St Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church (1225-1274)

St Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church (1225-1274)

 

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, [...] it was above all in those years that he spent in Naples that his Dominican vocation was born.

Thomas was in fact attracted by the ideal of the Order recently founded by St Dominic. However, 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.

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.

He was sent to Paris to study theology under the guidance of another Saint, Albert the Great, of whom I spoke not long ago. A true and deep friendship developed between Albert and Thomas. They 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.

 

Aristote, Avicenna and Averroës

In this period the culture of the Latin world was profoundly stimulated by the encounter with Aristotle's works that had long remained unknown. 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 [...]

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.

Certain circles, moreover, were led to reject Aristotle by the presentation of this philosopher which had been made by the Arab commentators. Avicenna and Averroës. Indeed, it was they who had transmitted the Aristotelian philosophy to the Latin world.

For example, these commentators had taught that human beings have no personal intelligence but that there is a single universal intelligence, a spiritual substance common to all, that works in all as "one": hence, a depersonalization of man.

Another disputable point passed on by the Arab commentators was that the world was eternal like God. This understandably unleashed never-ending disputes in the university and clerical worlds. Aristotelian philosophy was continuing to spread even among the populace.

 

Thomas Aquinas and Aristote

Thomas Aquinas, at the school of Albert the Great, did something of fundamental importance for the history of philosophy and theology, I would say for the history of culture: he made a thorough study of Aristotle and his interpreters, obtaining for himself new Latin translations of the original Greek texts.

Consequently he no longer relied solely on the Arab commentators but was able to read the original texts for himself. He commented on most of the Aristotelian opus, distinguishing between what was valid and was dubious or to be completely rejected, showing its consonance with the events of the Christian Revelation and drawing abundantly and perceptively from Aristotle's thought in the explanation of the theological texts he was uniting.

In short, Thomas Aquinas showed that a natural harmony exists between Christian faith and reason. [...]

 

Because of his excellent intellectual gifts Thomas was summoned to Paris to be professor of theology on the Dominican chair. Here he began his literary production which continued until his death and has something miraculous about it:

-          he commented on Sacred Scripture because the professor of theology was above all an interpreter of Scripture;

-          and he commented on the writings of Aristotle,

-          powerful systematic works, among which stands out his Summa Theologiae,

-          treatises and discourses on various subjects.

He was assisted in the composition of his writings by several secretaries, [...] This is a characteristic of Saints: they cultivate friendship because it is one of the noblest manifestations of the human heart and has something divine about it, just as Thomas himself explained in some of the Quaestiones of his Summa Theologiae. He writes in it: "it is evident that charity is the friendship of man for God" and for "all belonging to him" (Vol. II, q. 23, a. 1). [...]

 

In 1259 he took part in the General Chapter of the Dominicans in Valenciennes where he was a member of a commission that established the Order's programme of studies.

Then from 1261 to 1265, Thomas was in Orvieto. Pope Urban IV, who held him in high esteem, commissioned him to compose liturgical texts for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which we are celebrating tomorrow, established subsequent to the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena. Thomas had an exquisitely Eucharistic soul. [...].

From 1265 until 1268 Thomas lived in Rome where he probably directed a Studium, that is, a study house of his Order, and where he began writing his Summa Theologiae (cf. Jean-Pierre Torrell, Tommaso d'Aquino. L'uomo e il teologo, Casale Monf., 1994, pp. 118-184).

In 1269 Thomas was recalled to Paris for a second cycle of lectures. His students understandably were enthusiastic about his lessons. One of his former pupils declared that a vast multitude of students took Thomas' courses, so many that the halls could barely accommodate them; and this student added, making a personal comment, that "listening to him brought him deep happiness". [...]

 

In addition to study and teaching, Thomas also dedicated himself to preaching to the people. And the people too came willingly to hear him. I would say that it is truly a great grace when theologians are able to speak to the faithful with simplicity and fervour. The ministry of preaching, moreover, helps theology scholars themselves to have a healthy pastoral realism and enriches their research with lively incentives.

[...]

Thomas died while on his way to Lyons to take part in the Ecumenical Council convoked by Pope Gregory X. He died in the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova, after receiving the Viaticum with deeply devout sentiments.

 

Benedict XVI, General audience, 2 June 2010

 

St Thomas and Our Lady

Like all the Saints, 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.

 

With a prayer that is traditionally attributed to St Thomas and that in any case reflects the elements of his profound Marian devotion we too say:

"O most Blessed and sweet Virgin Mary, Mother of God... I entrust to your merciful heart... my entire life....

Obtain for me as well, O most sweet Lady, true charity with which from the depths of my heart I may love your most Holy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and, after him, love you above all other things... and my neighbour, in God and for God".

 

Benedict XVI, General audience, 23 June 2010