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Befriending the Church Fathers

Three saints — one ancient, one medieval and one modern — explore the importance of conversion

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Priests are “fathers” whose compassionate care wells up from the spring of their inclusive love for the people of God. These fathers have been “fathered” by the Trinitarian mystery and befriended in a special way by the Fathers of the Church on whose wisdom they draw in their roles as teachers and preachers.

This article aims to explore the power of befriending three fathers of our faith tradition with the hope that they influence our own actions: Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Bonaventure of Bagnorea (1221-74), and Francis de Sales (1567-1622).

Befriending these ancient, medieval and modern saints and scholars is not a luxury but a necessity for men of God, who pledge to witness to the highest ideals of personal, communal and ecclesial integrity.


The teachings of St. Augustine permeate the theological and spiritual traditions of Western Christianity. The detailed story of his conversion reveals a man whose powerful intellect bows to the force of faith and whose stubborn will gives way to the primacy of love. Until his conversion, Augustine admitted to having confused lust with love. To follow Christ meant replacing the short-term satisfaction of sensuality with a long-term relationship with the Triune God whom he adored. His conversion did not entail a dualistic separation of body and spirit, but a holistic integration of sensuality and spirituality.

Ambrose’s Influence

As Augustine confesses, nothing is closer to God’s “ears than a contrite heart and a life of faith” (Confessions, Book 2, 3:5, 67). Though an unvoiced longing for truth led Augustine (354-430) to the Scriptures, he put them aside because of their unpolished style and turned instead to the Manicheans, who maintained that reason alone could free people from error and lead them to spiritual awareness. This false form of belief expressed a revulsion for the material world and became the rationale for ultra-ascetic practices.

Augustine was involved with the Manichees for nearly 10 years. Their influence on him lingered until the episode that marked the start of his conversion. Unknown to Augustine, St. Ambrose had become the bishop of Milan in 373. While Augustine’s life was a cauldron of mental and emotional turmoil, Ambrose’s was a mirror of clarity. Their meeting soon began to dispel the doubts he felt, “And when I opened up my heart to receive the eloquence with which he spoke, there likewise entered, although only by degrees, the truths that he spoke” (Confessions, Book 5, 4:24, 131).

Having been introduced to the bishop of Milan by St. Monica, his mother, Augustine felt drawn to his being at once a man of prodigious erudition and a beloved shepherd of wayward souls like his own. Ambrose was as comfortable in the pulpit as in the corridors of political and academic power.


Augustine’s ‘Triple Conversion’

The first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), speaks of the contribution of Augustine to the Church of our own and all previous ages. In his general weekly audience in February 2008, the pope meditated on Augustine’s “triple conversion.” The first turn, of course, marks his singular acceptance of Jesus in 386, followed by his baptism by Bishop Ambrose in Milan in 387.

His second conversion, stirred to life by his friendship with Christ and his formation of a school of love in Africa, has at its hallmarks the shift from learned lectures to simple preaching in Hippo, his hometown. In simplicity and humility he took upon himself the duty to bring the People of God closer to their Creator. His third conversion, shortly before his death, brought him to a living attunement to the Sermon on the Mount, to the need he felt to be washed clean by Christ and constantly renewed in him. The grace of union, the gift of growing in oneness with the Lord, brought Augustine the peace of heart he had sought for a lifetime.


Spark of Conversion

So inspiring was the personal life and powerful preaching of Ambrose on Augustine that he began to read the Bible, no longer with the intention to argue against it, but with a disposition of humble submission to the wisdom of the word.

With each passing day, Augustine became convinced that he ought to enter the Church as a catechumen and seek friends who would support him in the new venture of faith his life was soon to take.

In 385, when St. Monica came to Milan, she finally witnessed the fulfillment of her prayers for Augustine. Her son had separated from his mistress and had started on a path compatible with the destiny God had in mind for him. Augustine felt discontented with philosophical speculation that had no way of resolving the mystery and meaning of life and death. Nothing he found there satisfied the longing of his heart.

Then one day in September 386, as he walked in his garden with his friend, Alypius, Augustine heard what he thought was a child’s voice chanting, “Take up and read.” Finding the book of Paul’s epistles open, his eyes fell on the passage: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in strife and envying; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences” (Rom 13:13-14). At the age of 32, Augustine at last came home not to the “fleshpots” of this world but to the rule of faith, not to the company of heretics but to the fatherhood of countless spiritual children who would come to rely on his wisdom and guidance.

St. Augustine of Hippo
A statue of St. Augustine of Hippo on the main altar in the chapel of St. Wolfgang in Vukovoj, Croatia.

Legacy of Faith

In 391, he made his homecoming journey to Hippo with the idea of founding a monastery there. There was a scarcity of clergy in Africa at this time, and holy men were often conscripted for the priesthood by popular demand. When the people of Hippo witnessed Augustine’s faith, they clamored for his ordination. Since he had no such desire, Augustine protested, but to no avail.

He was ordained in 392 and appointed as an aide to Bishop Valerius, whom he later succeeded. His chief duty as a priest seems to have been writing and delivering sermons, of which more than 400 have been preserved. From 400-416, in addition to his pastoral duties, he devoted himself to writing his books on the Trinity, to composing several commentaries on the Scriptures and to preaching on the mystery of the Triune God.

Augustine died at the age of 66 in 430. A year before his death the Vandals invaded Rome and threatened to destroy the fabric of religion and culture in Africa. Their attempts failed in great measure because of the bulwark of faith Augustine had built. Although Hippo itself fell captive the year he died, no invasion could halt the floodgates of theology and spirituality released from the pen of this powerful Father and Doctor of the Church.


Called upon by the general chapter of the Friars Minor to be the official biographer of his spiritual father, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bonaventure (1217-74) was a humble servant of the Lord as well as a brilliant theologian and a mystical poet. In 1257, he was elected minister general of the Franciscan order, becoming in the future its second founder and the chief architect of its enduring spirituality.

A Quest to Serve God

Committed to the pursuit of truth, Bonaventure studied theology at the University of Paris, receiving his professorship in 1253. For him, action is contemplation incarnated, and contemplation is action purified and at rest. Both elements are present in his magnificent treatise on Christian mysticism, “The Soul’s Journey into God.” This truth, validated in his own life, led Bonaventure to view the entirety of existence as a quest to know, love and serve God. Its hallmarks are poverty or detachment from excessive material or spiritual acquisitions; chastity or reverential respect for creation in its myriad human and nonhuman forms; and obedience or listening so deeply to God’s word that it comes to fruition in zealous prayer and service to others.

The moment a priest embarks on this life-changing journey, he realizes that he is not alone. Beneath the complexity of rational analysis is the simplicity of his childlike faith in the word of God. On this journey, Bonaventure assures him, Christ is the way, the truth and the life. To follow him from Bethlehem to the Beatific Vision implies cooperation with the action of grace, the expulsion of sin and acceptance of the depth of divine forgiveness.

As priests journey onward, they let the action of grace supersede all personal effort, resulting in purer forms of prayer that clarify the truth of who they are; they clear the channels of divine union obscured by sin so that they can conform with courage to the cross that sets them free. What follows is a mystical knowing in love by which one responds to God’s leading, savors the sweetness of charity and embraces the hidden mystery whose beauty is beyond all telling.

St. Bonaventure

True Union with Christ

Bonaventure describes the ascent to God in six stages, starting with a meditation on God’s first revelation in creation and ending with contemplation on the love God has granted to the universe. The last stage leads one in body, mind and spirit to the goal of union with Christ crucified and glorified. As Bonaventure confirms in his masterpiece: “If we wish to enter again into the enjoyment of Truth as into paradise, we must enter through faith in, hope in, and love of Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and men” (“The Soul’s Journey into God,” No. 88).

To live this ideal requires ongoing conversion of heart; compunction for failing to exercise self-giving charity; and obedience to divine and divinely inspired moral laws. The practices that follow upon these principles are detachment from excessive materialism and the lust for power; affectionate, reverential respect for creation; and zeal for a life of prayer and for sharing one’s gifts with others through preaching, healing and teaching.

Priests must be willing to enter into the hidden recesses of their conscience to explore and appraise their faults and their deforming effects on their dispositions, affections and deeds. Knowledge of one’s misery evokes humility accompanied by the awareness of God’s mercy.

Seeking Virtues

For Bonaventure and his mentor, St. Francis of Assisi, to humble oneself as Christ did is the foundation of virtue since it leads to contemplation of God as the origin of all that is good. Remembrance of Christ as one’s savior and ongoing attentiveness to the guiding power of the Holy Spirit are hallmarks of the priesthood, as are perseverance in prayer and grateful acceptance of one’s having been made, forgiven and saved by God.

As every priest knows, responsibility for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the people of God cannot be accomplished in a rush. Patience is necessary in their ministry, because instant results are seldom, if ever, forthcoming. When one’s ego has been quieted by contemplative prayer, one is able to address others more modestly, maturely and kindly. Impetuous actions are avoided in favor of peacemaking. The holiness of humble priests increases because of the good they do and the evil they suffer, at times unjustly, through no fault of their own.

To be avoided at all costs in their prayer life is mere devotionalism since, by their practice of the presence of God, priests remind us that prayer is the portal to finding and following God’s divinely detailed plan for everyone’s life.

Priests and others need to ask God to restore in them fervent zeal, compassion for others, patience in adversity, good example to encourage everyone to grow spiritually, prudence in regard to daily decisions and actions, and devout thanks to and praise of the Lord. While not everyone in charge of souls can possess all these virtues with equal perfection, all must have them at least to some degree in order both to edify their faith community and to promote their own and others’ salvation.


A native of Savoy in France, Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was the eldest son of an aristocratic family. Though they were Christian by commitment, they counted on their son’s pursuit of a worldly career in law or education; but the path carved out for him by God revealed that none of these expectations would be fulfilled. Francis would relinquish these secular fields and turn his attention instead to the study of theology at the University of Padua, where he received his doctorate in 1591. Upon his return to Savoy, he renounced his rights as a nobleman and in 1593 answered the call to the priesthood.

After that he spent time as a missionary in a district of France that had converted to Protestantism, serving with such fidelity as a confessor and a preacher that by 1602 many people who heard him and sought his help returned to the Catholic faith. In the same year, he was consecrated bishop of Geneva, where he began work on two classics, “Introduction to the Devout Life” (1608) and “A Treatise on Divine Love” (1616). Both books mandate the pursuit of holiness for all people, from manual laborers to officials at court. He died at Lyon on Dec. 28, 1622. On April 19, 1665, he was declared a saint by Pope Alexander VII, and on July 7, 1877, he was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX.

A Choice to Make

For St. Francis, two principles guide one’s spiritual life: divine love, meaning God’s love for souls and their longing for intimacy with God; and humility, understood as the condition for receiving God’s love in the lowliness of one’s fallen condition. A priest can choose to will himself away from God and the wonder of creation, or he can use, rather than misuse, his free will to move toward God by accepting his commands with resolve and fulfilling them with joy.

As love increases, pride decreases. This is the secret of happiness that St. Francis wants to share: Dying to one’s egocentric willfulness enables one to exercise the loving and liberating will of God; it turns love of others from greed to generosity, from envy to respect, from impatience to patience. Such “charity never enters a heart without lodging both itself and its train of all the other virtues which it exercises and disciplines as a captain does his soldiers” (“Introduction to the Devout Life,” No. 121).

This sensible, down-to-earth spirituality is what endears Francis to laity, clergy and religious. It encourages priests to aspire to virtue, whatever their task in Church and society may be. There, where God places him, a priest is to act with prudence and discretion, with charity and courtesy. What he shares in common is the remembrance that none of this good comes from him, but from God’s gifts to him. Such humility releases him from the danger of envious comparison; he celebrates the blessing that resides in every limit, provided he strives to follow Jesus and surrender life and limb into the Father’s hands.

Purgation from sin is a precondition for living the devout life. Only then, says de Sales, can one engage in the kinds of meditation — for example, on creation, on death, judgment, hell and paradise — that characterize how a devout soul progresses in holiness and practices being helpful to the people of God.

St. Francis De Sales
A statue of St. Francis de Sales at Eglise de la Madeleine in Paris. Zvonimir Atletic /

To Be with the Beloved

The test of devotion resides not in extraordinary phenomena like rapture or ecstasy but in exercising the virtues our Savior modeled: obedience, poverty of spirit and purity of heart. As de Sales says at the conclusion of the Introduction, “Look upon Jesus Christ, and do not renounce him for all the world. And when the labors of a devout life seem hard to you, sing with St. Francis of Assisi: ‘Such are the joys that lure my sight, / All pains grow sweet, all labors light’” (“Introduction to the Devout Life,” No. 291).

The central advice Francis gives is to place oneself in the presence of God and to invoke God’s assistance. To be with the Beloved is to cultivate a lively and attentive awareness of the Divine, because, as he would say to his fellow priests, wherever you are, God is. You must understand that God is present not only in general, but in the particular details of your life. He is in your heart of hearts and in the places you inhabit. In his humanity Christ gazes upon you and asks that you direct your gaze to him. You use your imagination not to evoke a fantasy but to behold how near to you the Lord is, and especially so in the Blessed Sacrament.

Fulfilled there is the priest’s sense of the Good Shepherd’s purpose: “To lead his beloved flock to the healthful waters … of true devotion.” And so St. Francis de Sales prays: “I humbly beseech his Divine Majesty to grant this to me and to all the children of his Church — the Church to which I forever submit my writings, my deeds, my words, my acts of will and my thoughts” (“Introduction to the Devout Life,” Nos. 37-38).

SUSAN MUTO, Ph.D., is dean of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh and author of “Gratefulness: The Habit of a Grace-Filled Life” (Ave Maria Press, $15.95).

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