He knew how to teach the untutored without talking down to them, and how to be a spellbinder without putting everyone into a trance.
Princeton University historian, Peter_Brown, whose great biography of Augustine in 1967 was published again during the year 2000 in a new edition (Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, Revised Edition with a New Epilogue, University of California Press) has described the preaching of Augustine as dialogues with the people.
First of all, the bishop made himself one with his listeners. "Condiscipuli sumus," he said. "We are all fellow students here."
This and similar statements formed a bond between priest and people. He spoke without written notes but never without preparation.
In an oral culture and with listeners who stood rather than sat during church services, the dynamism and audience interaction in the preaching of Augustine was much greater than is generally experienced during preaching today.
Augustine was physically close to the people, and intentionally evoked responses to be shouted out by them.
By their responses he could tell whether or not they were attentive to his words.
As a veteran educator, Augustine understood that any person's mind could wander, especially in a large crowd.
So he frequently began his sermons by saying: "You have heard the gospel" or "We have read the blessed apostle Paul," and then he quickly summarised the reading.
Augustine was especially fond of using the diatribe method of rhetoric, in which he would call an imaginary person up beside him and interview him as a way of discoursing on his theme, be it marital fidelity, ethics or maybe even some common error in Christian belief.
Imagine Augustine talking to a fictitious person who had an illicit sexual relationship or had defrauded his employer, right there before everyone.
Or refuting a person whose Christian beliefs were well known, perhaps popular, but not orthodox.
That is what he did with an imaginary fellow he named Felix, a name which in Latin meant happy - although Felix was shown to be infelix (unhappy), either because of evil actions or because of wrong belief.
Hence Augustine - and his attentive audience - would review the reasons why Felix was not living up to his name.
His previous career as a professional rhetorician and teacher gave Augustine a great ability to size up his audience's ability to comprehend and retain his message.
He knew that in his world, information retrieval was accomplished in the head and heart, so he frequently summarised the essence of his homily in a clever Latin phrase that the people could remember.
However, the power of Augustine's preaching was due as much to his own gentle spirit as to his rhetorical talent. He saw himself as a fellow traveller with his listeners.
(Continued on the next page.)