In his book, Saint Thomas Aquinas – “The Dumb Ox”, G.K. Chesterton says the following about great scholastic saint,
“When he was not sitting still, reading a book, he walked around and round the cloisters and walked fast and even furiously, a very characteristic action of men who fight their battles in the mind. Whenever he was interrupted, he was very polite and more apologetic than the apologizer. But there was that about him, which suggested that he was rather happier when he was not interrupted. He was ready to stop his truly Peripatetic tramp: but we feel that when he resumed it, he walked all the faster.”
Today, January 28, is the feast day of one of the greatest minds and theologians the Catholic Church has in her arsenal, as you probably have guessed – it’s Saint Thomas Aquinas. Born into a family of nobility descending from the Lombard’s, his father was a knight and his mother was of Norman descent. He was born around the year 1225 in the quaint town of Aquino, in the castle of Rocca Secca.
At the age of five years old, he was sent to the abbey of Monte Cassino, since one of his kinsmen was abbot at the time. From the age of five to thirteen, he lived and studied in the monastery. Because of the turmoil occurring in the state at the time, he was sent off to the University of Naples where he studied the arts and sciences. While studying in Naples, he was introduced to a new mendicant order and received the habit of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) at the age of nineteen years old.
The news of Thomas’ decision to join the rag tag group of Dominican friars quickly reached his home. To say that is family was upset would be an understatement. They were not upset that he chose religious life, but they were hoping that he would choose the Benedictines and then be appointed to Monte Cassino. Out of all the family members, his mother, Theodora, was the most upset and traveled to Naples to speak to her son about his decision. Catching word that she was in transit, the Dominicans in haste sent Thomas first to Rome and then to Bologna. Not to be out done by the friars, Theodora sent word to Thomas’ older brothers to capture him and return him home. His brothers were serving in the emperor’s army near Tuscany.
As Thomas rested, off the side of the road at Aquapendente near Siena, his brothers seized him. They first tried to forcibly remove the Dominican habit, however, after an unsuccessful attempt captured him and brought him home. For two years, with only his very worldly sister able to visit him, his family kept him in a cell in the castle of Monte San Giovanni. During his time in isolation, Thomas studied the Sentences of Peter Lombard, memorized large quantities of the Holy Scriptures, and even was said to have written a treatise on the fallacies of Aristotle.
In 1245, after coming to the conclusion that Thomas was not going to break his vows to the Dominicans, and the failed the attempt to entice him into a sexual encounter with a prostitute, his family, specifically his brothers, released him and allowed him to return to the order. The Dominicans decided to send him to St. Albert the Great, where he finished his studies in Cologne. The city of Cologne was hustling with universities filled with young clerics from all over Europe striving to make their mark on the life of the Church.
As a young cleric, he was very humble, silent, and was thought to lack real intelligence. Many of his classmates and professors didn’t appreciate his quiet demeanor and referred to him as the “the dumb Sicilian Ox” because of his silence in debates and rather large size. These years in Cologne were not easy for Thomas.
At the request of St. Albert the Great and Cardinal Hugh of Saint-Cher, Thomas was sent to teach at the University of Paris. It was in Paris where Thomas truly began to evolve into the great scholastic of the Church. His work at the university included: the development and commentary on the Holy Scriptures, specifically the Book of Isaiah and the Gospel of St. Matthew, he worked on the Liber sententiarum of Peter Lombard, and he wrote more commentaries on the Sentences.
After four years of work in Paris, he was awarded his lecture as master and then his doctor’s chair at the age of thirty-one. It was also at the end of this time where he began one of his great works, Summa contra Gentiles, a work that he was inspired to write by fellow Dominican, St. Raymund of Peñafort.
From 1259 to 1268, he spent most of his time in Italy where he served in a variety of roles as a preacher and instructor, but most importantly working for the Papal Court. During the papacy of Urban IV, who instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi in 1264, St. Thomas Aquinas was asked by the Pope to write the liturgy for the solemnity. Around the year 1266, Thomas began what would become his greatest work of all, the Summa Theologica.
Three years later, in 1269, Thomas would again find himself back in Paris. Because of his great influence, St. King Louis IX often asked him his opinions when it came to matters of the state. At the University of Paris, he was also asked to answer the question on whether or not the accidents of bread and wine in the Blessed Sacrament remained really or only in appearance. After deep prayer, St. Thomas wrote a treatise and placed it on the altar before choosing to make it public. The university accepted his answer, and soon after, the Universal Church did as well.
In 1272, Thomas was recalled to Naples and was given the position of regent at a house of study. In 1273, on the feast of St. Nicholas, St. Thomas Aquinas received a revelation. It had such an impact on him that he chose not to finish the Summa Theologica. He said, “The end of my labors is come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.”
As he was traveling to participate in the Second General Council of Lyons, by request of Pope Gregory X, for the uniting of the Latin and Greek churches, where he was to present his treatise – Against the Errors of the Greeks, he became even more ill than he was already. He was taken to the Cistercian Abbey of Fossa Nuova near Terracina. He was given the abbot’s room and was cared for by the monks. As he was explaining the Canticle of Canticles to them, he died.
On March 7, 1274, at the age of only fifty years old, St. Thomas Aquinas entered Heavenly Glory. In 1323, Pope John XXII canonized him a saint of the Universal Church. Pope St. Pius V gave him the title, Doctor of the Church. In 1880, Pope Leo XIII declared him patron of universities, colleges, and schools. He is known as the Angelic Doctor because of his perfect chastity.
Saint Thomas Aquinas…Pray for Us.