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The future Pope Francis on the relevance of St. Augustine

March 14, 2013

In a preface to a 2009 book on St. Augustine, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires said that “it can be said in so many ways that the holy Bishop of Hippo is relevant. One can venture reviews of his theology, rediscover the modernity of his gaze at the motions of the human spirit, bring out the brilliance of his judgments on the historical vicissitudes of his time, in some ways so similar to those of the present day.”

“The most striking image for me of how one becomes a Christian, as it emerges in this book, is the way in which Augustine recounts and comments on Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus,” he continued. “Zacchaeus is small, and wants to see the Lord pass, and so he climbs a sycamore. Augustine says: “Et vidit Dominus ipsum Zacchaeum. Visus est, et vidit.” [And the Lord looked at Zacchaeus himself. He was seen, and saw.]

Cardinal Bergoglio commented:

Some believe that faith and salvation come with our effort to look for, to seek the Lord. Whereas it’s the opposite: you are saved when the Lord looks for you, when He looks at you and you let yourself be looked at and sought for. The Lord will look for you first. And when you find Him, you understand that He was waiting there looking at you, He was expecting you from beforehand.

That is salvation: He loves you beforehand. And you let yourself be loved. Salvation is precisely this meeting where He works first. If this meeting does not take place, we are not saved. We can talk about salvation. Invent reassuring theological systems that turn God into a notary and His gratuitous love into a due deed to which He is supposed to be forced by His nature. But we never enter into the People of God. Whereas, when you look at the Lord and you realize with gratitude that you are looking at Him because He is looking at you, all intellectual prejudices go away, that elitism of the spirit that is characteristic of intellectuals without talent and is ethicism without goodness.

Gratitude and hope, the future Pope added, are marks of this genuine encounter with Christ:

For Augustine, the joy promised by the Lord to his followers is given and lives in spe, in hope. What does that mean? The expression in spe in the writings of Augustine indicates that this happiness is always a grace.

In our earthly condition, this is immediately obvious to everybody: happiness on earth, promised as pledge of heavenly happiness, does not come from us, we cannot build it nor maintain and master it. It is not in our hands, and hence is precarious, according to the schemes of those who believe they can build their life as their own project. It is the happiness of the poor, who enjoy it as a gratuitous gift. The happiness of those who live forever suspended in the hope of the Lord, and for that very reason are untroubled. Because it is a beautiful thing to live confident that the Lord loves us beforehand, seeks us beforehand.

The Lord of patience that comes to us hoping that we, like Zacchaeus, climb the tree of humilitas. Saint Augustine addressed to Him the beautiful prayer also recently revivified by Pope Benedict XVI, which can also summarize this book: “Grant what You command, and command what You will.” Grant us the gift of becoming as children, and then ask to be as children, to enter the kingdom of heaven.


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