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SAINT THOMAS AQUINAS

Confessor and Doctor of the Church, 1225-1274

All over Europe, in the thirteenth century, schools and universities became familiar with a remarkable figure: a great mountain of a man clothed in the white gown and black cloak of a Dominican friar. This modest, soft-spoken giant of a man was a teacher of theology who lectured in crowded university halls and left behind him a storm of controversy every time. He was teaching something new-the truths of divine revelation explained with the newly translated philosophy of ancient Greece. This man was Thomas Aquinas. Today his philosophy and theology are officially taught in the Catholic Church, and Saint Thomas is recognized universally as one of the great thinkers of all time.

This future glory of the Dominicans had a difficult time in joining the Order. Thomas was born in 1225, into a family of Italian nobility, and at the age of five was sent to the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino as a student. His family hoped that, with this beginning and with the discreet use of their wealth and influence, Thomas would someday be the abbot of Monte Cassino. They carefully considered all possibilities, ignoring only Thomas' own desires. When he went to complete his studies at the University of Naples, he became interested in the recently founded Order of Preachers (the Dominicans) and joined the Order some time in his twentieth year. Hearing of this, his family decided upon violent action and literally kidnapped Thomas, bringing him back to the family castle. There he was locked in a room and told either to change his decision and forsake the Dominicans or to remain a prisoner in his own home. In a further attempt to break Thomas' will, a prostitute was summoned to the castle and sent to tempt him. The reaction of Thomas to this last outrage was typical of his strength and determination. After threatening the woman with a blazing faggot from the fireplace, Thomas emphasized his point by charring a great cross on the wall with his blazing weapon. The woman fled in terror, and Thomas immediately prayed for the gift of perfect chastity. It is said that he experienced a dream in which an angel bound a white cloth about his loins, thus symbolizing the granting of his wish. It was at this time too, that Thomas' family resigned themselves to his wishes.

Returning to his Order, Thomas was sent to study and then to teach at the finest universities of Europe: first Naples, then Cologne, Bologna, and Paris. Thomas proceeded to revolutionize the world of thought both by his teaching and by the books he produced. The Summa Theologica, the Summa Contra Gentiles, commentaries on Aristotle and on the Bible are but a few of his works. As his reputation increased, Thomas was sought by students, kings, and popes who wished to be directed and taught by this man of great intellectual power and equally great humility. Thomas journeyed all over Europe for thirty years, sharing his gift. In the last year of his life he was ordered by the pope to attend the Council of Lyons, but he became ill on the way and took shelter in the Cistercian abbey of Fossa Nuova, in northern Italy, where he died on March 7, 1274.

Few men have ever had such an overpowering sense of the reality of God's existence as Thomas. In his immense intellectual production he attempted to show how everything that exists is related to God, and all his works are merely the result of his intense love for his Creator. The Holy Eucharist was the center of Thomas' life, and he told his brother friars that he learned more from that source than from all the books he had ever read. The hymns he wrote in honor of the Blessed Sacrament, such as the Pange Lingua and Adoro Te reveal the burning love that was the mainspring of Thomas' sanctity.

The story is told that, one day toward the end of his life, Thomas was praying before a crucifix when the figure of Christ there spoke to him: "Thomas," it said, "you have written well of me. What would you have as a reward?" Thomas answered: "Nothing, Lord, besides yourself." Thomas was a wise man, not because he had mastered the world of learning, but because he knew that real wisdom was love of God and His truth.

 

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