Going up part of the Ticino river, leaving behind the Covered Bridge and its starlings that devour what the current leaves in its wake; crossing the Duomo, the terraces and stalls whose shopkeepers are collecting the day's work, we arrive at the Basilica San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro.
It could be any other week of winter in Pavia, with its quiet city rhythms, its everlasting fog and its thin sunshine. However, from the 25th to the 28th of February, in the heart of the Augustinian community, the commemoration marking 1,300 years since the transfer of the remains of our beloved Father Augustine from Cagliari in Sardinia to the Lombardy town took place.
A Saint undaunted by the vicissitudes of time
The celebration of the Solemn Mass commemorating this event was attended by a large congregation with representatives from the civil, military and ecclesiastical authorities who wanted to participate in the exposition and veneration of the remains of the Saint together with more than a hundred other faithful.
Nicolas Lhernould, bishop of Constantine and Hippo - this latter diocese, of course, having St Augustine as pastor between the 4th and 5th centuries - officiated the Holy Eucharist. During the homily he brought to mind the work that this Father of the Church is doing in the heart of each person who humbly approaches his writings; inviting us to cross the aridity of the spiritual desert in which we sometimes find ourselves, because the desert is a place of encounter with God and with oneself, and a space in which one's neighbour is recognised as a treasure.
Mass was concelebrated by the bishop of Pavia, Corrado Sanguineti, and the Augustinian bishops Luis Marin de San Martin, undersecretary of the Synod, Domenico Berni and Giovanni Scanavino. The Prior Provincial of Italy, Fr Giustino Casciano, and the General Councillor of the Order for Southern Europe, Fr Javier Pérez Barba, also participated in the events across the four days.
All agreed on the special and unique nature of this moment, of this date, which is but a sign of the undaunted passage of time for St Augustine and his teaching.
To quote cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, archbishop emeritus of Genoa, and through where the relics of the Saint passed on their way to Pavia: "Augustine raised his voice and affirmed that Christ is the only Saviour … Divine Providence arranged for the body of St Augustine to come to Pavia: it is a gift and a great task. From this glorious basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro, his voice rises and echoes through the centuries: it reminds us, Italy, weary Europe - cradle of Christianity - that only God responds to the heart of man, only He is the meaning of history. In turbulent and confused times, without fear of anyone, Augustine raised his voice and affirmed that Christ is the only Saviour".
The words of Cardinal Bagnasco still resonate; the words of Augustine are still alive
During his intervention in the Holy Mass, the Cardinal wanted to recall the love of St Augustine for humanity, created in the image and likeness of God, and how this love "is the soul of the Church". "It is its beating heart because it is born of the pierced heart of the crucified one", he pointed out, adding, "The Church is not born of our 'doing' but of our 'contemplating' the face of Jesus, in whom we discover our identity".
"May this centenary contribute not only to disseminate his eminent doctrine and to make known his immense stature as a historical figure, but also to increase our affection for him, our love, our devotion". (Fr. Javier P. Barba)
This was the task of St Augustine: to show the greatness of Christ through the contemplative attitude and action of the many wonders and sufferings that make up human life.
Javier Pérez Barba, in his final address before the conclusion of this new Eucharistic gathering, asked the participants "that the Lord may grant us, through the intercession of Our Father St Augustine, that the activities, celebrations and prayers related to this centenary may contribute not only to spread his eminent doctrine and to make known his immense stature as an historical figure, but also to increase our affection for him, our love, our devotion". "After so many centuries of rest in this city, St Augustine must be important for Pavia", Fr Javier pointed out; "a man of enormous intellectual strength, a tireless seeker of truth, St Augustine must be important for his university; Father and Doctor of the Church, man of God for his holiness of life, St Augustine must be important for his diocese; and Pavia must be important for us, who call ourselves as his sons and daughters, disciples and followers".
Fr Antonio Baldoni, prior of the Basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro: "St Augustine is a master of humanity"
Shortly before the re-internment of St Augustine's remains, which had been on uninterrupted display over the four days, Fr Antonio Baldoni, prior of the community of Pavia, spoke to the Curia's Communications Office about the popular devotion encountered during the commemoration. "The fact that so many people are visibly affected when standing before the remains of Saint Augustine is something that touches us deeply as a community and urges us to continue to promote his figure".
Asked how the teachings of this Father of the Church might be made attractive to the world we live in today, Fr Baldoni remarked how the Bishop of Hippo was - and still is - "a master of humanity, in addition to spirituality … He is a man who studied the human condition, his interiority, his misery, his sin". In a time of violence, of tragedy, Fr Baldoni continued, “St Augustine stands out as a man of peace (a topic he expands on in The City of God, and elsewhere), ordered towards God by this peace. This is one of the key lessons we must learn from him today”.