When Augustine had first returned to North Africa from Italy, he had envisioned a life of prayer, reading and writing as a lay person. And now he faced the duty of leading a busy diocese. His duty there, however, effectively caused him to become an important pastor of the Church for the rest of time. The Diocese of Hippo was located in the Roman province of Numidia, which today is the nation of Tunisia. It is estimated that the Diocese of Hippo was possibly the largest in North Africa, and then covered approximately 2,400 square miles.
The aged Valerius, the predecessor of Augustine as Bishop of Hippo, died in office some time during the year 396, and this left Augustine in sole charge. When that happened, the busy life of Augustine in Hippo intensified rather than greatly changed. As assistant bishop to Valerius previously, he had come to know the expected role of a bishop in Hippo.
His duties were: preaching, religious instruction, the administration of the sacraments, care of the poor, the defence of the lowly, the underaged and the marginalised, the defence of the faith against heresy, schism and error, and the supervision of church possessions of the Church in Hippo. Beforehand he had already been involved in helping the poor and seeking justice for those who were pushed to the margins of society (the marginalised). He now had to balance his administrative duties with the work he had undertaken as a theologian to the broader church. His years of duty happened during a period of political and theological unrest.
Barbarians pressed in upon various parts of the Roman Empire, and would even invade the City of Rome in 410. Schism and heresy also threatened the church. This was forcefully evident right in Hippo itself, where the schismatic Donatist Christians exceeded the total the number in the congregation led by Augustine. Scholars have wondered how the intelligent and articulate Augustine felt about being assigned to a very struggling congregation of people of the working class. Even so, they marvel at how Augustine influenced his own line of thought and adapted his preaching to suit his home audience. In fact, it is said that this apparently ill-matching appointment helped in giving Augustine the incentive of bringing together the conceptual Christian questioning of his youth and the more populist Christian practice of his congregation in Hippo.
The matching of the person Augustine with the place of Hippo was a good result for the Christian religion. It encouraged Augustine to incorporate the theology of the Christian faith with the local practise of the Christian religion. He did this in a way that was a great service not only in Hippo but also throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. In this, Augustine created a theology that has remained basic to Western Christian thought, both Catholic and Protestant, ever since.
Augustine once said, "I make mistakes every day." He meant that he was fallible, just like everyone else. However, there was another meaning. Augustine believed that without owning up to his own moral weakness, he could not say 'Our Father.' He called the 'Our Father' the daily cleansing. All are in need of daily forgiveness of our faults -- not just the big ones, but the little ones, too. Augustine also preached: "We are all fellow learners at the desk of Christ." In that sentence, the bishop acknowledged that even though he had the roles of teacher, dispenser of the sacraments and preacher of the Word, he was still a fellow pupil in the school of Christ. Augustine practiced the same humility in dealing with his brother bishops. He worked hard at maintaining cordial relations with them, even though they were constantly making requests to him for theological explanations.
Not that he ever placed good relations ahead of clear theology. However, he always broached the delicate issue of a bishop in theological error with good manners. "Hopefully, I am not understanding correctly what you have said..." His relations with his priests were equally cordial, perhaps because he never asked them to do anything he would not do himself, nor did he live in wealth while they lived in poverty. His own rules for monastic life were for him, just as much as for the other priests and monks. However, the monks in his community did not always live up to his expectations for them. In fact, several betrayed his trust. And even the great Augustine was not above making some terrible errors in judgment about the dependability of individuals.
(This topic draws heavily on material published in the alumni magazine of Villanova University, Pennsylvania, in the United States of America.) AN1219