And Augustine himself, although personally courageous, did not have a manner to win instant respect from a volatile and potentially violent crowd.
By the time of Augustine, the city of Hippo Regius had already existed for more than a thousand years. Catholic Christians were in a minority, because of the presence of both pagans and schismatic Donatist
The Donatists outnumbered those in the congregation of Augustine. Not long before Augustine had arrived in Hippo, Catholics there had barely been tolerated, and all of the city officials were Donatists. Additionally, Donatists were so strong in the countryside that a Catholic priest could find few places there to live in safety.
His church was at a distance from the centre of town, and more than a kilometre (about a mile) from the harbour.
Nearby were the villas of wealthy persons, but Augustine did not intentionally court their friendship.
On a Sunday, every orthodox Christian in Hippo could be found jammed into the church of Augustine. The people stood during a service that must have lasted for at least two hours.
From the hundreds of sermons
of Augustine that still exist, we know about the care and imagination he invested in his preaching. He tailored his remarks
to suit the needs and capacity of his audience.
This man who had been orator in the presence of the Emperors must have been a great preacher.
This emphasis on Scripture and preaching in Augustine's day meant that the Christian people knew their Bible much better than the average modern congregation. Augustine's people, for example, recognised Samson as soon as they heard of the strangled lion (Enar. psalmos. 88,1,10); he could assume that they knew the story of Tobias (Serm. 88,15,15). In the Church of Oea, the translation of Jonah by St Jerome
caused such an uproar that the Jews had to be consulted about the original meaning. When they proved to be of no great help, the bishop had to withdraw Jerome's text, 'not wishing', Augustine said, 'to run the great risk of remaining without a flock' (Ep. 71,3,5). They took Scripture seriously in those days.
But even the preaching of Augustine
did not efface the dignity of the Mass as the central act of worship. Lukewarm believers in the audience attended out of respect for social pressure and a fear of divine anger, but for Augustine, the role of preaching was his central task.
The majority of the congregation were dock workers, farmers and small merchants, according to the late Dr Thomas Martin O.S.A. of Villanova University
, who re-read his way through the surviving collection of the 396 sermons
Thomas Martin claimed that the discourses Augustine delivered at his church in Hippo are fairly easy to identify. "You can generally tell when Augustine is [preaching] in Hippo."
"Those sermons have a 'I'm with my people' flavour, whereas the sermons he delivered in Carthage reflected the presence of a more diverse and educated audience, which frequently included officials of imperial Rome."
(Continued on the next page.)