Saturday after Ash Wednesday

On the first Saturday in Lent, Romans gather at the Basilica of St. Augustine to the North-East of Piazza Navona in the historical centre of the eternal city. The present church was built in 1446, dedicated to Augustine of Hippo, the great Father of the Church. This Augustianian church was raised to the title of minor basilica in 1999, the latest one in the papal see. The church became a Cardinal Titular Church in 1587. Presently, the Cardinal Archbishop of Bordeaux holds the Title of St. Augustine.

Born in 354 in Algeria which then belonged to the Roman Empire, Augustine studied rhetoric in Carthage and followed the Manichean religion. He began to live a hedonistic life, to the dismay of his mother, Monica, who followed him wherever he went, constantly praying to God for his son's conversion. Her nagging paid off. At the age of 29, he met St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who greatly impressed Augustine with his intellect and rhetoric skills and planted in him the seed of conversion. Three years later, while reading about the life of Saint Anthony the Hermit (Father of all Monks), he heard a mystic voice singing "tolle lege" ("take up and read") repeatedly. He opened the Bible, and his eyes fell on Romans 13:13-14: "Conduct properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh." He was so touched that he resolved to serve God with his entire life and live celibately. He received the grace of baptism from the hands of St. Ambrose a year later.

He became a priest in 391, was elected Coadjutor Bishop of Hippo in 395, and succeeded to the see shortly afterwards. He died in Hippo on 28 August 430. The Roman Calendar celebrates his memorial on his day of his birth into heaven, while the Eastern Church commemorates him on 4 November. His remains are still venerated in the Basilica di San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, Italy.

Those who have not read his book "Confessions" must do so. Other than this spiritual classic, his written works and homilies, which can fill an entire bookcase, have been passed on to this generation more than 1600 years later. This led the Church to proclaim him as one of the original four Doctors of the Church in 1298, together with St. Ambrose, St. Jerome and St. Gregory the Great. He remains as one of the most prominent of the 33 Doctors of the Church. Pope Benedict will soon add to the list St. John of Ávila and St. Hildegard of Bingen.

Since 1867, the Bishop of Constantine also holds the title of Hippo in recognition of the eminence of St. Augustine. In Hippo, present-day Annaba in Algeria, a majestic Basilica dedicated to the saint was consecrated in 1900. A week ago, Pope Benedict XVI made a personal donation to the basilica for its restoration.

When you visit the Basilica of St. Augustine in Rome, don't forget to pray before the tomb of St. Monica to the left of the main altar, and admire Caravaggio's Madonna of Loreto.

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