The cult (cultus, in Latin) of the martyrs was strongly present in the church in North Africa in the fifth century.
Augustine needed a suitable pastoral plan that would place the veneration of martyrs in a healthy and constructive context for the growth of true Faith among his people.
In this matter, Augustine had at least two pastoral concerns:
Firstly, he could not disregard that the veneration of martyrs was a strong emphasis and "selling point" of the schismatic Donatist Christians, who in Hippo outnumbered the flock led by Augustine.
Secondly, how could he and his fellow bishops draw this veneration of martyrs more into the core of Christian belief?
Rather than focus on North African martyrs as the Donatists
did, Augustine preached broadly on all Biblical martyrs.
His preaching included the Maccabees of the Old Testament, and the Holy Innocents, John the Baptist (Giovanni Battista), Stephen, Peter and Paul of the New Testament.
He added martyrs from different parts of the European continent: Lawrence and Agnes of Rome, Eulalia of Spain and Gervasius and Protasius, whose relics had been found at Milan during the lifetime of Augustine.
In effect, Augustine established a list of which saints would be celebrated, thereby crowding out the veneration of any whose cause was in some way doubtful or uncertain.
He also prescribed the way in which the saints were to be celebrated.
"Not in rioting and with alcohol," he tells his good friend Aurelius, bishop of Carthage, "but in a sober manner and with attention to poor people."
He suggested that Aurelius encourage people to provide meals at the church for poor persons, instead of holding a "fiesta to the martyrs" for their friends in the cemetery.
These reforms were implemented a short time later at the Council of the year 393.
As Augustine attested to himself in his Sermon 319, he built a memorial shrine to the martyr, Stephen, in his own cathedral at Hippo.
Augustine said, "We have not erected an altar to the martyr, Stephen, but with the relics of the martyr Stephen we have erected an altar to God."
(Continued on the next page.)