‘The long haul of the genuine Augustinian’ - Renewal Course in Rome

Sixteen Augustinians, nine friars and seven sisters, are currently doing an eleven-week renewal course in Rome (22 January-7 April 2018), organised by the Institute of Augustinian Spirituality, an arm of the Curia that promotes the spirituality of the Order. The course comprises nine weeks of lectures followed by a pilgrimage to Augustinian sites at Lecceto, Montefalco and Cascia, and a retreat in San Gimignano, over two weeks. I was invited to give them a one-week seminar (ten hours), 12-16 February, on The Contemporary World and Society.

The participants were from nine countries, including two Chinese friars. Fr Augustine Peng is a professed Augustinian belonging to the Vicariate of the Orient, which comes under the Spanish Philippines Province, and is a parish priest, on his own, in Hunan Province. Bro. Huyao Zhang is from northern China and was for a while with four other candidates with the Vicariate of the Orient in the Philippines. When they left, he transferred to the Australian Province, where he is now a seminarian. He speaks excellent English. He told me a number of young men from his home area, where there is relative religious freedom, are keen to join the Order.

With sisters and friars from countries as varied as Indonesia, India, China, Nigeria, Kenya, Poland, Hungary, the USA, including a Nigerian friar working in Algeria (Annaba), the seminar sessions provided a number of interesting perspectives on the contemporary world, not just the familiar European and North Atlantic one - a reflection of the changing nature of both the Order and the Church. In fact, the number of African sisters and seminarians in Rome is now very noticeable. Of the seven friars in the first-cycle of studies in St Monica’s, five are from Africa and two from Brazil. And the majority of student priests are from Africa and Asia.

This was my third time giving the seminar, and I have varied it each time. On this occasion, I found a greater clarity in my own mind about how as Augustinians we should be relating to the contemporary world. Like Augustine, as exemplified in his own pastoral and intellectual work, we should be critically engaged with the world around us, the position put forward by Pope Francis, especially in Evangelii Gaudium, but meeting with considerable resistance in some quarters of the Church.

A best-selling book in the United States, The Benedict Option, is advocating that Catholics should live at a distance from contemporary western society which is perceived to be amoral, relativistic, and corrupt. The only viable option for devout Catholics, therefore, is to retreat to semi-monastic bunkers of like-minded conservative Christians, in the mistaken notion that this is what St Benedict did in order to save European civilisation in the so-called Dark Ages.

This is not the Augustinian option, which is perhaps best expressed by the British theologian Adrian Hastings: ‘We are faced... with an Augustinian predicament. When the Vandals are at the gates, there are three possible responses. One is simply to despair… of any ultimate meaning in the world or in human history; the second is to withdraw into a private sacral sphere, a closed community, monastic or charismatic, abandoning the struggle for the secular state as irredeemably corrupt; the third is to imitate Augustine himself, take the sombre view, but also the very long one, and retain in hope, but without much evidence, a Christian concern for the ultimate redeemability of the totality of things’ (A History of English Christianity 1920-1985, London, 1986, p.660).

Hastings perceptively observes that a great many seem to be succumbing to the first and second options, not so many to the third, which he describes as ‘the long haul of the genuine Augustinian’.