The Conversion of Saint Augustine: A Case Study in Evangelization

Today all Christian churches face the necessity of evangelizing not only non-Christians, but also nominal or cultural Christians. In facing this challenge, the churches struggle to determine how to be effective in their efforts.

As St. Augustine records in his Confessions, effective evangelization requires three elements in order to be successful. Those elements are the necessity of prayer, the requirement of kindness, and the critical importance of intelligent exposition and explanation of the Christian Faith.

Prayer. St. Augustine records that the persistent prayers of his mother, St. Monica, were instrumental in opening his heart to the possibility of conversion to the Catholic Faith. (Confessions, Book 5, Chapter 9, and Book 9, Chapter 8). This is a familiar story, repeated perennially in many conversions. To select just one example, Clotilda, the wife of Clovis, King of the Franks, prayed for the conversion of her husband, and was ultimately successful when he invoked her God to win an important battle

Kindness. While most people who study the history of Christianity are familiar with the fact that it was St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who ultimately converted Augustine to the Catholic Faith, many are not aware that his kindness to Augustine was an important factor in securing that conversion. Augustine reports in his Confessions that Ambrose was first and foremost “a man who was kind to me.” (Book 5, Chapter 13).

Exposition of the Faith. This third element was particularly important in the case of Augustine, who had found many parts of the Old Testament simply incredible and impossible for him to believe. Ambrose overcame Augustine’s inability to accept such passages (those which Augustine referred to as “the obscure places of the Old Testament”)  by explaining the “spiritual” or allegorical sense of the literal passages. By doing so, Ambrose, in Augustine’s account, drew “aside the mystical veil [and opened] the spiritual sense of many things that taken literally seemed to teach something that was wrong,” or simply absurd. (Book 6, Chapters 4 and 5). Ambrose’s explanations led Augustine to realize that he had “been barking not at that which was indeed the Catholic Faith, but at fictions of carnal concepts.” (Book 6, Chapter 3).

Prayer and kindness are spiritual tools which are available to all who seek to evangelize their friends and acquaintances. The ability to explain the Faith to others is a rarer talent. This talent is dependent upon each individual deepening his or her own faith formation, frequently reading the Scriptures and commentaries, as well as a plethora of other Christian resources. One particularly valuable resource to assist in explaining the Catholic Faith is Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire website, books, and videos.

St. Augustine’s conversion experience provides a valuable template for those seeking to evangelize even today.




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