Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Fathers of the Church

Letter CCIX


”Augustine’s correspondence, the mark and expression of the influential personality and apostolic zeal of the author, is rich in historical, philosophical, theological, exegetical, spiritual, literary, and autobiographical content” (Agostino Trapè). In this letter he asks the recently elected Pope Celestine to intervene in the case of an African bishop guilty of abusing his office.


The extant correspondence of St. Augustine includes more than 270 letters, including well over 200 written by him. Those numbered 124-231 span the period from the conference between Catholic and Donatist bishops held in 411, and the rise of the Pelagian heresy, until Augustine’s death in 430.

by Augustine of Hippo in 423 | translated by J. G. Cunningham


1. First of all I congratulate you that our Lord God has, as we have heard, established you in the illustrious chair which you occupy without any division among His people. In the next place, I lay before your Holiness the state of affairs with us, that not only by your prayers, but with your council and aid you may help us. For I write to you at this time under deep affliction, because, while wishing to benefit certain members of Christ in our neighbourhood, I brought on them a great calamity by my want of prudence and caution.

2. Bordering on the district of Hippo, there is a small town, named Fussala: formerly there was no bishop there, but, along with the contiguous district, it was included in the parish of Hippo. That part of the country had few Catholics; the error of the Donatists held under its miserable influence all the other congregations located in the midst of a large population, so that in the town of Fussala itself there was not one Catholic. In the mercy of God, all these places were brought to attach themselves to the unity of the Church; with how much toil, and how many dangers it would take long to tell, — how the presbyters originally appointed by us to gather these people into the fold were robbed, beaten, maimed, deprived of their eyesight, and even put to death; whose sufferings, however, were not useless and unfruitful, seeing that by them the re-establishment of unity was achieved. But as Fussala is forty miles distant from Hippo, and I saw that in governing its people, and gathering together the remnant, however small, of persons of both sexes, who, not threatening others, but fleeing for their own safety, were scattered here and there, my work would be extended farther than it ought, and that I could not give the attention which I clearly perceived to be necessary, I arranged that a bishop should be ordained and appointed there.

3. With a view to the carrying out of this, I sought for a person who might be suitable to the locality and people, and at the same time acquainted with the Punic language; and I had in my mind a presbyter fitted for the office. Having applied by letter to the holy senior bishop who was then Primate of Numidia, I obtained his consent to come from a great distance to ordain this presbyter. After his coming, when all our minds were intent on an affair of so great consequence, at the last moment, the person whom I believed to be ready to be ordained disappointed us by absolutely refusing to accept the office. Then I myself, who, as the event showed, ought rather to have postponed than precipitated a matter so perilous, being unwilling that the very venerable and holy old man, who had come with so much fatigue to us, should return home without accomplishing the business for which he had journeyed so far, offered to the people, without their seeking him, a young man, Antonius, who was then with me. He had been from childhood brought up in a monastery by us, but, beyond officiating as a reader, he had no experience of the labours pertaining to the various degrees of rank in the clerical office. The unhappy people, not knowing what was to follow, submissively trusting me, accepted him on my suggestion. What need I say more? The deed was done; he entered on his office as their bishop.

4. What shall I do? I am unwilling to accuse before your venerable Dignity one whom I brought into the fold, and nourished with care; and I am unwilling to forsake those in seeking whose ingathering to the Church I have travailed, amid fears and anxieties; and how to do justice to both I cannot discover. The matter has come to such a painful crisis, that those who, in compliance with my wishes, had, in the belief that they were consulting their own interests, chosen him for their bishop, are now bringing charges against him before me. When the most serious of these, namely, charges of gross immorality, which were brought forward not by those whose bishop he was, but by certain other individuals, were found to be utterly unsupported by evidence, and he seemed to us fully acquitted of the crimes laid most ungenerously to his charge, he was on this account regarded, both by ourselves and by others, with such sympathy that the things complained of by the people of Fussala and the surrounding district,— such as intolerable tyranny and spoliation, and extortion, and oppression of various kinds,— by no means seemed so grievous that for one, or for all of them taken together, we should deem it necessary to deprive him of the office of bishop; it seemed to us enough to insist that he should restore what might be proved to have been taken away unjustly.

5. In fine, we so mixed clemency with severity in our sentence, that while reserving to him his office of bishop, we did not leave altogether unpunished offences which behoved neither to be repeated again by himself, nor held forth to the imitation of others. We therefore, in correcting him, reserved to the young man the rank of his office unimpaired, but at the same time, as a punishment, we took away his power, appointing that he should not any longer rule over those with whom he had dealt in such a manner that with just resentment they could not submit to his authority, and might perhaps manifest their impatient indignation by breaking forth into some deeds of violence fraught with danger both to themselves and to him. That this was the state of feeling evidently appeared when the bishops dealt with them concerning Antonius, although at present that conspicuous man Color, of whose powerful interference against him he complained, possesses no power, either in Africa or elsewhere.

6. But why should I detain you with further particulars? I beseech you to assist us in this laborious matter, blessed lord and holy father, venerated for your piety, and revered with due affection; and command all the documents which have been forwarded to be read aloud to you. Observe in what manner Antonius discharged his duties as bishop; how, when debarred. from communion until full restitution should be made to the men of Fussala, he submitted to our sentence, and has now set apart a sum out of which to pay what may after inquiry be deemed just for compensation, in order that the privilege of communion might be restored to him; with what crafty reasoning he prevailed on our aged primate, a most venerable man, to believe all his statements, and to recommend him as altogether blameless to the venerable Pope Boniface. But why should I rehearse all the rest, seeing that the venerable old man, aforesaid must have reported the entire matter to your Holiness?

7. In the numerous minutes of procedure in which our judgment regarding him is recorded, I should have feared that we might appear to you to have passed a sentence less severe than we ought to have done, did I not know that you are so prone to mercy that you will deem it your duty to spare not us only, because we spared him, but also the man himself. But what we did, whether in kindness or laxity, he attempts to turn to account, and use as a legal objection to our sentence. He boldly protests: "Either I ought to sit in my own episcopal chair, or ought not to be a bishop at all," as if he were now sitting in any seat but his own. For, on this very account, those places were set apart and assigned to him in which he had previously been bishop, that he might not be said to be unlawfully translated to another see, contrary to the statutes of the Fathers; or is it to be maintained that one ought to be so rigid an advocate, either for severity or for lenity, as to insist, either that no punishment be inflicted on those who seem not to deserve deposition from the office of bishop, or that the sentence of deposition be pronounced on all who seem to deserve any punishment?

8. There are cases on record, in which the Apostolic See, either pronouncing judgment or confirming the judgment of others, sanctioned decisions by which persons, for certain offences, were neither deposed from their episcopal office nor left altogether unpunished. I shall not bring forward those which occurred at a period very remote from our own time; I shall mention recent instances. Let Priscus, a bishop of the province of Caesarea, protest boldly: "Either the office of primate should be open to me, as to other bishops, or I ought not to remain a bishop." Let Victor, another bishop of the same province, with whom, when involved in the same sentence as Priscus, no bishop beyond his own diocese holds communion, let him, I say, protest with similar confidence: "Either I ought to have communion everywhere, or I ought not to have it in my own district." Let Laurentius, a third bishop of the same province, speak, and in the precise words of this man he may exclaim: "Either I ought to sit in the chair to which I have been ordained, or I ought not to be a bishop." But who can find fault with these judgments, except one who does not consider that, neither on the one hand ought all offences to be left unpunished, nor on the other ought all to be punished in one way.

9. Since, then, the most blessed Pope Boniface, speaking of Bishop Antonius, has in his epistle, with the vigilant caution becoming a pastor, inserted in his judgment the additional clause, "if he has faithfully narrated the facts of the case to us," receive now the facts of the case, which in his statement to you he passed over in silence, and also the transactions which took place after the letter of that man of blessed memory had been read in Africa, and in the mercy of Christ extend your aid to men imploring it more earnestly than he does from whose turbulence they desire to be freed. For either from himself, or at least from very frequent rumors, threats are held out that the courts of justiciary, and the public authorities, and the violence of the military, are to carry into force the decision of the Apostolic See; the effect of which is that these unhappy men, being now Catholic Christians, dread greater evils from a Catholic bishop than those which, when they were heretics, they dreaded from the laws of Catholic emperors. Do not permit these things to be done, I implore you, by the blood of Christ, by the memory of the Apostle Peter, who has warned those placed over Chistian people against violently "lording it over their brethren." I commend to the gracious love of your Holiness the Catholics of Fussala, my children in Christ, and also Bishop Antonius, my son in Christ, for I love both, and I commend both to you. I do not blame the people of Fussala for bringing to your ears their just complaint against me for imposing on them a man whom I had not proved, and who was in age at least not yet established, by whom they have been so afflicted; nor do I wish any wrong done to Antonius, whose evil covetousness I oppose with a determination proportioned to my sincere affection for him. Let your compassion be extended to both, — to them, so that they may not suffer evil; to him, so that he may not do evil: to them, so that they may not hate the Catholic Church, if they find no aid in defence against a Catholic bishop extended to them by Catholic bishops, and especially by the Apostolic See itself; to him, on the other hand, so that he may not involve himself in such grievous wickedness as to alienate from Christ those whom against their will he endeavours to make his own.

10. As for myself, I must acknowledge to your Holiness, that in the danger which threatens both, I am so racked with anxiety and grief that I think of retiring from the responsibilities of the episcopal office, and abandoning myself to demonstrations of sorrow corresponding to the greatness of my error, if I shall see (through the conduct of him in favour of whose election to the bishopric I imprudently gave my vote) the Church of God laid waste, and (which may God forbid) even perish, involving in its destruction the man by whom it was laid waste. Recollecting what the apostle says: "If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged." I will judge myself, that He may spare me who is hereafter to judge the quick and the dead. If, however, you succeed in restoring the members of Christ in that district from their deadly fear and grief, and in comforting my old age by the administration of justice tempered with mercy, He who brings deliverance to us through you in this tribulation, and who has established you in the seat which you occupy, shall recompense unto you good for good, both in this life and in that which is to come.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF I/I, Schaff). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.

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