|Saint Augustine on his deathbed, by Ottaviano Nelli in the Church of Sant'Augostino|
in Gubbio, Itay
With Roman military resistance collapsing on every front before the overwhelming attack, Saint Augustine found himself trapped in his home city of Hippo Regius, deathly ill and under siege by a Vandalic host.
More about this dreadful period of history may be garnered from the video below, which is taken from The Life of Saint Augustine written shortly after the great saint's death by Possidius of Calama. Possidius was an eye-witness to much of what he records:
Also included in Possidius's Life of Saint Augustine is a fascinating letter which the great Doctor of the Church wrote during his final illness. This letter, written to Augustine's fellow bishop, Honoratus of Thiabe, is of import to our present tribulation, particularly as it relates to the response of our Catholic bishops to the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.
During this critical time in Roman north Africa, as the Vandals lay waste to all before them, many bishops and priests fled, leaving their people without access to the sacraments in the face of the unprecedented mortal danger. Augustine was asked by other bishops for advice on the best course of action. Was it acceptable for them to run and hide from the danger as Saint Paul had done in Damascus? Augustine's response is simply this: that flight is acceptable when the danger is particular to only one or a few, as in case of Saint Paul. However...
When the danger is common to all, that is, to bishops, clergy and laymen, let those who are in need of others not be abandoned by those of whom they are in need. Accordingly, either let them all withdraw to places of safety or else let not those who have a necessity for remaining be left by those through whom their ecclesiastical needs are supplied, so that they may either live together or suffer together whatever their Father wishes them to endure....
We ought not, on account of that which is uncertain, to be guilty of that which is certain, namely, neglect of our ministrations. Without these the ruin of the people is certain, not in the things of this life, but of that other which must be cared for with incomparably greater devotion and anxiety....And if some deserted their people, this is what we say ought not to be done. For such were not led by divine authority, but were deceived by human error or constrained by fear.Now certainly, the situation of Augustine's time and ours are not exactly comparable. However, I have heard certain people, when making a defense of the harsh restrictions Americans find themselves under, compare the viral onslaught to an armed invasion. While I do not agree with such characterizations, I do think that the situations are quite comparable in that they both represent civilizational crises, grave temporal trials, with dangers that threaten all people alike.
As we continue to read Augustine's words, let us imagine he is speaking not to his colleagues of 5th century Roman Africa, but to us in our own times:
Apparently, some of his colleagues brought up the case of Saint Athanasius who fled from the Arians during the theological crisis of the previous century. Augustine rejects this argument as well, saying that Athanasius was a uniquely powerful figure against Arianism and that the greater Church perceived how needful his voice would be in the continuing struggle. However...
When these dangers have reached their height and there is no possibility of flight, do we not realize how great a gathering there usually is in the church of both sexes and of every age, some clamoring for baptism, others for reconciliation, still others for acts of penance: all of them seeking consolation and the administration and distribution of the sacraments? If, then, the ministers are not at hand, how terrible is the destruction which overtakes those who depart from this world unregenerated or bound by sin! How great is the grief of their brethren in the faith who shall not have their companionship in the rest in the life eternal! Finally how great the lamentation of all and how great the blasphemy of some because of the absence of the ministers and their ministry! See what the fear of temporal evils does and how great an increase of eternal woes results. But if the ministers are present they are a help to all, according to the strength which the Lord gives them: some are baptized, others are reconciled, none are deprived of the communion of the body of the Lord, all are consoled, edified and exhorted to ask of God, who hath the power to avert all the things they fear—prepared for either issue, so that if that cup may not pass from them, His will may be done who can will no evil.
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When the peril is common and it is more to be feared that someone may be thought to do this not from a desire of serving, but from a fear of dying, and when more harm may be done by the example of fleeing than good by the obligation of living, it should under no circumstances be done.Augustine ends his advice with these strong words that ought to give pause, at least, to our contemporary Church leaders:
Accordingly, whoever flees under such circumstances that the necessary ministry of the Church is not lacking because of his flight, does as the Lord commands or permits. But whoever so flees that he deprives the flock of Christ of that nourishment from which it has its spiritual life, is an hireling who sees the wolf coming and flees because he cares not for the sheep.Augustine concludes his letter with these words. Again, let us imagine he is saying them to us in our current tribulations:
We can find nothing better to do in these dangers than to pray to the Lord our God that He have mercy upon us. And some wise and holy men, with the help of God, have been enabled to will and to do this much, namely not to desert the churches, and in the face of detraction not to waver in maintaining their purpose.We have endured now several decades of a Church led by too many who better resemble the hirelings than the true shepherds. It would be well that we Catholics pay close attention to those leaders of our Church in the United States who are attentively providing their flocks with spiritual nourishment, often at the potential risk of their very lives, and those who have left the sheep to fend for themselves without access to sacramental grace.
Augustine's entire letter may be read here at Tertullian.org. You may also click here to find a print copy of The Life of Saint Augustine by Possidius which is well worth reading as "the rest of the story" on Augustine of Hippo from a reliable, authentic ancient source.