San Agustín, Florida and the City of God
On August 28, 1565 (the feast-day of St. Augustine) Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Aviles arrived on what is now the coast of Florida and celebrated the first Mass on today’s US territory. A few days later on September 8, he founded the Spanish town of San Agustín, Florida. This Catholic settlement was under the protection of Spain whose principal goal was to establish the Faith in its colonies.
St. Augustine, a doctor of the Church, was the patron saint of the first Catholic town in the USA. One of his most important works is entitled The City of God. Professor Charles Mathewes compares the first ten books of The City of God to Virgil’s Aeneid: “... in which a man leaves behind his burning wreck of a home, carrying his ancestry on his back, and travels through several different false homes before he reaches his true new home.” Aeneas, with his father on his shoulders and holding his son’s hand, abandoned his home, ruined by war, and sought his father’s homeland. He was homeless with a sense of instability and loss of identity, fleeing destruction and clinging to his family.
In a certain way, St. Augustine does this with The City of God. After the sack of Rome in 410, he carries Greco-Roman culture on his shoulders, as a type of ancestry, leaving the cultural ruins of the false gods behind him. He begins his pilgrimage of life, seeking truth and passing through the many false homes of his pagan ancestors. He denounces the false gods of the Greeks and Romans as nothing more than the personification of vices and passions. At one point he exclaims, “...I wish war were not real like Mars is not real...” He shows that Mars and all of the false gods are demons who incite men to commit the atrocities of sin. He definitively rejects the falsehoods of his ancestors and at the same time carries with him his identity as one of them. He is a product of the various qualities of his great predecessors, but is honest enough to reject their obvious errors.
The Donatists were a group of rigorists also targeted by St. Augustine. Rejecting the decisions of the Church, they judged that sins committed to avoid martyrdom could not be forgiven by the sacrament of penance. Although they professed this type of exaggerated purity of soul, they soon fell into grave errors. They became closely affiliated with the Circumcellions, which were a group of fanatics that exalted martyrdom as the only true virtue. They were essentially a band of brigands that lived immoral lives of robbery and debauchery. There seems to be a pattern of the extremes that somehow always meet throughout history. The rigorous Jansenists of France became some of the most ruthless of the Revolutionaries attempting to destroy the Church. Our puritan ancestors, finding depravity everywhere, have become the anti-puritans of our day, advocating abortion and same-sex marriage. Modern society bears the fruits of the imbalance found in the extremes of our ancestors. The extremes are never too distant from one another.
In The City of God, St. Augustine proposes a balanced solution for the founding of society. Happiness will not be found perfectly here on earth, but we can hope to find it by seeking our true Father in Heaven. St. Augustine’s pilgrimage, like that of Aeneas’, seems to include a small son to show that he hoped in a future generation for his family. St. Benedict, who was also of noble descent, was born near Rome about 50 years after the completion of The City of God. With his monastic Rule he too founded a “City of God.”
St. Benedict carried on his shoulders all that was good in the Roman culture and unmercifully rejected all that was evil. His Rule is a beautiful example of the Roman Father of the family, with its hierarchy, respect and love. The balanced moderation in the practice of virtue, the discipline, mercy and justice of his medicinal corrections, the importance of peace of soul and his call to spiritual warfare under the banner of Christ, all of these elements attest to the balanced Roman culture found in his Rule. Like St. Augustine, upon arriving at Monte Cassino, he overthrew the false god Apollo and cut down the sacred groves where sacrifice was offered to mythological gods. He kept all of the good that his ancestors passed on to him, but unmercifully rejected their errors.
We are called to do the same thing with our lives. We cannot deny that we carry our ancestry on our shoulders as part of our identity, but like St. Augustine and St. Benedict, we must reject our ancestors’ errors that they passed on to our generation while we preserve their virtues. Our perfect happiness will only be found in Heaven. Amidst the ruins of our modern society, we still hope to find the Fatherland. We must practice the virtues that our forefathers left to us and renounce their vices. Since St. Augustine is the patron of the first Christian town founded in America, we may consider him as our founding father, using his example of hope as our means to enter “The City of God.”