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from issue no. 06/07 - 2006

Notes taken during the fourth lecture of Don Giacomo Tantardini on “Augustine witness of Tradition” Tuesday 18 May 2004 University of Padua - Academic year 2003-2004

Conferences on the relevance of Saint Augustine

Plus enim erat amicos docere humilitatem, quam inimicis exprobrare veritatem It was in fact more important to teach his friends humility than challenge enemies with the truth (Saint Augustine, Sermo 284)

by Giacomo Tantardini

The Incredulity of Thomas, Caravaggio, Potsdam-Sanssoucis, Bildergalerie

The Incredulity of Thomas, Caravaggio, Potsdam-Sanssoucis, Bildergalerie

Vincenzo Milanesi,
Rector of the University of Padua

I am pleased to welcome the students, the teachers, the authorities and all those present in the hall for the conclusion of this seventh round of conferences on the relevance of Saint Augustine.
It is such a familiar occasion for the University and also for me personally that you will allow me to very briefly express my gratification with the formula of the lectio (that evidently is always appreciated), for the organization (which brings together important and qualified undergraduate associations) and for the adherence of the public, the authorities and media.
To spend such a long time thinking about an individual author is an unusual business. We have more than once said that we are faced with one of the great thinkers, as well as one of the great men in the history of the Church. But he is not certainly the only one who brings these two characteristics together.
In recent times Saint Augustine seems to be enjoying particular popularity even in non-specialist publications. He was much spoken of during the recently closed Milan exhibition “Ambrose and Augustine”, or because the Città Nuova publishers have now completed their monumental edition and the Italian translation of his works.
But the insistence with which even the daily newspapers mention him seems to go beyond even such noteworthy events. I was particularly struck a couple of weeks ago by a series of articles devoted to the saint of Hippo by Il Sole 24Ore. Among the various titles, there was one that seemed to me to closely recall the way in which Saint Augustine has been read in our lecture rooms over these years: «“Only what cheers nurtures the mind”: in that saying lies the key to his relevance».
In effect the figure of Augustine, not least for the way in which Don Tantardini has helped us rediscover him over these years, communicates not only the inevitable sense of respect and admiration that one can feel for an extraordinary philosopher or even theologian. There is a freshness and a novelty that seem to belong to him like an altogether personal and particular gift, provided one desires to go into his pages, as has been done over these years in these conferences.
I believe that the secret of the fascination of Saint Augustine lies in this freshness, that the lectures of these years have communicated to us, and that here lies the reason why so many – teachers and students from every faculty – have appreciated them. And that is the chief reason that I thank you and hope you will continue on the path undertaken.
I therefore now assure you of the sympathy and support both of myself and of the university institution that I represent, which will be pleased to welcome you all next year, beginning with Don Giacomo, in this great hall, for the eighth cycle of readings from Saint Augustine.

Don Giacomo Tantardini

I also thank you all for the cordiality with which you have followed these meetings, and also for forgiving my limitations. I am somewhat comforted by a thought of Saint Augustine’s: «Melius est reprehendant nos grammatici quam non intelligant populi / It’s better that the intellectuals criticize us than that ordinary people not understand us»1. In particular I thank the Rector for the words he has addressed to us today and for the very generous hospitality of this University.
Today’s is meant to be a lectio brevis, not least because this is our last meeting and the month of May is examination time, pre-vacation time. I would like to read just two passages. The first has been handed out to everyone, the second is to be found in the booklet enclosed with the last issue of the magazine 30Giorni2. It is the transcript of the last lesson, the third of this year.
The theme of this meeting, of today’s readings, could be formulated in the following fashion. Last time I mentioned the fact that the subject of Christian witness is not us, but Jesus Christ. The witness is the gesture of His presence, alive, at work. This is the witness of Jesus Christ (cf. 1Cor 1, 6)3. If then the subject of the witness is his living presence, at work, in what sense are we, the disciples of the Lord also, are witnesses to Him, «witnesses of His resurrection» (cf. Acts 1, 22). The answer to this question is as if anticipated by the phrase of Saint Augustine that I suggested be set under the image on the cover of the booklet published by 30Giorni: «In parvulis sanctis Christi ecclesia diffunditur»4. The Church of Christ spreads through small saints, through saintly children. The two readings of today will try to suggest images and content for this expression. Saintly children means small, humble people5, on whose face and in whose actions in life the presence of the Lord is reflected. Christian witness is the reflection of a presence. «We, as in a mirror, reflect the presence of the Lord» (cf. 2Cor 3, 18).

1. Sermo 284, 6

Let’s begin reading. The first passage is taken from a homily that Augustine gave in Carthage. He had been invited by the bishop of that Church for the feast of the holy martyrdoms Marianus and James, that was celebrated on 6 May. Augustine went to Carthage, presided at the Eucharist, and during the Eucharist gave this homily. The passage to read is the closure of the homily given to the large community of Carthage. In comparison to little Hippo, Carthage was really a metropolis.
«Propter nos pati voluit Christus. / Christ wanted to suffer for us. / Ait apostolus Petrus: “Pro vobis passus est, relinquens vobis exemplum, ut sequamini vestigia eius”. / The Apostle Peter says: “For you Christ suffered, leaving you an example, so that you may follow his footsteps”. / Pati te docuit, / He has taught you to bear suffering / et patiendo te docuit [how did he teach you to bear suffering?] / and he taught you this by his suffering of his passion. / Parum erat verbum, nisi adderetur exemplum. / Words would have been little, had the example not been added. / Et quomodo docuit, fratres? / And in what way did he teach you, O brethren? / Pendebat in cruce, / He was hanging on the cross, / Iudaei saeviebant /the Jews raged». Here the term Jews indicates only those under the cross who wanted his death, because Jesus also was Jewish. Mary his mother and the first disciples were all Jews6. Hence Jews does not here indicate the totality of a people, but only individual members of that people;
«in asperis clavis pendebat, sed lenitatem non amittebat. / he was hung on the cross from bitter nails, but he did not abandon meekness. / Illi saeviebant, illi circumlatrabant, illi pendenti insultabant; / they raged, they surrounded him with ugly howls, they affronted him as he hung from the cross; / quasi uno summo medico in medio constituto, phrenetici, circumquaque saeviebant. / the only supreme physician was in the middle of madmen who raged all around on him [summo, that has no equal, that has no peer; medico, as one able to heal their hearts]. / Pendebat ille, et sanabat. / He hung from the cross, and healed [But how did he heal?] / “Pater” inquit “ignosce illis, quia nesciunt quid faciunt”. / “Father” he said, “forgive them, for they know not what they do”». That was the way healed, by forgiving. Human nature wounded by original sin can be healed not through a long ethico-religious ascesis, but through an act of forgiveness: «Father, forgive».
«Petebat, et tamen pendebat»: Augustine is speaking as a great rhetorician. Augustine’s conversion, as is proper with Christian conversion, enhanced all his natural, human qualities, of culture, of skill also.
«Petebat, et tamen pendebat; / He begged [asked] but still hung from the cross; / non descendebat / he didn’t descend from the cross / quia de sanguine suo medicamentum phreneticis faciebat / because he made his blood medicine for those who raged furiously. / Denique quia verba petentis Domini, eiusdemque misericordiam exaudientis, quia Patrem petiit, et cum Patre exaudivit; / Finally by the fact that the words of the Lord who asked for mercy [«Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do»] were also the words of Him who [as God] listened to them, because [as man] he begged the Father and [as God] with the Father granted [as man he asked forgiveness and as God granted this request for forgiveness], / quia illa verba non potuerunt inaniter fundi / by the fact that those words could not be uttered in vain / post resurrectionem suam sanavit quos pendens insanissimos toleravit / after his resurrection he healed those who, while he hung on the cross, he had borne when they shouted furiously against him».
And here begins the passage which is the reason why I have read this discourse of Augustine. Let me make just a small reference to current events. In recent days there has been talk, also from the civil authorities, as for example the president of the Senate, Marcello Pera, of truth, of timidity in affirming the truth, of relativism, saying things that one may freely agree with or not. I wanted only to suggest that the grace of the faith can offer something new in terms of intelligence even as regards the content of the words that the world uses, like the word truth. In the phrases of Augustine that we shall now read one can glimpse this novelty of intelligence as regards the schema of the world (cf. Rm 12, 2).
«Ascendit in caelum, misit Spiritum Sanctum; / He ascended into heaven, sent the Holy Spirit / nec se illis ostendit post resurrectionem, / and did not appear visibly after the resurrection to those who had crucified him, / sed solis fidelibus discipulis suis, / but [appeared visibly] only to his faithful disciples / ne quasi insultare se occidentibus voluisse videretur / so that it did not seem as if he wanted to challenge those who had killed him. / Plus enim erat amicos docere humilitatem, quam inimicis exprobrare veritatem. / It was in fact more important to teach his friends humility than challenge enemies with the truth». Truth is not a possession that one can use as a challenge. It is pure confessio, pure recognition7. This phrase of Saint Augustine’s seems to me to have an obvious and amazing relevance. It was more important to teach his friends humility, than challenge those who had killed him, his enemies, with the truth.
«Resurrexit: plus fecit quam illi exigebant, non credendo, sed insultando, / He rose again, he did more than those demanded, not believing, but insulting / et dicendo: “Si filius Dei est, descendat de cruce”. / and saying: “If he is the Son of God, let him come down from the cross”. / Et qui de ligno descendere noluit, de sepulcro surrexit. / And he who did not want to come down from the cross, rose from the sepulcher. / Ascendit in caelum, misit inde Spiritum Sanctum; implevit discipulos, / And he ascended into heaven, he sent from heaven [from the Father] the Holy Spirit, filled [with grace] the disciples; / correxit timentes, fecit fidentes / he corrected those who were afraid [all of them had abandoned him out of fear. Augustine will later speak of Peter, of his fear and of his betrayal. He corrected, that is uplifted, those who were afraid. Correct in the sense of uplift] and made them believers in him [trusting of him]. «Petri trepidatio in fortitudinem praedicatoris repent conversa est. / And Peter’s fear was in an instant [repente] transformed into the fortitude of the witness». That repente is one of the most stupendous things in the Christian happening. Two months ago I went to see the excavation of the ancient baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti under the Cathedral of Milan where during the night of Easter in 387 Ambrose baptized Augustine. In the days of Ambrose Milan cathedral, dedicated to Saint Tecla, a martyr from Asia Minor, stretched into the present Cathedral Square, and the baptistery lay under the parvis of the present Cathedral. The excavations brought to light, on a marble plaque, the verses composed by Ambrose for the baptistery in which Augustine was baptized. The poem finishes with this image: «Nam quid divinius isto / what is more divine than this / ut puncto exiguo / that in a small instant / culpa cadat populi? / the guilt of a whole people falls away?»8. Punto exiguo is identical to repente: in a little moment of time, in an instant, in the gesture of Baptism, the guilt of a whole people falls away. In terms of the whole of religious and ethical ascesis it is a stunning thing. In a little instant. Not the end of a long process, but a little moment of time. And Augustine could not but know and not be amazed by Ambrose’s hymn for Easter Hic est dies verus Dei. Ambrose’s Easter hymn is the expression of amazement at the fact that the good thief, the good murderer, crucified at the right hand of the Lord, immediately enters Heaven. «... Iesum brevi quaesiit fide». The good murderer sought Jesus with a little faith, brief, of a single instant, «iustosque praevio gradu / praevenit in regnum Dei» and so with a little step he went before all the just into the kingdom of God. This is Christianity. An instant suffices. An instant of recognition, of seeking, supplici confessione: «Jesus, remember me, when you enter into your kingdom» (Luke 23, 42). That’s how it was for that murderer. It is so for each of us in the instant of the sacrament of Baptism and in the instant of the sacrament of Confession. Repente. It is not the end of a long conquest, but an instant of seeking and of grace9.
And then Augustine describes the instant in which Peter went from fear to witness.
«Unde hoc homini? / From whence does this come to man? [from whence does it come to Peter who passes from fear to witness, from denying to being witness? / Quaere Petrum praesumentem, invenis Petrum negantem... [praesumere can also not be, let’s say, a bad thing. Praesumere means to pre-tend something. Hence to anticipate. To pretend something beforehand. Before the gift of the Lord10] / Seek Peter who presumes and find Peter who denies, / Deum quaere adiuvantem, Petrum invenis praedicantem / seek God who helps [the grace of God that stoops toward Peter] and find Peter who witnesses». Then comes a passage on Peter’s fear and on this being made witnesses in an instant. In an instant / repente.
«Ad horam trepidavit infirmitas, / When the moment came, the weakness [of Peter] was afraid, / ut praesumptio vinceretur, non ut pietas deleretur / and this because his pretension [his wanting to anticipate] should be overcome, not because his piety was cancelled». This is very fine indeed. In fact even when Peter betrayed him, he loved him. It’s a moving thing. That is how Christian sins are, the sins of our frailty. Even when he had betrayed him, Peter loved Jesus. He betrayed him out of frailty, but the pietas that bound him to the Lord was not destroyed. And it is a stupendous thing, this. Péguy says that the modern tragedy is that sins are not any longer Christian sins11. Christian sins are sins, and they can also be mortal sins, that is ones that deprive of the grace of God12, yet they don’t cancel this last feeling of affection toward Him who has filled the heart with grace and joy.
«Implet ille Spiritu suo, / Jesus fills with his Spirit / et facit praedicatorem fortissimum, / and makes a very strong witness / cui praesumenti praedixerat: “Ter me negabis”. / him to whom when he presumed [when he wanted to anticipate, strong in his good intentions] he had predicted: “You will deny me three times”. / Praesumpserat enim ille de viribus suis / Peter had in fact presumed on his strength [had trusted in his own strength] / non de Dei dono / not on the grace of God / sed de libero arbitrio / but in his capacity to choose. / Dixerat enim: “Tecum ero usque ad mortem”. / He had in fact said [to Jesus, before the Passion]: “I shall stay with you till death”. / Dixerat in abundantia sua: / He had said in his good urge: [in abundantia sua: I believe one might translate it so: there was not per se wickedness in his presuming, it was the expression of a good urge] / “Non movebor in aeternum”. / “I shall never waver” [here Augustine quotes Psalm 29]. / Sed qui in voluntate sua praestiterat decori eius virtutem / But He who in his design had given Peter the splendor of virtue / avertit faciem suam, et factus est conturbatus. / took his countenance from him and Peter fell. / “Avertit” inquit “Dominus faciem suam”; / “The Lord” he says “has taken away his countenance”; / ostendit Petro Petrum / and so showed Peter to Peter», he made evident to Peter who Peter was, that is a wretch who betrayed. He made Peter see who he was, what strength his good intention had;
«sed postea respexit / but afterwards he looked at him / et Petrum firmavit in petra / and [by looking at him] he confirmed Peter in stone [in the grace of faith]». How fine that respexit is. Peter’s faith, Peter’s tears are a reflection of that look. «Quem Dominus respicit salvat». As Saint Ambrose puts it13.
«Imitemur ergo, fratres mei, quantum possumus, in Domino passionis exemplum / In so far as we can, my brothers, let us imitate in the Lord the example of the passion. / Implere poterimus, si ab illo poscamus adiumentum, / But we will be able to imitate the example if we ask him for help, [the words I am about to read describe the whole Christian life] / non praeveniendo sicut Petrus praesumens, / not anticipating [not wanting to pre-vent, not wanting to go beyond what the Lord gives] like Peter when he presumed / sed sequendo et orando / but following and asking [praying] / sicut Petrus proficiens / like Peter when he walked growing». I am also struck by the expression proficiens. Because one grows like that. One grows by not wanting to anticipate. One grows in the Christian life by following and praying. By following the happening of grace and asking. One grows like that. And this, in terms of the criteria of the world, of the criteria, let’s even say, good, of religious feeling, of ethics, of the education of the city of the men, is something incomparable14. In the Christian life one does not grow by anticipating something, by possessing something as one’s own. One grows by following and asking.
«Quando Petrus enim ter negavit, quid evangelista dicit, attendite: / When Peter denied the third time, heed what the Evangelist says: / “Et respexit eum Dominus, et recordatus est Petrus”. / “The Lord looked at him and Peter remembered”. / Quid est: “respexit eum”? / What does “looked at him” mean? [I don’t know whether Augustine’s exegesis of this Gospel passage is quite exact. It suggests, however, something most affecting from the point of view of human experience also] / Non enim Dominus in facie corporali eum tamquam commemorando respexit / The Lord did not look him physically in the face to remind him of his sin». How fine this is. It happens also to fathers and mothers towards their children. One can look at a child to remind it of its bad behaviour and so make it sadder and confirm it in its bad behaviour. The Lord did not look at Peter in that way, he did not looked at Peter as if to say: «See? You have betrayed me». He did not look at him to remind him that he had betrayed him.
«Non sic est: Evangelium legite. / It is not so: read the Gospel. / Dominus in interioribus domus iudicabatur, / Jesus was judged within the palace, / Petrus in atrium tentabatur / Peter was tested in the atrium. / Ergo “respexit eum Dominus” non corpore, sed maiestate; / And so the Lord looked not with the body but looked at him with his divinity; / non oculorum carnis intuitu, sed misericordia altissima / not with the look of eyes of flesh, but with the greatest mercy». The look of mercy is a different look15. The look of mercy generates the memory of something beautiful, some thankfulness. The memory of the first meeting, of all the times that Jesus in those three years had looked at him so. Whereas the look that reminds of sin generates the memory of the sins (cf. Heb 10, 3), thus only greater sadness.
«Ille qui averterat faciem suam, respexit eum, et factus est liberatus. / He who had averted his countenance looked at him, and Peter was made free». That factus est liberatus is fine. «Ipsa est enim vera et sana libertas»16. Wholesome freedom, that is healed of the wound of sin. Real freedom, that corresponds, that is, to its own nature. It is freedom embraced. It is the freedom of satisfied, accomplished desire.
«Ergo praesumptor periisset, nisi Redemptor respexisset. / And thus Peter who had presumed he would have died if the Redeemer has not looked at him. / Et ecce / And behold [because he had looked at him in that way] / lacrymis suis ablutus, / washed by his tears [tears of joy, tears of gratitude for being looked at in that way17], / correptus et ereptus praedicat Petrus. / corrected and upraised, Peter witnesses. / Praedicat qui negaverat; / He who had earlier denied now witnesses; / credunt qui erraverant. / and those who had earlier wandered away, now believe. / Valet in phreneticis medicina illa sanguinis Domini / The medicine of the blood of the Lord is effective for the wicked. / Bibunt credentes quod fuderunt saevientes / Believing they drink the blood that they had shed with their fury».
That was the first passage. Augustine had written in the Confessions: «Why, O Lord, did you make me read the books of the neoplatonist philosophers? Because then, when I read the apostle Paul and when your hands healed the wounds of my heart, I understand the difference inter praesumptionem et confessionem / between presuming and recognizing»18. Confessio is the pure recognition of a present happening. Gratia facit fidem19. If it is the attraction of a present happening that stirs recognition, the faith cannot be used as content of challenge. The look of Jesus ( «Respexit eum et factus est liberatus») cannot be something that we possess, with which we challenge others. How relevant this Christian simplicity is, this Christian unarmedness.

2. Sermo 213, 8

Now let us read the passage contained in note 53 on page 27 of the booklet published by30Giorni. Augustine is commenting on the Apostles’ Creed, in which all that needs to be believed is contained20. In the small Apostles’ Creed is contained everything that we must believe. Augustine is now commenting on the closing expressions.
«Iam quod sequitur ad nos pertinet. / What now follows concerns us. / In* Ecclesiam sanctam». You see that beside In there is an asterisk; this is because in many codices there is no In. That, too, is significant. In fact one believes in God the Father, one believes in Jesus Christ his Only Son, one believes in the Holy Spirit; one doesn’t believe per se “in” the Church, one believes “the” Church. One asserts a given fact. Properly speaking belief is only in the Lord21. That is why in many codices there is no In. And so we, too, in the Latin Creed that we recite in the mass say: «Credo unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam.
«Sancta Ecclesia nos sumus / We are the holy Church / sed non sic dixi “nos”, quasi ecce qui sumus, qui me modo audistis. / but I did not say “we” as to indicate those present, you who have just heard me». The holy Church is us. But it is not like saying us here present in this hall. It is an us within a horizon that borders on heaven.
«Quotquot hic Deo sumus propitio christiani fideles in hac ecclesia, id est, in ista civitate / Those of us here by the grace of God faithful Christians in this church, that is, in this city [of Hippo], / quotquot sunt in ista regione, / those here [by the grace of God faithful Christians] in this region, / quotquot sunt in ista provincia / those [by the grace of God faithful Christians] in this province [of Africa], / quotquot sunt et trans mare / those [by the grace of God faithful Christians] across the sea, / quotquot sunt in toto orbe terrarum / those [by the grace of God faithful Christians] throughout the earth / quoniam a solis ortu usque ad occasum laudatur nomen Domini / so that from the rising of the sun to its going down the name of the Lord be praised». I would like to open a little parenthesis. What Saint Augustine says is very fine. He has said that the holy Church is us. But this “us” has a catholic horizon. It indicates and embraces all those who recognize the presence of the Lord. It also indicates “us” , but within that horizon. And so it’s different saying “us”, it’s within a wider embrace. This “us” is not only within a larger, catholic embrace, that is that reaches the totality of those who recognize the Lord, but this “us” (and this is also something evident in the Fathers of the Church and in Christian experience) can shine in the face of the smallest among us. Augustine says for example «Petrus totius ecclesiae personam meruit gestare»22. Peter has deserved to bear, represent, make present, the person of the whole Church. And so it can also happen among us. Even the smallest among us, by the evidence of the grace of the Lord, bears, makes present, makes evident, in that moment, what the Church is: witness, transparency of Jesus Christ. Like Peter when he witnessed to Him with tears. Lacrymis fatebatur / with tears he declared His presence23. So that “us” embraces the totality of the Church, embraces the Church of Heaven also, and it can be made present, made evident by a single person in whom the reflection of His grace is resplendent24. It is a sui generis “us”, the Christian “us”, the Church that we are;
«sic se habet Ecclesia catholica, mater nostra vera, vera illius Sponsi coniunx. / Such is the Catholic Church, real mother to us, real bride of a great Bridegroom. / Honoremus eam, quia tanti Domini matrona est; / Let us honor her, because she is the lady of so great a Lord; / et quid dicam? Magna est Sponso et singularis dignatio / and what shall I say? great and s

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