FEAST OF SAINT THOMAS AQUINAS
FEAST DAY – 28th JANUARY
Thomas Aquinas was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, Catholic priest, and Doctor of the Church. An immensely influential philosopher, theologian, and jurist in the tradition of scholasticism, he is also known within the latter as the Doctor Angelicus, the Doctor Communis, and the Doctor Universalis. The name Aquinas identifies his ancestral origins in the county of Aquino in present-day Lazio, Italy.
Among other things, he was a prominent proponent of natural theology and the father of a school of thought (encompassing both theology and philosophy) known as Thomism. He argued that God is the source of both the light of natural reason and the light of faith. His influence on Western thought is considerable, and much of modern philosophy is derived from his ideas, in the areas of ethics, natural law, metaphysics, and political theory.
Thomas was born to parents who were in possession of a modest feudal domain on a boundary constantly disputed by the emperor and the pope. His father was of Lombard origin and his mother was of the later invading Norman heritage. Thomas was placed in the monastery of Monte Cassino near his home as an oblate (i.e., offered as a prospective monk) when he was still a young boy; his family doubtless hoped that he would someday become abbot to their advantage. In 1239, after nine years in this sanctuary of spiritual and cultural life, young Thomas was forced to return to his family when the emperor expelled the monks because they were too obedient to the pope.
He was then sent to the University of Naples, recently founded by the emperor, where he first encountered the scientific and philosophical works that were being translated from Greek and Arabic. In this setting Thomas decided to join the Friars Preachers, or Dominicans, a new religious order founded 30 years earlier, which departed from the traditional paternalistic form of government for monks to the more democratic form of the mendicant friars (i.e., religious orders whose corporate as well as personal poverty made it necessary for them to beg alms) and from the monastic life of prayer and manual labour to a more active life of preaching and teaching.
By this move he took a liberating step beyond the feudal world into which he was born and the monastic spirituality in which he was reared. A dramatic episode marked the full significance of his decision. His parents had him abducted on the road to Paris, where his shrewd superiors had immediately assigned him so that he would be out of the reach of his family but also so that he could pursue his studies in the most prestigious and turbulent university of the time.
Thomas held out stubbornly against his family despite a year of captivity. He was finally liberated and in the autumn of 1245 went to Paris to the convent of Saint-Jacques, the great university centre of the Dominicans; there he studied under St. Albertus Magnus, a tremendous scholar with a wide range of intellectual interests. Escape from the feudal world, rapid commitment to the University of Paris, and religious vocation to one of the new mendicant orders all meant a great deal in a world in which faith in the traditional institutional and conceptual structure was being attacked.
The encounter between the gospel and the culture of his time formed the nerve centre of Thomas’s position and directed its development. Normally, his work is presented as the integration into Christian thought of the recently discovered Aristotelian philosophy, in competition with the integration of Platonic thought effected by the Fathers of the Church during the first 12 centuries of the Christian Era. This view is essentially correct; more radically, however, it should also be asserted that Thomas’s work accomplished an evangelical awakening to the need for a cultural and spiritual renewal not only in the lives of individual men but also throughout the church. Thomas must be understood in his context as a mendicant religious, influenced both by the evangelism of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order, and by the devotion to scholarship of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order.
Thomas Aquinas arrived at the University of Paris, the influx of Arabian-Aristotelian science was arousing a sharp reaction among believers, and several times the church authorities tried to block the naturalism and rationalism that were emanating from this philosophy and, according to many ecclesiastics, seducing the younger generations. Thomas did not fear these new ideas, but, like his master Albertus Magnus (and Roger Bacon, also lecturing at Paris), he studied the works of Aristotle and eventually lectured publicly on them.
For the first time in history, Christian believers and theologians were confronted with the rigorous demands of scientific rationalism. At the same time, technical progress was requiring men to move from the rudimentary economy of an agrarian society to an urban society with production organized in trade guilds, with a market economy, and with a profound feeling of community. New generations of men and women, including clerics, were reacting against the traditional notion of contempt for the world and were striving for mastery over the forces of nature through the use of their reason. The structure of Aristotle’s philosophy emphasized the primacy of the intelligence. Technology itself became a means of access to truth; mechanical arts were powers for humanizing the cosmos.
Thus, the dispute over the reality of universals—i.e., the question about the relation between general words such as “red” and particulars such as “this red object”—which had dominated early Scholastic philosophy, was left behind, and a coherent metaphysics of knowledge and of the world was being developed. During the summer of 1248, Aquinas left Paris with Albertus, who was to assume direction of the new faculty established by the Dominicans at the convent in Cologne. He remained there until 1252, when he returned to Paris to prepare for the degree of master of theology.
After taking his bachelor’s degree, he received the licentia docendi (“license to teach”) at the beginning of 1256 and shortly afterward finished the training necessary for the title and privileges of master. Thus, in the year 1256 he began teaching theology in one of the two Dominican schools incorporated in the University of Paris. In 1259 Thomas was appointed theological adviser and lecturer to the papal Curia, then the centre of Western humanism.
He returned to Italy, where he spent two years at Anagni at the end of the reign of Pope Alexander IV and four years at Orvieto with Pope Urban IV. From 1265 to 1267 he taught at the convent of Santa Sabina in Rome, and he then, at the request of Pope Clement IV, went to the papal Curia in Viterbo. Suddenly, in November 1268, he was sent to Paris, where he became involved in a sharp doctrinal polemic that had just been triggered off. St. Thomas understood that all thinking about God is done from inside original sin and within the parameters of human intellectual capacity. The uncreated, timeless, mysterious God, then, is by definition incomprehensible to creatures trapped in time, space, matter, sin, distraction, and confusion. God is outside of the universe, rather than being just one important ingredient in the recipe of reality.
This essential “otherness” of God means that His presence is not completely accessible to the senses. It is not just a question of seeing farther, understanding more deeply, hearing more acutely, or feeling more intensely. Twenty senses instead of five would still not be enough to capture God because He transcends all other forms of being known to us. In the 1950’s, a Russian cosmonaut looked out over space from his orbit miles above the earth and declared “I have found no God.” He was looking for something that wasn’t there and answering a question that was poorly posed.
St. Thomas’s encyclopedic knowledge and massive erudition existed harmoniously with a humble nature and a simple, traditional Catholic piety. He was a well-balanced man and a dedicated Dominican priest. This synthesis of childlike wonder and deep inquiry marked his life. After having a mystical vision of Jesus Christ on the cross while praying after Mass one day, he abandoned any further writing. He died on his way to the Second Council of Lyon in 1274, not yet 50 years old. He is buried in Toulouse, France, retaining his status as the Church’s most eminent theologian.
We can look to Thomas Aquinas as a towering example of Catholicism in the sense of broadness, universality, and inclusiveness. We should be determined anew to exercise the divine gift of reason in us, our power to know, learn, and understand. At the same time we should thank God for the gift of his revelation, especially in Jesus Christ. Saint Thomas Aquinas is a Patron Saint of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Educators/Teachers, Philosophers, Theologians and Students.
O merciful God, grant that we may, in imitation of Saint Thomas Aquinas, ever perfectly do Your Will in all things. Let it be our ambition to work only for Your honor and glory.
Let us rejoice in nothing but what leads to You, nor grieve for anything that leads away from You. In Jesus’ Name. Amen
Saint Thomas, your life of the mind co-existed with a deep piety. Your writings defend the faith of those who have neither the time nor the gift for higher study.
Help all those who teach in the Church to follow your example of humble and faithful inquiry into the highest truths. Amen