Being Church in an Academic Setting

Summary of Contents

Fr. Miguel Angel Orcasitas, during his talk with the academic community last February 1, 1996, invited the members of the academe to make as their own the Augustinian heritage. But what do we mean precisely by "Augustinian heritage?" We mean two things by the term "Augustinian heritage." The first is Augustine's experience of God as he understood it under the light of Scriptures and which he made public through his works. It was an experience that he shared with his immediate family and friends in a life of communion based on the Jerusalem ideal of Luke-Acts. The second meaning derives from the particular way by which the members of the Order of St. Augustine have lived Augustine's Jerusalem ideal as outlined in the Rule and their contributions to the deepening of the philosophical and theological insights of their Spiritual Father in their life of prayer, work and study. In other words, when the Prior General offered the Augustinian heritage to the lay members of this academe, he was offering not just a philosophy, nor a way of thinking, but a way of living out the Christian vocation: a spirituality.

Augustinian Heritage and the Laity

Fr. Orcasitas offered Augustine's heritage as a help for living out one's lay Christian vocation. In this, he was just being obedient to the desire of the Church which has singled out as one of the principal tasks of the Order to make known the richness of Augustine. John Paul II once said: "Your Order has as a principal obligation the task of keeping alive and attractive the fascinating quality of St. Augustine also in modern society: a stupendous and stimulating ideal, because the examct and heartfelt knowledge of his thought and life excites the thirst for God, the attraction of Jesus Christ, the love of wisdom and truth, the need for grace, prayer, virtue, fraternal charity and the yearning for the happiness of eternity" (Address to the Augustinians, 25 August 1983). Secondly, Augustine's heritage was offered to the members of the academic community of the University of San Agustin because it is owed to them. The Church document "Lay Catholics in School: Witnesses to Faith" states that because the concrete characteristics of a Catholic school most often corresponds "to the specific charism of the Religious Institute that founded the school and continues to direct it ... lay Catholics should try to understand the special characteristics of the school they are working in, and the reasons that have inspired them. They should try to identify themselves with these characteristics that their own work will help toward relaizing the specific nature of the school (n. 39)." To my mind, however, there is a deeper reason behind the Prior General's offer, a motive that derives from the Augustinian Order's understanding of its historical roots, and it is this: Augustine's heritage is a gift which the Order itself has received from the laity; and it is offered to them because it, too, is rightfully theirs.

St. Augustine is venerated today as a Bishop and Doctor and one of the West's monastic founders. Even his Jerusalem ideal (cf. Acts 2:42-46; 4:32-35) has been identified with a particular way of living the religious life. Only a few realize that he first conceived of a program for a community life intended for lay people and to try this out, while he was still a lay person. It was at Cassiciacum, before and immediately after his baptism, where he, together with his mother, son, friends and students had some experience of this life of communion, which later on in Tagaste, upon his return from Italy -- as St. Possidius narrates to us -- he formally tried out with his friends. Jordan of Saxony, one of the earlier historians of the Order of St. Augustine correctly judged that "the life which St. Augustine led in Tagaste during some three years was not the monastic or religious life as such. It was there where he began "to live according to the manner of the holy Apostles." Indeed, it was then that the layperson Augustine tried out the Jerusalme ideal of "one mind and one heart" with his friends.

Even the historical roots of the Order of St. Augustine is traceable to the flowering of a hermit movement (which included monks, priests and lay people) between the 11th and the 13th centuries in Europe. Surely there must have been lay groups among the Tuscan hermits who were brought together to form the Order of St. Augustine in 1244! One perhaps can even say that Augustine's heritage is the product of a lay spirituality that was deeply lived and the subsequent development it underwent in a monastic and religious context. When therefore, the Prior General, speaking in behalf of the Order, offered to the lay academic community the rich heritage of St. Augustine, he was giving back to the laity what the Order has received from them: a way of life, colored by the bright hues of a deep and personal experience of God and of "being Church" tested and proven by history and recommended by the Church.

Lay Augustinian Spirituality in the Augustinian School

As the fish is to the sea, so there is a connaturality that binds lay spirituality and Augustinian spirituality. This is not surprising since the Augustinian ideal of common life is inspired by the life of the primitive Christians who were neither religious nor ordained ministers of the priesthood. Hence, the Spanish friar, St. Thomas once exclaimed during a Pentecost sermon:

El divino Agustin conformo su religion en la imitacion de estos. Juzgo suficiente que sus frailes siguiesen la forma de vida y regla de aquellos primitivos seculares.

It is because of this connaturality that Augustinian spirituality can be enriching for lay spirituality and that a lay Augustinian spirituality is possible. A living proof of this is the "Secular Augustinians" a group of lay people (and also diocesan priests) who, with special bonds, live their baptismal vows inspired by Augustine's Jerusalem ideal of "one mind and heart intent upon God." Only through such a lay spirituality can this University's programmed Augustinian values formation become feasible. ... How can this spirituality be concretely expreseed in the USA academic community? How can the spirituality of Augustine be infused in the life of USA educators in such a way that even the students are benefitted by it?

These are difficult questions; we can only trace the outline of a reply. The document from the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education already cited above gives us a clue as to how we can approach the questions we have posed. In dealing with how the vocation of lay educators must be lived in the Catholic schools, the document states that such can only be possible within an academe that is consciously making itself a community of faith: "The educational community of a Catholic school should be trying to become a Christian community: a genuine community of faith. This will not take place, it will not even begin to happen, unless there is a sharing of the Christian commitment among at least a portion of each of the principal groups that make up the educational community: parents, teachers and students (n. 41)." In fact, the realistic and hopeful attitutde (n. 26), the professionalism (n. 27) and the person-orientedness (n. 21), the synthesis of faith and culture that they have to make in their lives (n. 20), and the faith-witnessing (nn. 32-33) that are required by their vocation as lay witnesses in the school have their biggest impact on the integral formation of students (nn. 17 and 28) when they are realized within a process whereby even the school's educators themselves become one community of faith. It is within this process of becoming "Church" that Augustine's Jerusalem ideal becomes an active force in the transformation of values and the spiritual enrichment of the men and women who make up this University's academic community. It is from this that an Augustinian lay spirituality will begin to be lived.

Augustine's Jerusalem Ideal

The description of the primitive Christian community in Jerusalem as reported in Acts 2:42-46 and 4:32-35 was Augustine's inspiration. The same texts provide us not only an image of the Church, but also a pradigmatic mode. Of how the Christian life should be lived. In fact, Augustine presented this primitive ideal not only as an example for religious but for lay Christians as well. Luke's description of the primitive Christian community can be summarized into three points: (a) Fraternal sharing and distribution of goods; (b) fidelity to the memory of Christ; and (c) cultivation of Christian friendship.

Fraternal sharing and distribution of goods (Acts 2:44; 4:32.32-34). It is interesting to note that the Lucan phrase "one in mind and heart" is closely linked with the description of the disciples not calling anything their own, selling what they possessed and placing the proceeds at the feet of the apostles who would then distribute them to each as was needed. This sharing of goods was understood by Augustine as the visible sign of oneness of mind and heart. At the same time, the ideal that it presents is, for the Augustinian in the world, an impetus for the promtion of amore fraternal distribution of goods (cf. Secular Augustinians: Rule of Life and General Statutes. Augustinian General Curia: Rome, 1980, n. 24).

"Sharing of goods" is the same as "working for the common good." Human labor, understood within this perspective, ceases to be a "burden or simply a means of sustenance, but as cooperation with the Creator in shaping the world and serving the human community "(RAS, n. 23). It is thus that by working for the common good, the Augustinian performs his/her duties as service to the Church and to humanity (RAS,n. 24).

Fidelity to the Memory of Christ (Acts 2:42). Luke reports that the multitude of believers "were persevering in the teaching of the apostles." By the "teaching of the apostles," he meant the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. For us it means the totality of the Church's proclamation on the mystery of Christ as it is contained in Scriptures and Tradition. For the Augustinian in the world, this means, not a mere "passive" fidelity to the teaching of the Church, but an "active" one which leads to a progressive appreciation of one's faith and a deeper knowledge of Christ. This "active fidelity" flows from the essence of discipleship: a disciple is one who learns from and knows Christ. Thus, fidelity to the memory of Christ also means the commitment to the study of Scriptures, especially the Gospel. "The Gospel" says Augustine, "is the mouth of Christ ... which never ceases to speak to us." (Serm. 83, 1, 11).

Christ is also known in the Church, for it is His Body, and especially in the poor. "Turn your attention to Christ who lives in the streets!" cried Augustine. "Look at Christ who is hungry and suffering from the cold, Christ who is a stranger and in need" (Serm. 25,8). The Augustinian in the world shows himself faithful to the teachings of the apostles when he, not only participates actively in the liturgical life of the Church, but also in its apostolic endeavours. It is thus that, faithful to the memory of Christ, the Augustinian is inspired "to enter enthusiastically into the liturgical, spiritual and missionary life of the parish community, and of other apostolic communities and movements" (RAS, n. 31).

The cultivation of Christian friendship (Acts 2:42.46). Luke tells us that the disciples were also persevering "in the breaking of the bread and in prayers." In the Jewish milieu, bread was broken among one's friends, in a fraternal atmosphere that invited trust, hospitality and openness. For the early Christians, the breaking of the bread was also a gesture by which the Lord made himself the friend of sinners. For the Augustinian, community also means friendship. Thus it is rightly professed:

Our Augustinian life of fraternity and community leads us to the careful cultivation of the values of friendship. Friendship begets and nourishes loyalty, trust, sincerity and mutual understanding. It joins us together in Christ, for God fastens us in friendship by means of the love poured forth in ourhearts by the Holy Spirit (RAS, n. 17)."

For Augustine, friendship cannot be true unless God is the one who fastens friends together, as they cleave to Him by that charity which poured forth by the Spirit (cf. Conf. 4.4.7). Such friendship can only be possible within the ambit of a community that prays, i.e., open to the power of the Spirit (RAS, n. 18)."


The present article is an excerpt of "Being Church in an Academic Setting II" published in Communitas. It was written as a commentary on a talk given by the Prior General of the Order of St. Augustine, the Very Reverend Fr. Miguel Orcasitas, OSA, to the members of the University of San Agustin academic community in February of 1996.


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