Jordan Aumann, O.P.

St. Augustine's Theology of Ministry

St. Augustine had always been attracted to a contemplative type of life. Even before his conversion, he was much more inclined to study and meditation than to the active life. After his conversion, he was drawn irresistibly to a monastic style of life, and so much so that it was with a good deal of reluctance that he accepted ordination to the priesthood. In the year 391, at the age of 37, Augustine had gone to Hippo to interview a candidate for the monastic life and to find a suitable location for a monastery, but in that same year he was ordained to the priesthood and he stayed at Hippo for the remaining 39 years of his life. Any hopes that he had for the tranquillity of a monastic life were permanently blocked by Augustine's obligation to minister to souls, first as a priest and later as a bishop.

Two excerpts from the writings of St. Augustine indicate that his reluctance to dedicate his life to priestly ministry was not based solely on his preference for the holy leisure of the monastic life. There was more to it than that. Thus, in a letter to Bishop Valerius, his predecessor as bishop of Hippo, Augustine stated: "There is nothing in this life more taxing, more arduous, or more perilous than the office of bishop, priest, or deacon." Later, in Sermon 339, we read:

To lead a life of leisure, free from care, little force would be needed to make me do that. There could be nothing more enjoyable than rummaging about the divine treasure chest, with no one to plague me. . ., but preaching, arguing, rebuking, building God's house, having to manage for everyone -- who would not shrink from such a heavy burden?

In Augustine's opinion, therefore, priestly ministry is at once a danger and a burden. It is a danger, obviously, because bishops, priests, and deacons are necessarily involved in the daily life of the world and therefore more susceptible to various temptations. It is a burden because, as Augustine says in a letter to Marcellinus:

If I were to give you an account of how the hours of my days and nights are spent, and let you know how many of them I have to spend over unnecessary things, it would make you quite sad. You would also be astonished at the number of things which I cannot put off and which pluck me by the sleeve and prevent me from doing what you are questioning me about (i.e. the completion of Augustine's treatise entitled The City of God).

The succinct Latin phrase, otium fit negotium, expresses well Augustine's lament that the leisurely tranquillity of the monastic life (otium) had to be abandoned in favor of priestly ministry (negotium). Yet we should note that even as a bishop, Augustine never relinquished his monastic style of living. Indeed, he is among the first in the history of the Church to found and promote a monastic life-style that was directed to the apostolate. It is for this reason that Augustine has always been hailed as the originator of the canons regular.

Augustine has much to teach us about the monastic style of living, for he wrote a Rule on this subject; he also has much to say about action and contemplation and about the love that is charity (for he is the Doctor of charity); but we are interested here in his teaching and example on ministry. And even if Augustine never lost his nostalgia for the leisure and tranquillity of the monastic life and was in fact tempted to flee into the desert, as he tells us in his Confessions, he considered the vita mixta, the ministry flowing from a monastic life-style to be the best form of life (optimus vitae modus) . No wonder, then, that St. Dominic chose the Rule of St. Augustine as the basic legislation for his Friars Preachers.


We have seen that Augustine considered the ministry to be both a danger and a burden. Consequently, it is no surprise that in his Rule he calls upon the faithful to be obedient to those who minister to them. "By being obedient," says Augustine, "you manifest a greater measure of compassion, not only for yourselves but also for your superior, because the higher position among you is all the more perilous." What he is calling for is obedience out of love and compassion, which balances nicely against his insistence to ministers that they should feed "not themselves but their sheep."

In order to explain the loving relationship that should exist between those who minister and the people who are served, Augustine refers to Galatians 6:2, where St. Paul urges the Christians to bear one another's burdens. Augustine then provides a powerful example from nature itself. When a herd of deer come to a river bank and must cross the river in search of pasture, they form a line with the stronger deer in front. As they enter the water, each of the deer extends its neck to rest its jaw and throat on the rump of the deer in front of it. The leading deer cannot do this, of course, but when it tires in midstream, all the animals stop while the lead deer takes its place at the end of the line. This happens as often as is necessary until the herd has safely reached the opposite bank.

St. Augustine could also be emphatic and forthright in delineating the qualities of a good shepherd and in condemning the faults of unworthy pastors. This is especially evident in his Sermon 46, which serves as the Second Reading of the breviary for the 24th and 25th weeks of the liturgical year. At the very beginning of the sermon St. Augustine insists that Christ is the guide and shepherd of the faithful and that we -- ministers and laity -- are all members of his flock. Consequently, the term "people of God" comprises all who are baptized into the Christian community -- ministers and laity; the term "Mystical Body", on the other hand, allows for the distinctions and differences among the various members of the Body of Christ, each of which have their own specific function.

Then, touching upon the primary ministry of bishops and priests -- the ministry of the word -- Augustine insists that the message conveyed by the preacher must be that of Christ himself. He is commenting on the words of the prophet Ezekiel: "The word of the Lord was addressed to me as follows: 'Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: Trouble for the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves'."

We have just heard this lesson as it was being read; hence I have decided to speak to you, good people. He himself will help me to speak the truth, if I do not speak just what is my own. For if I speak my own opinions, I shall be a shepherd feeding myself, not my sheep; but if what I say is his, it is he who feeds you, no matter who is speaking. . . . This is the first reason why those shepherds are accused, that they feed themselves, not the sheep. Who are those who feed themselves? Those of whom the Apostle says: "All seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ."

Not only did Augustine call for obedience of the faithful to their pastors and remind pastors that they must preach and teach, not in their own name, but in the name of Christ; he then described himself (and consequently all bishops) as "Christ's servant, and through him, the servant of his servants" (Letter 217). The bishop is placed over others, it is true, but as one who serves, in the same way as Christ. Consequently, says Augustine in The City of God: "A bishop who sets his heart on a position of eminence rather than an opportunity for service should realize that he is no bishop.",

Finally, Augustine identifies very closely with the faithful whom he serves as their bishop. And here once again we are reminded of the distinction between the two phrases: People of God and Mystical Body. When we say "People of God," we are using a term that is somewhat egalitarian because it portrays the Church as a community of believers that includes all the baptized -- bishops, priests, deacons and laity.

The Pauline expression, "Mystical Body of Christ," on the other hand, connotes a differentiation, and therefore some kind of hierarchical structure in the Church community. As St. Paul reminds us in Romans 12:3-6:

Thus, in virtue of the favor given to me, I warn each of you not to think more highly of himself than he ought. Let him estimate himself soberly, in keeping with the measure of faith that God has apportioned him. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and not all the members have the same function, so too we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the favor bestowed on each of us.

Returning to Augustine's Sermon 46, we find that he incorporates the substance of both phrases -- People of God and Mystical Body of Christ -- in the description of himself in relation to the faithful. Stated succinctly, he tells the people: "For you I am a bishop but with you I am a Christian."

I exhibit two clearly distinct features: one, that I am a Christian; two, that I am appointed overseer of others. The fact that I am a Christian is for my benefit; that I am appointed an overseer is for yours. My own good is to be considered in my being a Christian; in my being an overseer, only yours.

There are many who, as Christians and not leaders, attain to God, traveling maybe an easier road, and the more speedily, perhaps, the lighter the load they carry. But I, besides being a Christian, and for this having to render an account of my life, am a leader also, and for this shall render to God an account of my ministry.


The last paragraph of the preceding quotation raises the question of Augustine's concept of the ministry of the laity. F. Van der Meer has written a book of almost seven-hundred pages on this subject; it is entitled Augustine the Bishop and the second printing was issued in London in 1978. Holy bishop that he was, Augustine had a loving concern for the laity as well as for priests and religious. In view of the Synod on the laity, held in Rome in October, 1987, it is interesting to note how closely Augustine's ideas run parallel to those of Vatican Council II. One passage from his commentary on John's Gospel will serve our purpose.

When you hear the Lord saying: "Where I am, my servant also will be" (Jn 12:26), you are not to think merely of good bishops and clerics. Be yourselves also, in your own way, ministers of Christ by the goodness of your lives, by giving alms, by preaching his name and doctrine to the extent that this is possible for you.

Let every father of a family likewise acknowledge in Christ's name the affection he owes his family as a parent. For the sake of Christ and for the sake of eternal life, let him admonish, teach, encourage, correct and show kindness to all his household. In his own home he will be filling an ecclesiastical role and, if you will, the duty of a bishop, ministering to Christ so as to be with him forever.

We note with satisfaction an echo of St. Augustine's teaching in the documents of Vatican Council II, especially in Lumen Gentium, Apostolicam Actuositatem, and Ad Gentes. Later, the ministry of the laity was further extended to include some aspects of the ministry of the ordained, thanks to the Apostolic Letter Ministeria Quaedam of Pope Paul VI. The Fathers of the Council had stated in Apostolicam Actuositatem:

In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but union of mission. To the apostles and their successors Christ has entrusted the office of teaching, sanctifying and governing in his name and by his power. But the laity are made to share in the priestly, prophetical and kingly office of Christ; they have, therefore, in the Church and in the world, their own assignment in the mission of the whole People of God. In the concrete, their apostolate is exercised when they work at the evangelization and sanctification of men; it is exercised too I when they endeavor to have the Gospel spirit permeate and improve the temporal order, going about it in a way that bears clear witness to Christ and helps promote the salvation of men. The characteristic of the lay state being a life led in the midst of the world and of secular affairs, laymen are called by God to make of their apostolate, through the vigor of their Christian spirit, a leaven in the world.

But Lumen Gentium goes beyond the restriction of the lay ministry to the purely secular order. It states clearly that the laity can be called in various ways to a more immediate cooperation in the ministry of the hierarchy and may even be appointed by the hierarchy to certain ecclesiastical offices with a view to a spiritual end (no. 33). This directive was approved and promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1978 with the publication of the Apostolic Letter, Ministeria Quaedam.

It should be noted, however, that the revised Code of Canon Law does not recognize any "right" of the laity to share in the ministries of the ordained; it says rather that they are "capable of being admitted by the sacred Pastors to those ecclesiastical office and functions which, in accordance with the provisions of the law, they can discharge" (Canon 228, 1). This means, in practice, that the laity may be called to perform a ministry proper to the ordained when there is a sufficient reason, if they are competent, and with the approval of proper ecclesiastical authority.

In the passage that we have quoted from St. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo makes no reference to the possibility of the laity performing functions that are properly an ordained ministry. Most likely the question never arose in his day, if only because, as in his own case, when a priest was needed, a worthy and suitable layman would be ordained. Consequently, it would seem that Augustine's theology of the ministry of the laity would restrict the laity to what is specifically proper to their secular condition. But within this domain, says Vatican Council II in Apostolicam Actuositatem, "they must bring to their cooperation with others their own special competence, and act on their own responsibility" (No. 7).