The previous Augnet page described the last hours of Augustine on earth. This page focuses more on the presence during those hours of his life-long friend and his successor, the bishops Possidius and Eraclitus respectively.
About the last days of Augustine on earth, the eyewitness Possidius wrote: "When speaking with us in a familiar way, it was usual for Augustine to say that once baptism was received, not even those Christians and priests who were highly respected should die without doing good and suitable penance. In his last illness, he himself acted in this way. He had the penitential psalms of David written down and fixed to the wall, so that though in bed sick he could see and read them, while weeping all the time warm tears.”
Image (above): The bones of St Augustine are locked in a glass-sided urn and usually kept in the large marble “arca” situated immediately behind the main altar of the Church of S. Pietro in Ciel d'Oro, Pavia, On this occasion, the urn has been placed on the altar table.
Possidius continued, “Not to be interrupted in these devotions, he desired about ten days before his death, that no one should come to him except at those times when either the physicians visited him, or his food was brought to him. This was constantly observed, and all of the rest of his time was spent in prayer. Though the strength of his body daily and hourly declined, yet his senses and intellectual faculties continued sound to the last." [Possidius, Life of Augustine 31, 1-2] Augustine peacefully died on the 28th August 430. He had lived seventy six years, and spent almost forty of them in the labours of the ministry. Possidius continued, "He made no will, for this poor man of Christ had nothing to bequeath. All his possessions belonged to the common order. His legacy was his writings, his clergy and his monastery. He instructed that the library which he had bestowed on his church should be carefully preserved."
Possidius - who had been consecrated a bishop before Augustine was - stood at the bedside of the dying Augustine. He wrote, "We being present, a Eucharist was offered to God for his recommendation. And so he was buried in the same manner as he had done for his mother." The same author tells us that, whilst he lay sick in bed, by the imposition of his hands he restored to health a sick man, who, upon the intimation made to him in a vision, was brought to the saint for that purpose. He reported that Augustine proposed a quote from his Roman classical past as an epitaph for his tombstone. He wrote, "So too, one of the secular poets dictated the following epitaph for the tomb which he ordered built for himself by the public road: "Traveller, would you know how a poet, dead, lives on? When you read, I speak, and your voice is mine." (Possidius, The Life of St. Augustine 31: 1, 2, 6, 8) He added, "I knew him both when he was a priest and when he was a bishop, that when requested to pray for certain persons who were possessed, he had poured out prayers to our Lord, and the devils departed from them."
It was ascribed to the prayers of Augustine that the city of Hippo was not taken in that siege, which the barbarians ceased after fourteen dreadful months. Though Hippo was partly burned, the library of Augustine was preserved from destruction. Possidius also noted: "The part of his life that Augustine endured almost at the very end was thus the bitterest and saddest time of his old age. For Augustine the man of God saw cities destroyed, farm buildings razed and their inhabitants either slaughtered by the enemy or put to flight and scattered. He saw churches stripped of their priests and ministers, women and men vowed to continence scattered in all directions. " (Possidius, The Life of St. Augustine 28: 6-7) "We can know his quality and importance as a man of the church. He will always be alive in the memory for the faithful." (Possidius, The Life of St. Augustine 31: 1, 2, 6, 8)
Less than nine months after death of Augustine, Pope Celestine pronounced the first of a long series of tributes to him that have continued down to our own time: "We remember him [Augustine] as a man of such great wisdom that he was always counted by my predecessors to be one of the greatest teachers."
A successor appointed
As he grew in age and love and understanding of the people of his diocese, Augustine wanted to leave their interests in good hands. As it happened, Augustine’s successor as Bishop of Hippo was appointed in 426, which was four years before Augustine died. In September 426 Augustine proposed to his clergy and people to choose for his coadjutor Heraclius (Eraclius), who was the youngest among his deacons. Well aware that there might be disagreement in selecting his successor, Augustine therefore called to have the matter decided before he died. The reaction of the people to this initiative was a measure of how much he was loved. Possidius wrote: "The secretary who recorded the event indicated that the people interrupted him to shout ‘Long live Augustine’ thirty four times and ‘Deo Gratias, Augustine is our father’ fifteen times. Over and over, they cried out their agreement with the proposal from Augustine, ‘Dignus and justus est’ ("It is right and just").”
The election of Heraclius was thus confirmed by acclamation on 26th September 426. And so it was that, four years before he died, Augustine handed over the administrative duties of the church in Hippo to his assistant Heraclius. At the ceremony Heraclius stood to preach, as the old bishop sat on the cathedra (throne) behind him. Eraclius was overwhelmed by a sense of the inadequacy of his own preaching in comparison with that of Augustine. In honesty and humility he said to Augustine and the people, "The cricket chirps, and the swan is silent." AN1213