Saint Thomas Aquinas, Priest and Doctor

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Priest and Doctor (Memorial)

Thomas Aquinas was born in 1224 at his father Count Landulph’s castle of Roccasecca in the Kingdom of Sicily, in the present-day Regione Lazio. Through his mother, Theodora Countess of Theate, Aquinas was related to the Hohenstaufen dynasty of Holy Roman emperors. An uncle was abbot of the original Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, and his family hoped that Thomas would follow in his footsteps.

It was while studying at the University of Naples that he came under the influence of the Dominicans, who, with the Franciscans, were introducing radical changes in church life.  His family was not happy with this development and actually imprisoned him in his parents’ castle for one year.  Eventually, through the intervention of Pope Innocent IV, he joined the Dominican Order.

His superiors immediately saw his aptitude for theological study and he was sent in 1244 to Cologne to study under Albert the Great, also a Dominican, and who, in the coming years, would have a great influence on his development.  The following year, Thomas and Albert went to the University of Paris and lectured there on theology and philosophy for three years.  In 1248, he returned to Cologne, where he was appointed second lecturer and magister studentium (master of students), which saw the beginning of his writing and public life.  He also incorporated the philosophy of Aristotle into his studies.

In 1256, Aquinas, along with his Franciscan friend Bonaventure, was named doctor of theology and began to lecture on theology in Paris and Rome and in other Italian towns.  This involved a great amount of tiring travel as he was also called on to advise popes on affairs of state.  Throughout the ensuing years he was constantly involved in the public business of the Church.

From 1269 to 1271, he was again in Paris but then returned to being a professor in Naples.

Aquinas preached every day, wrote homilies, disputations, and gave lectures. He also worked diligently on his great literary work, the Summa Theologiae. He was invited to become archbishop of Naples and abbot of Monte Cassino but declined both. He was described by contemporaries as being “a pure person, humble, simple, peace-loving, given to contemplation, moderate, a lover of poetry” as well as for the depth of his thinking. 

Early impressions that he was not a good speaker led him to be nicknamed “The Dumb Ox”.  Albert, his teacher, strongly refuted this: “You call him ‘a dumb ox,’ but I declare before you that he will yet bellow so loud in doctrine that his voice will resound through the whole world.”

In appearance Aquinas had a dark complexion, large head and receding hairline and was on the stout side. People described him as refined, affable and lovable and his tastes simple. Towards the end of his life he felt deeply dissatisfied with the quality of his work. His last words on December 6, 1273, were said to have been: “Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears as so much straw.”

In January 1274, Pope Gregory X told Aquinas to attend the Second Council of Lyons. Although in failing health, he began the journey. On the way, he became seriously ill at the castle of a niece.  He wanted to end his days in a religious house but was unable to reach a Dominican house.  Instead he was taken to the Cistercian monastery at Fossa Nuova, about 100 km south-east of Rome.  Seven weeks later he died on March 7, 1274.

On July 18, 1323, Pope John XXII pronounced Aquinas a saint. In 1567, Pope Pius V ranked him with four great Latin fathers: Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory.  His Summa Theologiae was deemed so important that at the Council of Trent, it was placed on the altar beside the Bible and the council documents. 

In 1879, Pope Leo XIII decreed that all Catholic seminaries and universities must teach Aquinas’ doctrines and in 1880, Aquinas was declared patron of all Catholic educational establishments. 

His feast is now celebrated on January 28, the date when the Summa Theologiae was published.  Formerly it was on March 7, the date of his death. The works for which he is best remembered are the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles. He is considered by many Catholics to be the Church’s greatest theologian and philosopher.

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