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A Celebration of St. Monica

A Celebration of Saint Monica | Wikimedia Commons

Monica (or, spelled more accurately, Monnica) was born in 332 in the North African city of Thagaste in what is now Algeria. Most of what we know of her we learn from her son, Augustine, who gives ample space to her life in his classic work, Confessions.

Educated by a household servant, Monica cared for her father and siblings until she married Patricius, a pagan landowner and minor Roman official of the same town. Patricius seems to have been an arrogant man who was not always faithful to his wife but, as Augustine says, unlike other husbands of the time, never beat her, despite his volatile temper.

Patricius was unhappy that his wife raised Augustine as a Christian but, as an ambitious father, invested in his son’s education. Before his early death, Patricius was baptized due to the good example of his wife. She was a widow at 40.


Her Famous Son

Monica was 23 when Augustine was born (she had another son and a daughter). She doted on him though she was unhappy with his lifestyle and lack of maturity. When Augustine left for Rome after his studies in Carthage (without telling his mother, who was quite wounded by his secret departure), she followed him and lived in his household.

Augustine praised her deep piety and prayerful life. After Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose in Milan, Monica and her son lived a quiet life in nearby Cassiciacum where she figures as one of the characters in her son’s dialogues On the Blessed Life (De Vita Beata) and On Order (De Ordine).

At this time, Augustine decided never to marry formally, which freed Monica from the onerous task of finding him a suitable bride. She was quite close to Augustine’s son, Adeodatus (“gift from God”), born to him from a common-law marriage.

While waiting at the port of Ostia—near Rome—for a ship to Africa, she and her son had a conversation which Augustine famously describes in Book IX of the Confessions. This exchange between mother and son about the ascent to God was done in a fashion that some have described as mystical.

Before their ship departed, Monica became sick and died in the year 387 at the age of 55. She was buried in Ostia. In 1945, a fragment of an inscription from her gravesite was discovered.

In the 15th century, her remains were reburied in the Church of Sant’Agostino in Rome, where she is venerated today. Her feast is observed, fittingly enough, a day before the feast of her son, Augustine, on August 28.


Mother and Muse

In the closing part of Book IX of the Confessions, Augustine has a moving tribute to both mother and father in a text where, for the first and only time, he uses his mother’s name.

Monica told her son that the only thing she wanted from life was to see her son “a Catholic and a child of heaven.” She had seen him through his tumultuous adolescence, his flirtation with the religion of the Manichees, his irregular sexual life and his long search to find the faith which she had never doubted.


Historical Background

Monica was a North African. Her very name echoes the paganism that had once been part of Numidian history, since Mon was a Libyan god. Quite likely, Monica was of Berber origin although she was a Christian from birth. Her son Navigius was with her in her last illness and her daughter Perpetua (named for the great Carthaginian martyr) was head of a monastery near Augustine’s own church in Hippo. Navigius’s son, Monica’s grandson, was a deacon in the North African Church.

That ancient land was thoroughly Christian in the fourth century and its rich agricultural output made it the breadbasket of Rome. Monica and Augustine were Africans who belonged to a Christian church which not only produced powerful theologians like Tertullian and Augustine himself but also great martyrs like Cyprian of Carthage and Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. It is crucial to keep those facts in mind to counteract the impression that white Europeans had a monopoly on Christianity.

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Fri, 08/27/2021 - 02:13 PM
Thank you St Monnica and all the great mothers of the world ...Without your care love and guidance ..we couldnt exist
Jean Harrington
Fri, 08/27/2021 - 10:02 PM
Jean Harrington
She is my inspiration. As a mother who has lost her son due to drugs and a criminal lifestyle I kept trying to fix him and I now realize only God can do that but I must pray and stay out of the way
Jan Vavra
Tue, 08/31/2021 - 03:16 PM
Jan Vavra
??for you and your son. I’m having a hard time staying out of the way with my son-same scenario, still alive. I love the prayer said after the Chaplet of Divine Mercy: Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless, and the treasury of compassion is inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair , nor become despondent, but with great confidence, submit ourselves to Your holy will which is love and mercy itself. Amen Jesus I trust in you Jesus I trust in you Jesus I trust in you God bless you, Jean.
Mike Reininger
Sat, 08/28/2021 - 01:20 PM
Mike Reininger
Lawrence, you infer in the last sentence of your article that Sts. Augustine and Monica weren't white or European, but yet they were members of the Roman Empire at the time. I'll bet they would qualify as being white today since they weren't sub-Saharan Africans (not that there is anything wrong with being black). But since they were from North Africa does that disqualify them from being Europeans? Well, if to be a European means to be born in the continent of Europe, then I guess yes that would disqualify them from being European. But did the Europeans themselves think of themselves that way? I'll bet they only thought of themselves as being Roman or non-Roman, civilized or barbaric. But coming from a Christian/Western civilization myself, I think the Romans were barbaric in their sexual practices since they thought nothing of sadism or pedophilia. The Romans do get credit for finding cannibalism abhorrent, though.
Sun, 01/23/2022 - 12:41 PM
I’m painting an icon of St. Monica. What are the options for facial characteristics & clothing palate to use?
Mon, 01/24/2022 - 08:18 PM
I prayed to St Monica for 2 years to convert my 64 year old friend from a life time of Buddhism to Catholic. My friend is now passionately taking RCIA instruction. The philosophy of Buddhism and the theology of the Roman Church blends well together. I have suggested the baptism name to be Monica.

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