John Lilburne's journal about the problems Saint Augustine had as bishop.



About John Lilburne







1558 L Mon 29 Oct 2001

I wrote an essay this about the problems faced by a bishop. Last night I read the Final Statement of the Synod of Bishops. Here is a section that disappointments me:

21. This Synod wishes to express the bishop's heartfelt thanks to all priests, their principal collaborators in the apostolic mission. ... To give priority to this calling and to pray for "pastors after God's heart" is not to underestimate other vocations. On the contary, by doing so, we enable them to increase and be fruitful. We pray that permanent deacons, who are a reminder to all Church members of the obligation to imitate Christ the servant, will find in these words an expression of our support and encouragement.

Permanent deacons were reformed on the same day as the instituted lectors and acolytes were reformed, in 1972. There is no mention of instituted lectors or acolytes. To mention one vocation, but not the other two seems wrong. It highlights to me the failure to deal with the ministries of instituted lector and acolyte.

But interesting to see the similarities and differences between bishops of today and those of Augustine. Here is the essay, without the footnotes:

Discuss the problems Augustine faced as a Bishop as reflected in the Life of St Augustine by St Possidius.

Possidius is believed to have written his short biography of Augustine within two or three years of his death, in 430. He seems to have been well qualified for this, as a fellow bishop who had known him for 40 years. They present a frist hand account of the problems Augustine faced as a bishop.

Church Law

The first problem Augustine faced in becoming a bishop was that of Church law. Possidius describes how Augustine "refused to receive the episocopate contrary to the practice of the Church, while his bishop was still living. All set to work to persuade him that the thing was constantly done and appealed to examples from Churches across the sea and in Africa, which he had not known about. Under this pressure and constraint he gave in and received consecration to the higher office. In later years he said, and wrote, that they ought not to have done this to him, namely consecrate him while his bishop was living, since it had been prohibited by a General Council, as he had discovered after his consecration."


According to Possidius, the bishops of the Donatists wanted Augustine killed. He writes: "They used to say, and argue at length, that he was a wolf to be killed in defence of their flock and that there could be no doubt whatever that God would forgive all the sins of those who could achieve this feat;"

The Circumcellions are described as operating in such a violent manner: "men of an unheard-of kind, perverted and violent, who made a profession of celibacy and were called Circumcellions". They caused serious problems for the Church: "They made daily and nightly attacks even upon Catholic priests and clerics, plundering them of all their goods. Many even threw lime mixed with vinegar into people's eyes, and others they killed outright. In the end, these re-baptizers came to be hated even by their fellow Donatists."

Pascentius, an Arian

Pascentius seems to have been a challenging opponent to Augustine. He was "an officer of the Imperial Household ... a ruthless collector of the imperial taxes and used his position to wage cruel and continuous war upon the Catholic faith." After a debate, which is refused to have recorded, he "proclaimed that Augustine ... had really been vanquished by him." This leads Augustine to follow up the discussion in writing.


The Pelagians are described as a challenging heresy: "plausible debaters, still more subtle and pernicious writers, and untiring talkers..." Another challenging aspect of their approach was to "force their false faith upon the Apostolic See". This lead to "most urgent measures" being taken by "Councils of the holy bishops of Africa" in representing their case against the Pelagians.

Heresy Trials

The account of the trial for heresy of Crispinus, a Donatist bishop, indicates problems with this approach. He is brought before a civil court on a charge of heresy, by the Catholic Church: "to remove a real hindrance to the Church's peace and progress, the Church's representative appealed to the law;" He is found guilty "under the state's laws against heretics" but on appeal is found not guilty. A third case finds him "a heretic by a written judgement of the proconsul". He appeals to the Emperor resulting in a "general ruling" that "Donatist heretics were not to be tolerated in any place". A fine of 10 pounds gold is given for "the judges and officers of the court and Crispinus himself". Augustine is described as taking "speedy steps" to have the "sentence on all of them remitted by a pardon". This suggests to me, that while courts were a worthwhile place for an argument, having the state enforce punishments against heretics was unsatisfactory.

His Books

Augustine was a prolific writer which seem to have resulted in unique problems for him in revising and preserving his books. In seeking to revise earlier works Possidius tells us: "He used to complain, however, that some of his books had been carried off by certain brethren before they had been properly revised." It is mentioned that while he did not have possessions to leave in his will, "It was a standing order that the library of the Church and all the books should be carefully preserved for posterity."


Possidius describes how "there poured into Africa from across the sea in ships from Spain a huge host of savage enemies armed with every kind of weapon and trained in war. There were Vandals and Alans, mixed with one of the Gothic peoples, and individuals of various nations."

This presents huge problems for the Church: "They spared neither sex nor age, nor the very priests and ministers of God, nor the ornaments and vessels of the churches, nor the buildings." Augustine "saw churches denuded of priests and ministers; holy virgins and others vowed to chastity dispersed, some among them succumbing to tortures, others perishing by the sword, others taken captive and losing innocence of soul and body, and faith itself, in evil and cruel slavery to their foes." In the process "the holy sacraments no longer wanted, and, if they were wanted, ministers of them hard to find."

With the invasion there is famine: "the very bishops and clergy of the Churches ... begging in the utmost need, when there was no possibility of supplying them with all that was necessary for their support. Of the countless Churches he saw only three survive, those of Carthage, Hippo and Cirta..."

But amid his grief, Augustine looks at the bigger picture, quoting the maxim: "No great man will think it a great matter when sticks and stones fall and mortals die."


In discussing the problems Augustine faced I have not referred to the Manicheeans. As described by Possidius they were not a problem for Augustine - they were defeated in debates and even converted. Possidius describes the long hours spent by Augustine as a judge, but I see this as part of his role as a bishop at the time, rather than as a problem.

Possidius provides us with a practical account of the difficulties faced by Augustine, a bishop of the Church - regarding violence, finances, and disputes.

Reference: Hoare, F.H. The Western Fathers; London, Sheed and Ward, 1980.

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, 29 October 2001.


Links to other sites:

Final Statement of Bishop's Synod