The name “Augustinians” can refer to several, mostly unrelated orders. The two most significant are the Augustinian Canons, an order of clerics within the Catholic Church, and the Order of Augustine, which refers to a sect of friars devoted to the rule of Saint Augustine.
Saint Augustine (354—430) was born in Hippo-Regius (what is now known as Annaba, Algeria), a Roman province in Africa. Many lay Catholics also know of the early years of his life spent away from the church as told in his Confessions, when he famously said “Lord make me chaste—but not yet.” His mother, Saint Monica, waited patiently for him to come to faith. When he did, he became the bishop of Hippo as well as the founder of the Augustinian orders. What most don’t know, however, are the subtle differences between the orders St. Augustine originally founded.
The friars of the Order of Augustine were not always united under a single rule. Instead, city-dwelling as well as secluded monasteries adopted the rule of Augustine, all applying it differently to their daily lives. These differences, however, soon became points of contention, and to ease the resulting quarrels, Pope Alexander IV issued a papal bull that required the monasteries to join together under a single, agreed-upon rule. In 1256 AD, a union was solidified. As a mendicant order, the Augustinians do not own individual property, and—like any order of friars—they pray the liturgy of the hours daily. The Augustinians are distinguished from other orders by three distinctive characteristics: they can move to and from different communities, they engage in apostolic activities, which is why their order has been largely responsible for spreading the Catholic faith, and they are committed to communal, not merely individual, poverty.
Among the many branches of Augustinians—including the secular fraternities and Sisters of Saint Rita—the Descalced Augustinians are worth mentioning. This particular branch evolved as a reform movement in 16th century Italy. Sworn to even stricter practices of poverty and asceticism, the Descalced or “Barefoot” Augustinians (named for the sandals they wear, rather than shoes) observe complete silence and retire to an even stricter rule that involves a limited diet of bread, oil, fruits and vegetables, and wine.
While Augustinian nuns are also prevalent (like the Sisters of Saint Rita), they are not unified in the practices of their daily lives. They, like the ancient predecessors of the original Augustinian friars, adhere to Augustine’s original rule for nuns. Because they were (presumably) uninvolved in the quarrels of the middle ages, they were not included in Pope Alexander IV’s order for unification.
Despite the commitment of the Augustinian Order, its monasteries are not nearly as widespread today as they once were. While the order has helped extend the reach of the Roman Catholic Church, hundreds of influential monasteries were lost to events like the French Revolution and the Philippines’ military conflict in 1896. Today, only about a tenth of Augustinian monasteries exist compared to the height of their influence. However, the remaining orders continue their work in good faith.
Among the many Augustinian saints are Saint Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of lost and impossible causes, and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, patron of animals, babies, boatmen, and the Philippines.
If you’d like to learn more about the life and faith of Saint Augustine, check out the following available here at Image Catholic Books:
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the Church’s many distinct Orders. Next time you see a black habit or a friar wearing sandals, hopefully you’ll know to which order he belongs! Thanks for reading the Orders of the Church.