The cult (cultus, in Latin) of the martyrs was strongly present in the church in North Africa in the fifth century. It was one of the most important features in the Christian life of North Africa during the time of Augustine.
Augustine needed a suitable pastoral plan that would place the veneration of martyrs in a healthy and constructive context for the growth of true Faith among his people. In this matter, He had at least two pastoral concerns: Firstly, he could not disregard that the veneration of martyrs was a strong emphasis and "selling point" of the schismatic Donatist Christians, who in Hippo outnumbered the flock led by Augustine. Secondly, how could he and his fellow bishops draw this veneration of martyrs more into the core of Christian belief?
Rather than focus on North African martyrs as the Donatists did, Augustine preached broadly on all Biblical martyrs. His preaching included the Maccabees of the Old Testament, and the Holy Innocents, John the Baptist (Giovanni Battista), Stephen, Peter and Paul of the New Testament. He added martyrs from different parts of the European continent: Lawrence and Agnes of Rome, Eulalia of Spain and Gervasius and Protasius, whose relics had been found at Milan during the lifetime of Augustine.
In effect, Augustine established a list of which saints would be celebrated, thereby crowding out the veneration of any whose cause was in some way doubtful or uncertain. He also prescribed the way in which the saints were to be celebrated. "Not in rioting and with alcohol," he tells his good friend Aurelius, bishop of Carthage, "but in a sober manner and with attention to poor people." He suggested that Aurelius encourage people to provide meals at the church for poor persons, instead of holding a "fiesta to the martyrs" for their friends in the cemetery. These reforms were implemented a short time later at the Council of the year 393.
As Augustine attested to himself in his Sermon 319, he built a memorial shrine to the martyr, Stephen, in his own cathedral at Hippo. Augustine said, "We have not erected an altar to the martyr, Stephen, but with the relics of the martyr Stephen we have erected an altar to God."
Augustine’s preaching about martyrs
Augustine preached many times on the feast day of martyrs. He brought his own distinctive message to these occasions. Many of his sermons on the feasts of the martyrs still exists, and they indicate both the interest of his people in this topic and his concern about possible abuses that could arise.
It was by then a few generations since Christians had been executed for their Faith, and becoming a martyr had been accorded great admiration. It was a powerful teaching tool for the church, and in preaching a way of encouraging people to stand by their Faith. Appealing to that desire to imitate the martyrs, Augustine suggested ways in which the opportunity for a public witness - the Greek word, martyr, means "witness" - to Christ was still available to the people in his church in Hippo.
He drew examples from the lives of the martyrs to bring out parallels in contemporary Christian living, asserting that the lives of the martyrs served as spectacles for the Christians, ones in which they could hope to emulate the performers. While every movement of passion offered the Christian the opportunity to engage and overcome the devil, certain public temptations provided a chance to testify as the martyrs had done. Like Cyprian who challenged the prayers addressed to false gods, contemporary Catholics could criticize the false martyrdoms of the Donatists and perhaps suffer the consequences.
When, for example, pagans mocked Christian converts by describing the church as an assembly of old ladies, Augustine said that the more senior Christians should come to their defence rather than being relieved that the words were not being directed at them. Or when a pagan friend offered an amulet or magic charm against illness, the true Christian should proclaim a willingness to die rather than to retain life and health through recourse to demons. Finally, he reminded his hearers that each of the martyrs had struggled silently against fear and temptation within before their final public triumph, and the same battle and victory could be faced each day in the life of every Christian.
To strengthen his flock, Augustine observed that some martyrs came from social classes from whom heroic action possibly was not ordinarily anticipated: country people without education, women and young people. These latter martyrs could serve as models for persons in the care of Augustine who thought that martyrs from noble families were impossible Christian role models for themselves. In this way, there were Christian deeds within the countless band of martyrs that were achievable by any Christian then in Hippo.
Augustine also asserted that the divine assistance by which the martyrs had triumphed was itself available to every Christian. As the leader of the church in Hippo, Augustine could afford neither to discount nor to overlook the effect of the cult of martyrs on the local people. It was heavily impregnated throughout North African Catholic belief and customs.
For the people in Hippo, the fiesta of a martyr was a big occasion. They were a social rather than a religious event. They had become a social way of celebration during the warm summer nights. As a happy escape from drab routine, they involved singing, drinking and even rhythmic dancing. The festive mood was intended to recapture the joy (laetitia, in Latin) of the martyr in being released from torture and death by entering into heaven. The laetitia - with its noise and alcoholic levity - of such a festival allowed the people to have a small sense of experiencing the joy of the martyrs.
To the Christian still struggling against temptation and evil, a martyr was a hero, a Christian success story. The celebration of the martyrs offered a borrowed touch of joy to the dull existence of the average Christian. But the concern of Augustine was a spiritual one. He feared that this reaching for this laetitia of the martyr did not in any constructive way translate in any helpful way into the coping with the daily Christian life of the local participants.
He feared, therefore, that the festival could be merely a nostalgia trip, or a brief escape from daily life supported by alcohol. Even in his earliest years when writing as a priest before he became a bishop, Augustine was determined to remove the purely "fiesta" aspects from the laetitia - the wine, the songs, and the dancing. Augustine tried to make the feasts of the martyrs less dramatic because he wished his people to keep in mind the daily drama of the workings of God in their own hearts. He wanted them to focus on the frequent, less dramatic, but no less spectacular, triumphs of God's grace in the present and in their own lives.
He feared martyrs being perceived as so far "above" others as not to be role models. He did not wish the lives of the martyrs to be accepted as so exceptional that they were not relevant to the daily life of the average Christian. In this way, Augustine - who in the Church is called the doctor gratiae ("Professor of Grace") - insisted that the grace of God was always present, and, so, that any Christian, at any time, could be a "martyr" who witnessed Christ in his or her own way.
He said, "God has many martyrs in secret. We would not wish for a return to the pain which our ancestors suffered at the hands of the authorities." God's grace was everywhere and for every person.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet gallery on Japan and the Japanese Augustinian martyrs, click here.
The Martyr’s Cup. An excerpt from Augustine’s Sermon 329 on the death of the martyrs who did not shrink back from drinking the same cup of suffering that Christ himself drank. Website of the Crossroads Initiative. https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/744/The_Martyrs__Cup_Augustine.html and https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/107/Venerate__do_not_Worship__the_Martyrs_____St._Augustine.html
Reclaiming Martyrdom. Augustine’s reconstruction of martyrdom in late antique North Africa. By Colin Garbarino. An eighty-page thesis. (PDF file. AM723). http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-11132007-102209/unrestricted/Garbarino_thesis.pdf