Friday, May 03, 2024

The Feasts of Saint Monica and a New Conjecture about Her Dies Obitus

The feast of Saint Monica is celebrated in the traditional calendar on May 4 and in the new calendar on August 27. As the Calendarium Romanum, promulgated in 1969, explains:

In the fifteenth century, the Augustinian Order celebrated May 5 as the feast of St. Augustine’s conversion. Since the birthday of Monica was unknown, the Order celebrated it on May 4. About 1550, the feast was assigned to the same date in the Roman calendar. [1]
As we pointed out in an earlier article, the Order of Saint Augustine (formerly known as the Hermits of Saint Augustine) celebrated May 5 as the anniversary of Augustine’s reception into the Catholic Church by St. Ambrose during the Easter Vigil of 387. It was only natural, then, to assign Saint Monica’s feast to May 4. Monica not only lived to see her wayward son cleansed of his sins in the saving waters of baptism (along with her illegitimate grandson Adeodatus); she was more instrumental in his conversion than any other human agent. Augustine writes that it is through Monica’s merit that he is all that he is,[2] and that “from the blood of my mother’s heart, sacrifice for me was offered Thee day and night by her tears, and Thou didst act with me in marvellous ways.” [3] After his conversion, Augustine and his fellow neophyte friends and son lived together in community. He recalls that Monica “took as much care as if she had been the mother of us all, and served us as if she had been the daughter of us all.” [4]
Augustines Baptism
As far as I can tell, no one knows whether May 5 was chosen for the celebration of Augustine’s conversion out of a belief that it was the actual anniversary of his baptism or for some other reason. In any event, in the twentieth century, scholars determined that the night of April 24/morning of April 25 were the dates on which the Easter Vigil was celebrated in Milan in 387. Accordingly, the Augustinians have celebrated the feast of St. Augustine’s Conversion on April 24 since at least 1953. 
The transfer of the this feast left that of St Monica somewhat orphaned, and so in 1969 the decision was made to move her to August 27, the day before the main feast of her son, the anniversary of his death on August 28, 430. I suspect that the liturgical reformers did not leave Monica’s feast on May 4 because of the transfer of the feast of Augustine’s conversion, and they did not consider moving it to the day before the new date of April 24, since this Augustinian feast was not on the universal calendar.
Still, it seems wiser to me to have left Monica’s feast on May 4. Whether or not Augustine was received into the Church on May 5, the month of May is always in Paschaltide and thus a reminder of his Holy Saturday conversion. The Church could have also added the May 5 feast to the universal calendar as a commemoration or optional memorial, for after that of Saint Paul, Augustine’s conversion is the most important in the history of the Church and therefore worthy of liturgical recognition. And even if April 24 is the more accurate date for Augustine’s conversion, one could have kept the May 4 date for the sake of historic continuity and tradition. It would not be the first time that the Church calendar and historical accuracy do not align perfectly, but so what.
The Vision at Ostia
Further, there is an affective consideration. When one thinks of Saint Monica, one thinks of her influencing her son in the springtime of his youth and then of his faith, raising him, interceding for him, joyfully assisting at his baptism, and finally, experiencing the Vision at Ostia with him. But when one thinks of Saint Augustine’s final days, one thinks of a vastly different scene. Monica has been dead for forty-three years, and during those four decades Augustine has gone from being a chaste, Catholic intellectual layman, eager to seclude himself from the world in an irenic, semi-monastic community (as she knew him), to a priest and bishop polemically embroiled in some of the greatest theological and political controversies of his age. And as he laying dying in Hippo Regius, the barbarians were literally at the gates, an army of 80,000 Vandals laying siege to the city and poised to destroy the Roman civilization in North Africa that Augustine and Monica knew so well.
The Death of St. Augustine
Dating Saint Monica’s Death
But there is a third possibility, which I do not necessarily recommend but nonetheless find intriguing: arriving at a reasonable estimate of Monica’s dies obitus. We know that Monica passed away some time after Augustine’s reception into the Church, which she witnessed on April 24-25, 387, and some time before his thirty-third birthday on November 13, 387. [5] We also know that she passed away at least fourteen days after her arrival in the port town of Ostia. [6] The earliest that Augustine and his companions could have left Milan after his baptism was Easter Monday, April 26. But it is more likely that they stayed for the “Octave of the Infants,” when neophytes received further instruction in the Faith during the Easter Octave. An early departure date of Monday, May 3, then, is a more reasonable assumption. But they could have also lingered in Milan for weeks after Easter Sunday and still be in Ostia in time for the high point of the sailing season in the ancient Mediterranean, which was from May to October.
The distance between Milan and Ostia Antica is approximately 378 miles on land. The group could have journeyed by land to Genoa and then sailed to Ostia, or they could have journeyed entirely on land. Augustine’s word choice may suggest the former since he describes their journey to Ostia as a longum iter (which can also mean a long march), and he seems to contrast this journey with the forthcoming navigatio by sea (9.10.23). A Roman legion could cover twenty miles a day, but Augustine and his companions were in no such hurry, and at fifty-six-years old, Monica was considered an old woman. If the group did travel by foot, it is not unreasonable to speculate that they averaged ten miles a day and that their journey therefore took thirty-eight days.
Putting all these suppositions together: if the group left Milan on Monday, May 3, they may have arrived in Ostia around June 11. The Vision at Ostia would have taken place within the next few days (June 12-15?), Monica’s fever would have begun around June 18, and her death would have occurred around June 27. Her family--her sons Augustine and Navigius and grandson Adeodatus--would have buried her soon after and then tearfully departed Ostia for their North African home during the height of the Mediterranean sailing season.

This article is dedicated to my dear sister-in-law Hilary Ryan Tucker, whose birthday falls on the traditional feast day of St. Monica.

[1] The Roman Calendar: Text and Commentary (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1976), 50.
[2] De beata vita 1.6.
[3] Confessions 5.7.13, trans. Frank Sheed (Hackett, 2005).
[4] Confessions 9.9.22.
[5] Augustine states that his mother was present at his baptism, and he states that she passed away when he was 32, that is, before his 33rd birthday on November 13, 387.
[6] She and her son Augustine experienced their famous “Vision at Ostia” while they were recovering from their “long journey” from Milan and preparing to set sail (the day after their arrival? Two days after?). Five days later she fell into a fever (possibly malaria), and nine days after that, her “devout and holy soul was released from the body.” (Conf. 9.11.28)

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