Augustine and the poor of Hippo
The best insight of the practical response of Augustine to poverty comes from examining his administration of the church at Hippo. Generally, Hippo was a poor but well organised church. In order to provide help for those in need, the church administered donations and gifts. This attention to the poor people of the district gave the church economic significance in the life of the community.
Augustine distributed the property of the church among the poor people for them to be able to work. His deep pastoral sense assured that this help did not remain on the material level. Quite the contrary: he was committed to the authentic promotion of respect for the dignity of the poor people. Augustine became one with the poor, "making myself a beggar with the beggars" (Sermon 66, 5).
Augustine reminded people again and again of the presence of the Lord "in the person of poor people" (Sermon 206, 2; Sermon 113 B, 4), particularly in his commentary on Matthew 25 (Sermon 25, 8). Sharing is required of the Christian who wishes to practice charity and justice. From this flows the religious commitment to sharing our goods. This was a central point for Augustine.
Helping poor people is an expression of our faith which understands that it is God who feeds and nurtures us, and who desires to provide the same attention for the poor people of the world through us (Sermon 39, 4). The true Christian knows himself to be "a beggar of God." We need to beg help from God each day, and as a result we should feel obliged to respond to the needs of those who request help from us. "How can you ask of your Lord, when you do not even recognise him in others?" (Sermon 61, 7-8; Sermon 53 A, 10).
Augustine discovered in Matthew 25 to what extent God cannot be separated from poor people. With great clarity Augustine proposes this relationship as the unique and definitive criterion of the attaining of eternal life (Sermon 389, 5). Almsgiving (giving help to poor people) for Augustine is mercy, justice and charity. It is identified with being Christian.
The fundamental manner of practising Christian charity is to not ignore the empty stomach of poor people (Sermon 36, 9). Prayer, fasting and good works are useless without our helping the poor people, mercy and fraternal love. Augustine frequently preached this to his people during the season of Lent. (Sermon 207, 1; Sermon 209, 2; Sermon 389, 2).
Augustine did not neglect the poor people in Hippo, nor did he see the problem of poverty only in terms of religious values. He preached that to help poor people was a Christian obligation, but this did not prevent him from regarding them as persons. He knew that the aim of helping them was to eliminate their plight, and emphasised that we touch Christ when we help poor people, and that the poor people are the porters who transfer the wealth of the rich people from earth to heaven.
It is not difficult to quote a number of texts in which the poor people are much more than means to transfer wealth. Rich people and poor people have to bear the burden of one another. Nobody is permitted to say: "Everyone shall carry his own burden." (Sermon 164, 7, 9. PL 38, 899). Rich people and poor people depend on one another. They both have a role in humanity: "Although one gives and another receives, the one who ministers and the one for whom the ministry is performed are joined." (Sermon 259, 5. PL 38, 1200).
It is true that Augustine declared: "God made the poor to test the rich" (Sermon 39, 4, 6. PL 38, 243), but this was not said to support poverty, but to exhort the faithful to perform works of mercy. The following text admits of no doubt: "It is better that no one should be poor than that you should perform a work of mercy. Anyone who wished them to be miserable so that he or she can show mercy, is possessed by a cruel mercy. A doctor who wished others to be sick, so that he might practice his art, would be a cruel healer." (Sermon on Psalm 125, 14. PL 37, 1666; Confessions III, 2, 3).
Augustine stressed the equality of all human beings: "A true Christian should never set himself up over other human beings. God gave you a place above the beasts. .... If you wish to be better than another person, you will grudge to see that person as your equal. Therefore, you ought to wish all equal to yourself." (Comm. on the first letter of John 8, 8. PL 35, 2040).
With regard to poor people, it was the custom of the Church to provide help to every person whoever he or she might be, a concubine or a fighter in the arena, on account of their human nature. Augustine says: "How many people there are nowadays, who are not yet Christians, who run to church and ask for its assistance. They all want temporal help." (Sermon on Psalm 46, 5). He comments: "Let us treat them with human decency because they are human beings ... take pity on the condition that is common to all." (S. Lambot 28, Rev. Ben. 66, 1956, 156-158) (The section above has been summarised from the official Augustinian international web site http://www.osanet.org)
In defence of the poor
This section details the practical efforts of Augustine at defending poor people, both as an influential community leader and as a concerned Christian. Roman justice was always a justice that favoured the elite. Even so, in former times the Roman Empire had appointed persons to the position of Defenders of the Rights of Poor People, but by the time of Augustine this practice had ended.
Augustine and the other North African bishops at the Council of Carthage in the year 401 petitioned the Roman Emperor for the reintroduction of that position. The request of the bishops was not answered. In the year 420, Augustine asked the bishops Alypius and Peregrinus, who were the visiting Italy, to ask the emperor for such a defender for the city of Hippo. He explained that he felt himself powerless to defend the poor. The recently discovered Letter 22 (one of his "lost letters") shows clearly the powerlessness of the weak towards the juridical and administrative machine. From "Life of Augustine" (Chapter 24) by Possidius we know that Augustine never forgot "his companions in poverty."
Possidius wrote: "When the funds of the Church gave out, Augustine announced this to his flock, telling them that he had nothing to bestow upon those in need. It even happened that he ordered the holy vessels of the church to be broken up and melted down, and the proceeds distributed for the benefit of captives and of as many of the poor people as possible. I would not have mentioned this, if I had not seen that it was done against the all too human objections of some people. Ambrose of Milan also said and wrote that this was a thing that ought to be done in such extreme circumstances." ("Life of Augustine:" Chapter 24)
When a powerful shipowner wanted to give his ships to Augustine, he answered: "It is not the task of a bishop to save up gold and to push away the hand of the beggar. How many poor people come daily to me for money, pouring out their troubles to me and making an appeal to me. It pains me that I must sometimes disappoint their expectations, because I do not have enough to give to all of them" (Sermon 355, 4, 5. PL 39,57 12).
Augustine is often described as a having been preacher, traveller and scholar in his multi-faceted life. But this should not ignore the fact that, as chief pastor of the Church in Hippo, he had responsibility for the daily administration of the church and congregation in Hippo. He was a busy man who was an organised person. One of his skills was to delegate various tasks. He assigned responsibility for the care of many daily tasks to his priests, and reviewed their accounts at the end of the year.
There were some difficult matters, however, for which he took responsibility himself. To others he entrusted the building and management of hospitals and churches, but the needs of the poor were never far from his personal attention. In a society without any programs of social welfare programs, Augustine took seriously the need to assist the poor people. He devoted considerable sums of money to this purpose.
In times of hardship he was not afraid to contract heavy debts to aid the poor. As a matter of policy, however, he would never accept for the poor people any estate or gift when the donation seemed unfair to an heir. His friend and biographer, Possidius, wrote that sometimes the holy vessels of the church were melted down to raise funds for the redeeming of captives. Augustine knew that Ambrose in Milan had done this previously. Augustine persuaded his people to provide clothing for all the poor people of each parish once a year. Augustine had a great concern for the welfare of his people. "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 also to live in Him with you. This is my passion, my joy, and my wealth." His administering of his diocese was all the more smooth because the relationship of Augustine with his priests was cordial. This was perhaps so because he never asked them to do something he would not do himself, and within their community of priests his style of living was as simple as theirs was.
Here are some questions for personal reflection and community dialogue:
1. Do we know the social circumstances of the poor and hungry, or are we too enclosed in our own world, insensitive to the problems of others, especially those of the poorest people?
2. What aspects of Augustinian thought on this topic are worthwhile to be taken into account today?
3. What are we doing to become more aware of the problem of hunger and poverty, and to contribute, in so far as we can, to their solution?
4. What can we do today in this aspect, as if Augustine were alive among us?
Quotes from Augustine about the poor
The following is some of what Augustine wrote and preached about the Christian call to assist those who are poor. He taught, "Christ is needy when a poor person is in need" (Sermon 38, 8), and "Christ is hungry when poor people are hungry" (Sermon 390, 2; Sermon 32, 20).
To come to the aid of the poor people, members of Christ, is to come to the aid of Christ the Head who is present and in need within poor people (Sermon 53 A, 6; Sermon 236, 3).
God does not demand much of you. He asks back what he gave you, and from him you take what is enough for you. The extra possessions of rich persons are the necessities of poor persons. When you possess more than you need, you possess what belongs to others. (Exposition on Psalm 147, 12).
Christ who is rich in heaven chose to be hungry in the poor people of the earth. Yet in your humanity you hesitate to give to your fellow human being. Do you not realise that what you give, you give to Christ, from whom you received whatever you have to give in the first place. (Commentary on Psalm 75 ,9)
Whenever you did it for one of the least of mine, you did it for me. Christ has received what you have given; it has been received by the one who gave you the means to give it; it has been received by the one who at the end will give you himself. (Sermon 389, 4)
You give bread to a hungry person; but it would be better if nobody was hungry, and you could give it to no one. You clothe the naked person. I wish that everyone was clothed already, so that this need did not exist. (Tractate on 1 John 8,8)
Extracts from the words of Saint Augustine.
Go on making use of your special, expensive foods, because you have got into the habit of them, because if you change your habits you get sick.Go on making use of your superfluities, but give the poor their necessities.
He looks to you, you look to God. He looks to a hand that was made as he was, you look to a hand that made you.
But it did not only make you, it also made the poor man with you. He gave you both this life as a single road to travel along.
You have found yourselves companions, walking along the same road; he is carrying nothing, you have an excessive load.
He is carrying nothing with him, you are carrying more than you need.
You are overloaded; give him some of what you have. At a stroke, you feed him and lessen your load.
So give to the poor; I am begging you, I am warning you, I am commanding you, I am ordering you.
Give to the poor people whatever you like. (Sermon 389, 5-6)
Do you think it is a small matter that you are eating the food of some other person?
Listen to the apostle: We brought nothing into this world.
You have come into the world, you have found a full table spread for you.
But the earth and its fullness belongs to the Lord. God bestows the world on the poor people, and He bestows it on the rich people. (Sermon 29, 2)
If it is useless for a farmer to look for a crop where he knows he has not sown any seed, how much worse must it be to look to God to be rich in giving, when you have declined to listen to a poor man asking you for help?
It is in the poor person, after all, that Christ has wished to be fed.
Let us not, then, reject our God when He is in need in the people who are poor, so that we in our need may be satisfied by Him in His riches.
We have people in physical need, and we have spiritual needs ourselves; so let us give, in order to receive. (Sermon 206, 2)
Christ is at once a rich person and a poor person."
Five extracts from the words of Saint Augustine.
As God, a rich person; as a human being, a poor person. Truly, that Man rose to heaven already rich, and now sits at the right hand of the Father, but here, among us, He still suffers hunger, thirst and nakedness: here He is a poor person and is in poor people. (Sermon 123, 4)
First and foremost, clearly, please remember the poor people, so that what you withhold from yourselves by living more simply, you may deposit in the treasury of heaven. Let the denial of self of one who undertakes it willingly become the support of the one who has nothing. Let the voluntary want of the person who has plenty become the needed plenty of the person in want. (Sermon 210, 12)
Christ who is rich is in need until the end of the world. He is in need not insofar as he is the Head, but in his members. Let us be gracious to Christ. He is with us in those who are his own, he is with us in ourselves. (Sermon 239)
Fasting punishes you but brings no refreshment to anyone else. Your restriction will be fruitful if it brings amplitude to another. So you have deprived yourself, have you? But to whom do you mean to give what you denied yourself? How do you intend to dispose of what you went without? How many poor people might grow fat on that luncheon we missed? Fast in such a fashion that while another person is fed you may feel the satisfaction of having lunched on your prayers, which are now more likely to win a hearing. Do you want your prayers to fly to God? Then make two wings for it, fasting and alms deeds. (Exposition of Psalm 42, 8)
There are two types of persons to whom you must give. Two types of persons hunger; one for bread, the other for what is right. Between these two hungry persons you find yourself as the doer of the good work; if charity motivates the work, it serves the good of both. For the one desires what he may eat, the other desires what he may imitate. You feed the one, and give yourself as a pattern to the other; so you have given to both of them: the one you have given reason to thank you for killing his hunger, the other you have given reason to imitate you by setting him an example. (Homilies on the First Letter of John 8, 9) AN2325