Keeping the attention of his listeners
Augustine knew how to seize the attention of his listeners and how to keep it. He knew how to teach the untutored without talking down to them, and how to be a spellbinder without putting everyone into a trance.
The former Princeton University historian, Peter Brown, whose great biography of Augustine in 1967 was published again during the year 2000 in a new edition (Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, Revised Edition with a New Epilogue) by University of California Press has described the preaching of Augustine as dialogues with the people. First of all, the bishop made himself one with his listeners. "Condiscipuli sumus," he said. "We are all fellow students here." This and similar statements formed a bond between priest and people. He spoke without written notes but never without preparation. In an oral culture and with listeners who stood rather than sat during church services, the dynamism and audience interaction in the preaching of Augustine was much greater than is generally experienced during preaching today.
Augustine was physically close to the people, and intentionally evoked responses to be shouted out by them. By their responses he could tell whether or not they were attentive to his words. As a veteran educator, Augustine understood that any person's mind could wander, especially in a large crowd. So he frequently began his sermons by saying: "You have heard the gospel" or "We have read the blessed apostle Paul," and then he quickly summarised the reading. Augustine was especially fond of using the diatribe method of rhetoric, in which he would call an imaginary person up beside him and interview him as a way of discoursing on his theme, be it marital fidelity, ethics or maybe even some common error in Christian belief. Imagine Augustine talking to a fictitious person who had an illicit sexual relationship or had defrauded his employer, right there before everyone. Or refuting a person whose Christian beliefs were well known, perhaps popular, but not orthodox.
That is what he did with an imaginary fellow he named Felix, a name which in Latin meant happy - although Felix was shown to be infelix (unhappy), either because of evil actions or because of wrong belief. Hence Augustine - and his attentive audience - would review the reasons why Felix was not living up to his name. His previous career as a professional rhetorician and teacher gave Augustine a great ability to size up his audience's ability to comprehend and retain his message. He knew that in his world, information retrieval was accomplished in the head and heart, so he frequently summarised the essence of his homily in a clever Latin phrase that the people could remember. However, the power of Augustine's preaching was due as much to his own gentle spirit as to his rhetorical talent. He saw himself as a fellow traveller with his listeners.
The attention of the preacher to the listeners
For Augustine, a key factor in preparing a sermon or homily was giving due attention to the nature of the specific group of listeners for which it was intended. The audience intended for the sermon consciously influenced Augustine on what he preached and even how he preached it. The homily had to correspond to the ability of the listeners to understand what was to be preached. According to Augustine, the skilled preacher would know his listeners and, being led by Christ the Internal Teacher, choose his words carefully in accordance with the capacity of the people to comprehend them. Augustine held a high regard for his listeners (imperfect as it is known that they were), and other encouraged other preachers to do the same. He said that, intellectually, the preacher had to assume the best.
When tough issues were applicable and in need of explaining, Augustine said that appropriate arguments were to be used, "always assuming that our listener has the will to learn and does not lack the mental capacity to absorb such things, in whatever way they are presented by a teacher concerned not for the beauty of his teaching but its clarity." (De Doctrina Christiana 4, 8, 22). Secondly, he said that, emotionally, the audience is to be approached by the preacher with compassion. The crumbling of the Roman Empire began during the ministry of Augustine at Hippo. It was a tense time, and people needed encouragement to persevere with their Christian faith and with daily living generally. Additionally, at the end of his life Augustine had to preach to his people while Hippo was literally being surrounded by Vandals, and while they knew that his great age and declining health meant that he would not be with them very much longer. Even in these precarious circumstances, Augustine was an appropriate pastor in his preaching to his people during this problematic time.
Peter Brown, a noted historian and a biographer of Augustine, suggests that the sermons of Augustine during this time were just what a demoralised group needed to hear. Peter Brown commented, "When such a time of calamity came with the sack of Rome, he will prefer to join in with his hearers, addressing them as "fellow-citizens of Jerusalem", talking to them, not of the punishment they would deserve at the Last Judgement, but of their future life, all together, in 'that sweet City'" (Brown, 1967, p.251).
How did listeners react to the preaching of Augustine?
By the year 404, the more cosmopolitan people of Carthage had heard Augustine as a visiting preacher for seven years, but they had not always liked what they heard. They were certainly a different congregation to the much more "smaller town" people in Augustine's basilica (church) in Hippo. The attempts of Augustine to reform the Catholic cult of veneration of martyrs had made him unpopular with many members of the congregation of the church of Carthage. He preached, however, what he thought was necessary, and accepted the consequences. The abolition of songs and of dance and drinking at the grave of Saint Cyprian, combined with measures to separate the sexes as they entered crowded churches and pressed past each other around the tombs of the martyrs, caused resentment against him in Carthage.
Peter Brown has recorded that this resentment exploded on the night of 22 January 404. It was the feast day of Saint Vincent of Tarragona, held in the large cathedral (basilica) of Bishop Aurelius in the middle of Carthage. Augustine stood up to preach. But would his weak voice carry in so large a building? Some of his listeners surged forward towards the apse, to be closer to him. Another part, however, gathered around the altar that stood in the middle of the church, as was usually the case at that time. The people in the middle of the church shouted for Augustine to come down to them, so as to speak (as he had done on other occasions) from the centre of the building, surrounded on all sides by the people. It was, in itself, a good proposal. The group that had moved towards the apse halted and began to turn back. Some people pushed the others as they made their way back to the altar.
A chant went up from the group around the altar for Augustine to hurry up and come down to them. It was a moment of chaos, and Augustine did not approve of it. He was plainly angered by the shouting and jostling. He abruptly turned his back on the people, returned to the bench on which the leader sat, and no longer showed any intention of preaching. Some of his listeners were angry at this impasse. They felt that by refusing to preach Augustine was treating them with contempt. A rhythmic Latin chant of Missa sint, ("Let's get on with the Mass!"), went up from the middle of the church. They were no longer interested in a sermon from him that day. By his hasty gesture, Augustine lost the opportunity to preach on the anniversary of a major Catholic saint.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet gallery on Algeria (including the photos above - at Hippo where Augustine was bishop), click here.