Today we celebrate the feast of St. Monica, the virtuous mother of the great convert Augustine of Hippo, who was saved through the prayers and persistence of his mother. Tomorrow the Church remembers St. Augustine himself. These two saints give much hope to many people – those who are praying for a family member who has fallen away from the Church or has not yet discovered the faith, and those who have been (as we all are) great sinners and now see how wrong living like that is. St. Augustine’s example is one that shows that anyone can turn his or her life around completely, no matter what happened in the past.
St. Monica was born in 333 and married early to a pagan official of Tagaste, North Africa. She had three children with her husband Patricius, and because of his temper and habits her life with him was less than happy. Despite his disagreements with it, Patricius could not help but hold her in some awe because of her virtue, prayer, and almsgiving. However, he did not allow her to get their children baptized, which caused her a great deal of sadness. When Augustine, who was born in 354, grew ill as a child, Monica sought Patricius to let him be baptized, but when Augustine recovered Patricius continued to deny consent. Monica focused much of her energy on Augustine from this point on, seeing that he was more prone to laziness and negative habits than was good for him and the faith she hoped to share with him. Although she would have years of sorrow because of Augustine’s wayward and hedonistic lifestyle, she did receive some comfort and joy when her husband converted to Christianity shortly before his death.
While studying in Carthage, Augustine became caught up in the heresy of Manichaeism and started letting pleasures control his actions. He began a relationship with a woman that would last many years, despite knowing the hurt it caused his mother. He was a great scholar and teacher, which would later help lead him away from heresy and into Christianity. Eventually he saw the errors of Manichaeism and traveled to Italy, where Monica followed him and where Augustine began to study more deeply the faith of his mother. He continued to struggle against the teachings of Christianity for a few years, but through the reading of Scripture he began to accept them, intellectually if not yet entirely in his heart. Through continued prayers of his mother and the example of St. Ambrose, Augustine was able to give his life over fully to Christianity, in part because of his love of philosophy that he found to be so tied with Christian doctrines. He was baptized a Christian in 387 by St. Ambrose, and Monica died a few months later, after finally getting the joy of seeing her beloved son accept and embrace the teachings that were so dear to her.
Augustine continued his journey into Christianity, and was ordained to the priesthood in 391. He fought heresies including Manichaeism, Donatism, Pelagianism, and others, and continued to do so successfully throughout his time as Bishop of Hippo from 396-430. Because of his great philosophical understanding and explanation of Church teachings, Augustine was eventually named a Doctor of the Church. He is still today considered one of the greatest Doctors of the Church, despite his rocky beginnings and disagreements with the Church. His writings on a number of issues relating to the Church are still often referenced and used today.
It wasn’t until the 13th century that a cult began to spread for St. Monica, which was firmly established by the 15th century. Many mothers who have children fallen away from the faith, or who have not yet discovered the Church, pray for the intercession of St. Monica that their children will find the faith as Augustine eventually did. Her patience and perseverance are beautiful examples for anyone praying for a loved one to convert or rediscover the faith. These two saints together have (arguably) one of the most touching conversion stories in Christianity, especially for mothers who struggle with the choices their children make.
The lives of St. Monica and St. Augustine are both much more beautiful than I can do them justice here, but to learn more about them, there are many books available that go into a great deal more depth, including Augustine’s life in his own words – The Confessions. The book St. Monica: The Power of a Mother’s Love also details wonderfully the influence of Monica on Augustine’s life, through excerpts from Augustine himself.