Eusebio Berdon OSA: Augustinians before the Third Millennium: Religious Men and Women and Lay

At first glance the title of this article may immediately elicit in us a reaction to go into a detailed analysis of today’s situation in order to identify present concerns.  A closer look, however, would reveal to us that the topic focuses on the concept Augustinians who are both religious and lay.  In other words, the aspect given emphasis is our being Augustinians and not our acting as Augustinians.  Who are we? How should we be? Only when we have answered such questions could we proceed to ask what we should do in order to meaningfully welcome the coming of the Third Millennium.  In this paper I will refrain then from making a global analysis of the situation and from identifying concerns of today, instead I will just underline four points which I consider important in our being Augustinians who are preparing to enter the Third Millennium.  And in this task I will be aided by the documents of the Order, particularly the recent ones.

A Community of Religious and Laypeople

I am very pleased to note that right from the title of this article theAugustinians referred to are the friars, the sisters, understandably both active and contemplative, and the lay.  For me, this is a very positive change of mental framework when the term Augustinian is increasingly connoting not only religious men and women but also lay. I believe this is one important area that needs to be attended to as we enter the Third Millennium: the clarification of the role and position of the laity in the circle of the Augustinian Family along the line of Augustine’s concept ofTotus Christus (the whole Christ).  As pointed out by the 1989 General Chapter document:

Our relationship with the laity should not be seen in function of our need for more collaboration.  Rather it is a question of rediscovering the profound unity of the Church of Christ and the co-responsibility of all its members in the building of the kingdom.(2)

The importance of the laity in the being of the Augustinian Family has been consistently insisted upon by the Order’s documents in the last two decades.  Understandably, because of the newness of the concept that the lay associates   are truly Augustinians in their own right, the stress of the documents varied.  At times, the lay are considered mainly as collaborators that work with the friars and sisters from the “outside”; at times they are truly considered members of the big Augustinian family.  Gradually, however, the concept of being only one family with distinct expressions , in accord with the different states of life chosen by individual members and in respect to the specific charisms of diverse Religious Institutes aggregated or affiliated to the Order, has been evolving.

Way back in 1980 during the Intermediate General Chapter held in Mexico, the official document already advanced the idea that the laity can equally share in the Augustinian discipleship:

Our relationships and attitudes toward the laity must be founded on fraternity, respect, and confidence, which the example and teaching of St. Augustine and the authentic tradition of the Order demand of us.  St. Augustine instructs us not to monopolize the teaching of the gospel, but rather desire that the day will quickly come when no one will have to be taught by another; then we can all be fellow disciples, taught by the one true Teacher, God. (3)

 This idea has been reiterated by the 1995 General Chapter of the Order, as it appealed for change in our relating with the laity:

A great part of the apostolic activity of the Order involves the laity.  This is a privileged moment for rediscovering the Christus totus.   We cannot simply go on waiting passively, in a typically clerical fashion; rather, with great humility and a desire to learn, we should change our attitude so as to become more open and dynamic.

Augustine taught that it was a grace to acknowledge oneself a Christian among Christians.  In a similar fashion, our service to the Church today can be measured by our capacity to acknowledge the role of the laity, and particularly that of women, in the Christian community, and to walk with them in faith and form them in our Augustinian spirituality, so that together we might build up and give witness to the kingdom of God. (4)

It is worthy to note that this awareness is growing practically all over the Augustinian world, in different degrees, particularly in institutions managed by both the Augustinian friars and sisters, like schools, parishes, mission centers, student residences, etc.  The formation of Secular Augustinians as well as of confraternities living the Augustinian spirituality is a rapidly spreading movement. In Korea, for example, two groups of secular Augustinians faithfully hold assembly every week in the Order’s residence in Seoul, even if at times no Augustinian priest or even seminarian can be with them. (Of course, it is interesting to note that Korea is the only country in the Far East where Christianity was introduced not by religious missionaries but by a layman, a Korean student who was converted to Catholicism while studying philosophy in China.)  As far as I know, there is Communio in Italy, Malta and Argentina where the lay members undergo a rigorous formation before making a profession as secular Augustinians. There was even an attempt to found a community of lay women with contemplative orientation in Scotland.

I am aware too of the existence of different associations or organizations that are guided by Augustinian ideals in their purposes and objectives, as well as animated by Augustinian spirituality in their living of their Christian vocation.  Most common among these groups is that of teachers in many of our schools, as well as of parents of our students. Associations of Augustinian lawyers, doctors, engineers and nurses who are mainly graduates of our colleges and universities exist too.  These groups though, usually, form part of the bigger associations of alumni of our institutions of higher learning.  The University of San Agustin  in the Philippines, for example, has numerous Alumni Chapters in North America alone, and there has been a plan to establish a unit in each city or Province inside the country. Youth groups too are flourishing in many countries mainly because of the formation of parish or school-based fraternities and the holding of local, national and international assemblies.  The Order programs an international gathering of the youth every three years, the last of which was in Munnerstadt, Germany in July 1999. Regional or continental ones are also being held. The Asia-Pacific Augustinian Conference (APAC) held its second youth assembly in Sydney, Australia last January 1998.

All these groupings of mainly lay people only shows that indeed the Augustinian religious of today are more convinced that if they want the Augustinian ideals and spirituality to have more impact in the society they have to join force with their lay partners who comprise the bigger part of the Family and are present in more and diverse sectors of society.

A Community in Collaboration with Each Other

Closely related to this greater awareness of the position and role of the laity in the Augustinian Family is the concept of collaboration or cooperation.  The impact of the Augustinian presence in society will be measured not only by the broadening of the base of its membership to include the laity but also by the result of the collaborative efforts of the different groups composing such family.  In fact, collaboration was one of the principal themes treated in the last 1995 General Chapter.   The urgency of this activity in the life of the Order is well demonstrated by the following criteria set up by the Instrumentum Laboris or working paper:

The future of the Order will depend more and more each time upon the collaboration among its many parts.  It is heading toward an integration of global interrelationship….

The realization of the many projects of the Order (especially in the field of missions and formation) given the weakness of many circumscriptions, is possible only through a real and concrete type of collaboration.(5)

And the Chapter document itself, Renewed Augustinians for the Third Millenium, explicitated such need with the following concrete observation:

Within our Order today there is a form of poverty that we cannot neglect without offending the first and fundamental form of charity towards our brothers.  Some important circumscriptions and mission fields need personnel.  In accordance with the spirit of the Rule we profess, this should be a concern shared by all, to help in accordance with their possibilities. (6)

While, admittedly, the texts cited above refer specifically to collaboration among the friars – this is understandable since those documents are addressed primarily to them – the same appeal could equally be addressed to all the other branches of the Augustinian family.(7)  The general situation of the Order and of the different religious institutes aggregated or affiliated to it in the areas of vocations and personnel is similar.  Except for some Provinces or smaller groupings in mainly developing countries, the rest of the circumscriptions are suffering from lack of vocations, and consequently of personnel.

Obviously, vocations and missions are not the only fields that call for a closer collaboration among the Augustinians.  They are only cited to give evidence and to highlight the importance of cooperation among the members of the Augustinian family.  As already mentioned earlier the strengthening of communion among the members, the deepening of their sense of belongingness to only one family within the Church, could bring greater results to the sharing of the ideals and spirituality of Augustine to today’s society.  More importantly, it will give deeper meaning to community life as a fundamental Augustinian ideal and objective to be concretized.

The Constitutions of the Order is very clear on this topic:

The concept of community…is neither completed nor confined within the limits of the local community; it becomes complete by the gradual extension to larger groupings of the friars.  As a result, a fuller sense of community is found the community of the whole Order, which is the strongest expression of our religious family and through which the other communities of the Order are directed for the good of the Church, which is the supreme community of all Christians.(8)

Within this context to collaborate simply means to activate the dynamism of a unity in which all parts function as integrated elements.  Hence, all communities, local or provincial, form part of the bigger community which is the whole Order.  Consequently, the friars should not be concerned only of their local or provincial well-being but also that of the entire Augustinian Order.

In line with this concept, a number of collaborative projects have arisen in the Order and these have taken different forms.  At the structural or organizational level, this could mean the unification of smaller Provinces, like those of Italy, the formation of federations and associations among the men circumscriptions, like the Organization of the Augustinians in Latin America (OALA), the Federation of the German and Belgian Provinces in Congo (formerly Zaire), and the running jointly of a mission, like that of Korea by the Australian and the Santo Niño de Cebu Provinces.

What I would like to stress, however, is not simply the collaboration among the friars, but above all the collaboration among the different member institutes of the Augustinian family, including the groupings of the laity, so that that concept of being one Augustinian community, admittedly, in diversity, will be enhanced.  Toward this direction, the 1989 General Chapter’s document exhorts the friars to take note of the following:

The Augustinian family, divided into different branches, each one expressing the Augustinian spirit in its own way (Const. 44), is an authentic communion of mutual life and collaboration.  In recent years we have seen an increased participation of the whole Augustinian family, masculine and feminine, in common undertakings.  Symposia on the Rule and the spirituality of St. Augustine….and many other common projects have included the enthusiastic presence and collaboration of sisters and brothers of various institutes that live the same spirituality. Lastly there can be seen a renewed vitality among lay groups… who find in Augustinian spirituality a clarification of the meaning of their lives.

This General Chapter encourages such initiatives and invites the brothers of the whole world to open up their houses, their ministries, and their own personal reflections to the interaction and participation of all the above groups, especially the laity.  With them we must mature along the same road of faith, and with them we must strive together for the same task of building the Church.(9)

            The 1995 General Chapter echoes such exhortation in simpler terms:

            Opportunities for meetings with our Sisters of the contemplative life, who support us through their prayers, and the whole Augustinian Family (the Orders and Congregations who follow the Rule of Augustine) should be intensified so as to promote new ways of cooperation, especially now that the world has become a truly smaller place, thanks to modern means of communication.(10)

Organizationally, some associations are already existing wherein Augustinian religious men and women, with a limited participation by the lay, closely collaborate with each other.  To cite three more known ones: the Federation of the Augustinians in Spain (FAE), the Asia-Pacific Augustinian Conference (APAC), and the Augustinian Federation of Africa (AFA).   Within these groupings or associations collaboration takes place in different areas: publications, courses of formation, congresses for lay associates (particularly of the teachers, parents of students and youth), vocation promotion, celebration of Augustinian feasts, etc.

            “New ways” of cooperation, moreover, should be discovered where Augustinians even separated by distances can collaborate with each other.  Why not collaborate in the linking of internet facilities, for example, so that communication and research works will be facilitated among Augustinians in a certain region or even world-wide?  Why not encourage exchange of professors or students among our educational institutions?  Why not organize an international association of Augustinian educators or of seminary professors?  Or, why not establish a consortium in managing an Institute of Augustinian spirituality?  Indeed, there are many possible ways of collaborating.

A Community in Solidarity with the Needy

It is evident that this task of building a community goes beyond the frontiers of the Augustinian family and extends to the whole Church, which the Constitutions called “the supreme community of all Christians.”  Hence, there exists a moral imperative to collaborate with all sectors of the Church and society for the good of the people.  All Christians, and in particular manner the religious, are called to work for evangelization which is no other than transformation of society into a “City of God” where the gospel values are the norms of life and relationship among its constituents is that of evangelical fraternity where all are children of the same heavenly Father.   In fact, this call for unity, for oneness, for communion has been the principle behind Augustine’s vision of the “City of God”, reinforced by his teaching on totus Christus where all are members of the same body, the Church, the whole Christ.

While all are called to become part of this One Body, in the task of evangelization a special attention is given to being in solidarity with the less fortunate members of the Church, particularly the poor, the marginalized, the anawim of Yahweh.

The 1989 General Chapter was very descriptive of this orientation:

As the Augustinian community continues to relive the spirit of the Gospel in the way that Augustine of Hippo understood it (In Ps. 132), it feels itself to be called, together with the whole Church, to appropriate the fears and uncertainties of our time. It welcomes and expresses the freedom of the children of God in the cultural differences of the people in which it is born and grows.  It chooses without reserve those who are the victims of sin: “Social injustice, racial discrimination, national competition, inequality of opportunity arising from privilege and the lack of sharing in material goods, the excess of wealth on the part of some and extreme poverty on the part of others” (Dublin Document, 81). It wants to become an unmistakable witness to the “cor unum et anima una in Deum” (Rule 1) in the midst of humanity.(11)

Understandably, the face of the poor may differ from one place to another.  In some countries they can be mainly the materially poor, the homeless, the illiterate, the victims of social injustices; in others they can be the socially disoriented who are hooked into alcohol and drugs, the mentally handicapped, the unemployed, the political prisoners, etc.  All these need the caring attention of the Church.  But since the greater majority of these socially disadvantaged are the materially poor, the focus of many Church’s documents is on this people.  So too, the documents coming from the Order.

As the 1995 General Chapter exhorts:

Every community should feel involved with the marginalized in its own area and review its apostolate so as to verify its evangelical effectiveness… Every Augustinian education program should emphasize the preferential option for the poor. (And) it should ensure that there are programs for consientization and for sharing in solidarity in the lot of the poorest, as well as teaching the social doctrine of the Church.(12)

Solidarity, however, does not end simply with concerns for the Justice and Peace matters.  Since the arena of evangelization is broad, solidarity can take place also in what the Chapter documents consider “new frontiers”.  Some of these include “experience of what is human in the world of non believers”, becoming “part of the ecclesial awakening among the laity and the young”, active presence “in the area of social communications and opinion making”, and “breaking with provincialism and nationalism as well as sharing in the awareness of being an Order which, over and beyond juridical divisions, believes itself committed to a universal mission”.

Given special emphasis among these “new frontiers” is the presence of the Augustinians in the area of culture.  The 1989 Chapter document reminds us:

Our manner of living, far from closing in on itself, ought to be attentive, above all, to the nerve centers where the movements of the world culture are created.  Just as Augustine accompanied the life of his times with his love and enriched them with his generosity, so is it now our task to become servants and prophets to our own culture.  This has been, and must continue to be, one of the most characteristic qualities of the Order.(13)

I believe that this is an area that needs to be given careful attention by us particularly by those who are in advantage position to do so: the teachers, the writers, the artists, the communication specialists, the decision-makers, etc.  In the field of communication, for example, we know how powerful is the influence of television and lately internet over the formation of the minds, and consequently values, of the young.  So too, music and literature.  Solidarity then in this context means to be directly involved in the different “nerve centers” of culture so that the transmission of Gospel and Augustinian values will not be neglected and culture as such can be considered “evangelized.”

A Community in Continuing Formation

A broader consideration of the extent of the Augustinian family to include the lay and a call for collaboration among its members and for solidarity with the people, particularly the poor and the culture-makers, necessitate an openness to  similarly broadened and deepened understanding of our Augustinian identity.

The first thing that I would like to point out is the care and attention that should be given to the concretization of the Augustinian charism and spirituality in the life of every member religious and lay institutes. Even if we are guided by the same Augustinian charism that underlines the fundamental value of community life, interiority, and service to the Church, the founders or foundresses of these institutes have left their own personal  imprints in the living of the said charism in their respective groups.  I believe that by knowing the specific contribution of each Institute to the rich understanding and living of the common Augustinian charism would be enriching to all concerned.  By knowing what we have in common but at the same time also the distinctive characteristic that distinguishes us from each other will make our affinity stronger as well as our respect for each other.

To a similar degree, attention too should be given to the life and works of our  great men and women – saints and blessed, writers, theologians, pastors, secular Augustinians – who in their own unique way lived the Augustinian charism in their respective time and millieu.  It is always interesting to know how these prominent Augustinians incarnated ideas and ideals of Augustine in response to the demands of the society of their era.

Secondly, as the interest in living the Augustinian way of life is increasing in many circles of the laity, of course in varying degree, all over the world, there is a need for serious study and reflection on the concretization of the Augustinian ideals and spirituality in the life of these lay Augustinians.  Perhaps, such life has to be lived first with the minimum of guidelines coming from the basic principles of common life as outlined by Augustine and defined by the Order.  Later, it can be enriched by elements based on concrete experiences of persons, lay or religious, involved the experience.  Today, there is a great demand for these materials as more and more lay groups are being formed in different parts of the Augustinian world.

Lastly, it is not superfluous to insist on the importance of continuing formation in the understanding, living and sharing of our Augustinian charism and spirituality.  The observation contained in the text below, while addressing mainly the religious, could also be true of lay Augustinians:

A life that steadily grows and develops calls for continual search and conversion.  Only those persons are capable of living a deeper life who allow themselves to be taught, properly cultivate themselves, maturely accept the realities that question them, love their vocation, and feel themselves to be identified with their religious family.  They are not satisfied with what they have accomplished so far; rather they live in continuous restlessness, spiritually renewing themselves and facing the situations of their existence with Christian discernment.(14)

       I would like to briefly conclude this article with a strong wish that with the coming of the Third Millenium our sense of belongingness as one community, composed of religious and lay, grow stronger and deeper and that more and more we discover the lasting relevance of St. Augustine’s ideas and ideals, particularly the diverse elements of life in communion with God and with each other, as jointly we help build a “New City of God.”


1.  This article was originally given as a talk by the author to the assembly of   Augustinians, both lay and religious, in Colegio San Agustin, Madrid, Spain in March 1998.  A minor editing was made to change the tone of the paper for publication.

2.  The Augustinians towards 2000.  Rome, 1989, no. 5.

3.  Cfr. St. Augustine’s Letters 192,2 and 193,13 as cited in Collaboration and Commitment with the Laity.  Rome, 1980, no. 2.

4.  Renewed Augustinians for the Third Millennium. Rome, 1995, no. 17.

5. Collaboration in the Order: Criteria.

6. Renewed Augustinians…., no. 22.

7. The Augustinian Order (OSA), aside from around 3,000 friars in vows who form the so-called First Order, includes contemplative sisters (Second Order) belonging to around eighty monasteries all over the world, and around one hundred Congregations of  men and women of active life (Third Order).

8. Constitutions of the Order of St. Augustine. Rome, 1991, no. 9.

9. The Augustinians towards….., no.5.

10. Renewed Augustinians…

11. The Augustinians towards…. no.3,2; Renewed Augustinians…no.13.

12. Renewed Augustinians…no. 15.

13. The Augustinians towards…no. 4.

14. Ibid., no.6.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

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