak in theology?
It is reasonable to expect that Augustine was never entirely at home in Hippo, which was a trading city that lacked the learning and culture of Carthage or Rome. It would be easy to understand if, after his experiences in Carthage, Rome and Milan, Hippo was a very small focus for his undivided attention. According to Franz Van der Meer, the author of a study on Augustine over fifty years ago, the people of Hippo had the usual vices and weaknesses of urban dwellers. Some of them were still attracted to pagan feasts. Augustine preached against these events on the days they were happening. He preached at greater length than usual so that his congregation would miss out on going to them!
Augustine frequently and unsuccessfully exhorted some of them come to Mass in a sober state. In sum, they were no better and no worse than any other Christians. Indeed Van der Meer writes of them that "they failed rather from the instability of their spirit than of malice." Yet the above paragraphs are not intended to suggest that Augustine did not appreciate his congregation at Hippo. Most importantly, his concern for the spiritual welfare of his people had no limit. "I do not wish to be saved without you," he told them. "Why am I in the world? Not only to live in Jesus Christ; but to live in Him with you. This is my passion, my joy, and my wealth."
He publicly asked his people at Hippo to pray for him. In Letter 48, 1, he wrote, "We beg you to remember us in your prayers, for we believe that you pray vert alertly and attentively, whereas our prayers are weighed down and weakened by the darkness and confusion that secular involvement brings with it... We are beset by so many problems that we can hardly breathe. And yet we are sure that if we persevere in the ministry in which God has designed to place us while promising his rewards, He in whose sight the groans of prisoners rise up will set us free of every care through the help of your prayers."
On one occasion, one image he used for these people of a seaport city was that as their bishop he was the captain of their ship. He said that, should he navigate poorly, they too would drown with him. He told them, "You will be the first to suffer from a shipwreck. You may not be on the bridge, brothers and sisters, or at the helm, but that does not mean, does it, that you are not sailing in the same boat?" (Commentary on Psalm 106, 7)Photo GalleryFor the Augnet photo gallery containing images of Algeria including the site of Augustine’s Hippo basilica, click here.
Nine images of the archaeological site of Hippo. From the Australian National University. http://rubens.anu.edu.au/htdocs/surveys/mediterrarch/slides.xmosaic/bycountry/display00001.html