In Macau and around the world, the Dominican family of the Order of Preachers, joins the universal Church today in the liturgical memory of St Thomas Aquinas (28 of January), an outstanding theologian, philosopher, and Dominican priest of the 13th century.
According to Friar Daniel Kennedy (Dominican), the main events of the saint’s life are known, but biographers differ on some details and dates. For Kennedy, Thomas’ life can be summed up in a few words: praying, preaching, teaching, writing and traveling.
For the richness of content and synthesis of the life of St Thomas Aquinas, we have recourse to the biographical notes of Friar Daniel Kennedy (Catholic Encyclopedia) and the ‘catecheses’ given by Pope Benedict XVI on the saint in the month of June 2010, divided into three general audiences.
Benedict XVI wished to state that it is not surprising that, after St Augustine, among the ecclesiastical writers mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church St Thomas is cited more than any other, at least 61 times! “He was also called the Doctor Angelicus, perhaps because of his virtues and, in particular, the sublimity of his thought and the purity of his life,” the Pope said.
Thomas was born between 1224 and 1225 in the castle that his wealthy noble family owned at Roccasecca near Aquino, not far from the famous Abbey of Montecassino where his parents sent him to receive the first elements of his education.
A few years later he moved to Naples, the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily, where Frederick II had founded a prestigious university: “Here the thinking of the Greek philosopher Aristotle was taught without the limitations imposed elsewhere. The young Thomas was introduced to it and immediately perceived its great value. However, it was above all in those years that he spent in Naples that his Dominican vocation was born.”
Some time between 1240 and August 1243, he received the habit of the Order of St Dominic, being attracted and directed by John of St Julian, a noted preacher of the convent of Naples, noted Friar Kennedy. The Friar wrote that “the city wondered that such a noble young man should don the garb of poor friar.”
However, Benedict XVI recalls that, when he was clothed in the Dominican habit his family opposed this decision and he was obliged to leave the convent and spend some time at home. Nevertheless, in 1245, by which time he had come of age, he was able to continue on the path of his response to God’s call. Continuing his religious life, he was sent to Paris to study theology under the guidance of another saint, Albert the Great.
The Holy Father stressed that “Albert and Thomas … learned to esteem and love each other to the point that Albert even wanted his disciple to follow him to Cologne, where he had been sent by the Superiors of the Order to found a theological studium. Thomas then once again came into contact with all Aristotle’s works and his Arab commentators that Albert described and explained.”
The Pope recalled that they were writings on the nature of knowledge, on the natural sciences, on metaphysics, on the soul and on ethics and were full of information and intuitions that appeared valid and convincing. All this formed an overall vision of the world that had been developed without and before Christ, and with pure reason, and seemed to impose itself on reason as “the” vision itself; accordingly seeing and knowing this philosophy had an incredible fascination for the young.
“Many accepted enthusiastically, indeed with a-critical enthusiasm, this enormous baggage of ancient knowledge that seemed to be able to renew culture advantageously and to open totally new horizons. Others, however, feared that Aristotle’s pagan thought might be in opposition to the Christian faith and refused to study it. Two cultures converged: the pre-Christian culture of Aristotle with its radical rationality and the classical Christian culture,” Ratzinger concluded.
His masterpiece – the Summa Theologiae
Of St Thomas’ masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae, the Pontiff noted that it was left unfinished, yet it is a monumental work: it contains 512 questions and 2,669 articles – “It consists of concentrated reasoning in which the human mind is applied to the mysteries of faith, with clarity and depth to the mysteries of faith, alternating questions with answers in which St Thomas deepens the teaching that comes from Sacred Scripture and from the Fathers of the Church, especially St Augustine.”
In this reflection, Benedict XVI points out that in meeting the true questions of his time, that are also often our own questions, St Thomas, also by employing the method and thought of the ancient philosophers, and of Aristotle in particular, thus arrives at precise, lucid and pertinent formulations of the truths of faith in which truth is a gift of faith, shines out and becomes accessible to us, for our reflection.
However, this effort of the human mind, “Aquinas reminds us with his own life, is always illumined by prayer, by the light that comes from on high. Only those who live with God and with his mysteries can also understand what they say to us.”
The Pope adds that, moreover, St Thomas observes that it is impossible to live without trusting in the experience of others, wherever one’s own knowledge falls short. It is thus reasonable to believe in God, who reveals himself, and to the testimony of the Apostles: they were few, simple and poor, grief-stricken by the Crucifixion of their Teacher. Yet many wise, noble and rich people converted very soon after hearing their preaching. “In fact this is a miraculous phenomenon of history, to which it is far from easy to give a convincing answer other than that of the Apostle’s encounter with the Risen Lord,” Pope Benedict XVI emphasized.
Of the mystical signs evident in the life of St Thomas Aquinas, Friar Kennedy records that on one occasion, at Naples in 1273, after he had completed his treatise on the Eucharist, three of the brethren saw him lifted in ecstasy, and they heard a voice proceeding from the crucifix on the altar, saying “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” Thomas replied, “None other than Thyself, Lord.” Kennedy admits that it is not surprising to read in the biographies of St Thomas that he was frequently abstracted and in ecstasy.
Benedict XVI recalled that St Thomas had a great devotion to Our Lady – “He described her with a wonderful title: Triclinium totius Trinitatis; triclinium, that is, a place where the Trinity finds rest since, because of the Incarnation, in no creature as in her do the three divine Persons dwell and feel delight and joy at dwelling in her soul full of Grace. Through her intercession we may obtain every help.”
St Thomas Aquinas died while still young, on 7 March 1274, in the monastery of Fossanova, on his way to Lyons at the request of Pope Gregory X. Numerous miracles attested to his holiness.
Thomas Aquinas was canonized by John XXII on 18 July 1323. On 28 January 1567, St Pius V declared him a Doctor of the Church. He is the Patron Saint of Universities and Catholic Schools.
On the occasion of the celebration of the 600th anniversary of the canonization of St Thomas Aquinas (1923), Pope Pius XI appealed to all those who “hunger” for truth: “Go to Thomas” (Encyclical Studiorum Ducem).
St Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!
A Student’s Prayer
by St Thomas Aquinas
Come, Holy Spirit, Divine Creator,
true source of light and fountain of wisdom!
Pour forth your brilliance upon my dense intellect,
dissipate the darkness which covers me,
that of sin and of ignorance.
Grant me a penetrating mind to understand,
a retentive memory, method and ease in learning,
the lucidity to comprehend,
and abundant grace in expressing myself.
Guide the beginning of my work,
direct its progress, and bring it to successful completion.
This I ask through Jesus Christ, true God and true man,
living and reigning with You and the Father, forever and ever.