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ST. THOMAS AQUINAS

 

St. Thomas Aquinas was born about the year 1225. 1 The name Aquinas derived

from the territory of his father, Count Landulf of Aquina, in the vicinity

of Naples. The mother of Thomas was Theodora, Countess of Teano, and his

family was related to the Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II, and to the

Kings of France, Aragon, and Castile. "He could have quartered half the

kingdoms of Europe in his shield," wrote Chesterton, "if he had not thrown

away the shield. He was Italian and French and German and in every way

European."2 At the early age of five Thomas was sent to school at the

Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino. He showed at once the great gifts

of intellect with which he had been endowed. His biographers attest to the

piety and inquiring nature of this young pupil, who would surprise his

master with the oftrepeated question: "What is God?" The early Benedictine

training left Thomas with a life-long devotion to the Liturgy, and prepared

him for further studies at the famed University of Naples where he was

enrolled in or about the year 1239. While at Naples Thomas met with the

members of the Order Or St. Dominic, which had been founded some twenty

years earlier. He made known his desire to be a Dominican about 1240, and

instantly met with strong opposition from his family, but especially from

his mother. At length he received the Dominican habit in April, 1244, and

was chosen to continue his studies at the Dominican school of studies at

the University of Paris.

 

Countess Theodora completely disapproved of this journey, and sent two of

her sons and a detachment of soldiers to intercept Friar Thomas on his way

to Paris. In this she was successful, and for nearly two years he was held

a virtual prisoner in the family castle. This period was well spent by

Thomas in study and meditation. Here he was constantly urged to forsake his

vocation, and on one occasion he was tempted by a woman who had been thrust

into his chamber by his own brothers. Thomas arose and grasping a burning

brand from the fire, forced the temptress from his room. Then with

characteristic vigor he burned deep in the door the potent sign of the

cross. In later years he confided to his secretary and companion, Reginald

of Piperno, that immediately after this event he as granted his urgent

prayer for the gift of perpetual chastity, and thereafter had complete

freedom from the motions of concupiscence. : seems probable that this gave

first basis for his title of Angelic Doctor.

 

In 1245 St. Thomas began to attend the lectures in theology of St. Albert

the Great at the University of Paris. He made extraordinary progress in his

studies, and three years later he accompanied St. Albert to Cologne there

to continue his study. He was engaged n teaching in 1250. This same year

marks his ordination to the priesthood. Thomas accompanied his teacher,

Albert the Great, back to Paris in 1252, where he continued his lecturing

and at the same time prepared for the examinations for the degree of Master

n Theology. He was awarded the degree in 1257 from the University of Paris.

He continued to lecture at this world-famous institution during these early

years in his career, which was marked by developing intellectual power and

originality and growing familiarity with the vast field of theological and

philosophical learning.

 

St. Thomas was called to Rome in 1259, and for nine busy years was

teaching, lecturing, and writing as the theologian of the Papal Court. He

continued his study of Aristotle, and was deeply engrossed in the

literature of the Fathers of the Church. "He worked with the spirit of a

missionary," says Martian, "in the cause of Truth against error." 3 His

chief writings of this period were a number of philosophical works,

commentaries on various Books of the Old and New Testaments, theological

disputations; above all, in 1267 or 1268 he completed the First Part of his

masterpiece, the "Summa Theologica."

 

St. Thomas was already widely known as a great theologian and scholar in

this century which abounded in great theologians and scholars. Recalled to

Paris to replace a stricken Master of Theology at the University, he began

the last period of his life. He was to live less than six more years. They

were crowded years of writing, teaching, and preaching. His Sermons, which

fill a good-sized volume, were begun in the early years of his priestly

life, and he continued to preach until his death. He was an authority on

the spiritual life, and personally experienced the trials and consolations

of the trained ascetic and the true contemplative. His writings on ascetic

and mystical theology are original and permanent contributions to the

science of the Saints. It is related of him that, after having written the

sublime treatise on the Holy Eucharist, he was seen to fall into an

ecstasy, and a voice from the crucifix above the altar was heard to say:

"Thou hast written well of Me, Thomas. What reward wilt thou have?" To this

the Saint replied: "None, Lord, other than Thyself."

 

Thomas remained in Paris for three years, from 1269 to 1272, 4 in the full

maturity of his powers and the manifold outpourings of his genius. All of

the Second Part of the "Summa Theologica" was written at this time, and the

Third Part was begun. In 1272 he was recalled to Naples by order of the

king to teach at the University of Naples which he had attended as a boy.

He put the finishing touches on his numerous projects, completed the Third

Part of the "Summa" up to Question XC, and then laid down his pen already

worn out at the early age of 48. "I can do no more," he said on the morning

of December 6, 1273. He had experienced an ecstasy during Mass and said to

Reginald, his secretary: "Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I

have written now appears of little value." During the following Lenten

season, Thomas gave to the students and townsfolk of Naples the series of

catechetical instructions on the Creed, Commandments, and Prayer which make

up part of this volume. They are his last words. He died on March 7, 1274,

at Fossanuova in Northern Italy while on his way to attend the Council of

Lyons. St. Thomas Aquinas lived in an age of great scholars and great

Saints. He is the "prince and Master of all." 5

 

St. Thomas was canonized in 1323. St. Pius proclaimed him a Doctor of the

Universal Church in 1567. When Pope Leo XIII wrote his famous Encyclical,

"Aeterni Patris," on the restoration of Christian philosophy, he urged his

readers with all the force of his apostolic office "to restore the golden

wisdom of St. Thomas and to spread it far and wide for the defense and

beauty of the Catholic Faith, for the good of society, and for the

advantage of all sciences." The same Pontiff, in a Brief dated August 4,

1880, designated St. Thomas Patron of all Catholic universities, and his

successors, including Pope Pius XI, have ordered Catholic teachers to make

the explanations of Christian Doctrine by St. Thomas the basis for all

their teaching.

 

 




1. P. mandonnet, "Date de la naissance de S. Thomas d'Aquin," in "Revue

Thomiste" (1914), 652-662.

 



2. G. K. Chesterton, "St. Thomas Aquinas" (1933), 43.

 



3. J. Maritain, "The Angelic Doctor," 35.

 



4. For the vexed question of exact dates in the life of St. Thomas, I have

relied chiefly on Cayre, "Precis de Patrologie" (Paris, 1930), II, pp. 526-

536, who in turn is largely indebted to the researches of Mandonnet.

 



5. Pope Leo XIII in Encyclical, "Aeterni Patris," August 4, 1879.

 






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