About the Commemoration
Next to Augustine, Thomas is perhaps the greatest theologian in the history of the Western Church. His insistence that the Christian scholar must be prepared to meet other scholars on their own ground, to become familiar with their viewpoints, to argue from their premises, has been a permanent and valuable contribution to Christian thought. During the thirteenth century, the works of Aristotle began to be available again in the West through Eastern European sources and through Islamic Arab sources in Africa and Spain. Some began to embrace Aristotle as an alternative to Christianity; some denounced him as an enemy of the Christian faith; some tried to hold both Aristotelian and Christian ideas side by side. Thomas, immersing himself in the ideas of Aristotle, undertook to explain Christianity in a language that would make sense to followers of Aristotle. It was at the time a radical and dangerous idea.
Surprisingly little is known with certainty about the life of this enormously influential theologian. Thomas, one of nine children, was born of a noble family at Roccasecca, near Aquino in southern Italy, ca. 1225. In 1231, at the age of five or six, he was given to the nearby Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, of which an uncle had been abbot; his parents had planned that he follow in the footsteps of his successful relative. As a monk he was sent to complete his education at the University of Naples from 1239 to 1244. While there he was introduced to the writings of Aristotle.
The young monk was drawn to the new Dominican Order of Preachers when he was nineteen, and toward the end of April 1244, he received the mendicant habit at the Priory of San Domenico in Naples. His family strongly opposed his entrance into this new order of begging monks and brought him home by force. They were, however, unable to change his mind, and by the summer of 1245 he returned to Naples to rejoin the monastery there. In 1245 or 1246 Thomas went to Paris, then to Cologne, where he studied under Albert the Great. As a student he was large in stature and shy by nature. (His fellow students dubbed him the Dumb Ox.) At Paris a conflict between the mendicant and the secular clergy became so intense that when Thomas finally gave his inaugural lecture as a master, he and his audience had to be protected by soldiers. The university refused to recognize his status, despite papal intervention on his behalf. Thomas and his exact contemporary Bonaventure were finally admitted to full magistral privileges August 12, 1257, with the bishop and most of the secular masters conspicuously absent.
Paris in the 1250s enjoyed the presence of a remarkable trio of saints. The king was St. Louis IX (see August 25), St. Thomas occupied the chair of theology assigned to his order, and the head of the school, another Italian theologian, was a Franciscan, St. Bonaventure. All three were friends. Bonaventure, born in 1221 at Bagnoregio near Viterbo, is known for his deep mystical piety as well as his profound theological and philosophical learning. Like Thomas, Bonaventure knew Aristotle well but regarded him as inferior to Plato. In 1265 he rejected the pope’s invitation to become Archbishop of York, but in 1273 he acceded to the pope’s insistence that he become cardinal and Bishop of Albano. He died at the Council of Lyons, July 15, 1274; his traditional feast day is July 15. (See Christopher M. Cullen, Bonaventure [New York: Oxford University Press, 2006].)
Thomas returned to Italy in 1259. His exact movements are unclear, but he was in Orvieto when, according to Bartholomew of Lucca, Thomas composed the Corpus Christi office, which was introduced in 1264. His authorship of the texts has been disputed, but now it is increasingly accepted. His hymns continue to be sung in many contexts: Adoro te devote, “Humbly I adore thee, verity unseen”; Lauda Sion, “Zion, praise thy Savior singing”; Pange, lingua, gloriosi corporis mysterium, “Now, my tongue, the mystery telling”; Salutaris hostia, “O saving victim, opening wide the gate of heaven”; Tantum ergo, “Therefore we before him bending.” In 1265 Thomas was in charge of a studium in Rome in the priory of Santa Sabina and spent much of his time writing. (One skill that Thomas never learned was good handwriting. His manuscripts are notorious for their illegibility.)
Thomas returned to Paris by 1269. The old controversy broke out again, this time concerning the traditional Augustinian theology versus the newly discovered Aristotle, as well as the old hostility against the mendicants. The hostility of the traditionalists against Aristotle led by the bishop of Paris on December 10, 1270, to condemn eighteen errors in the teaching of what was an exaggerated Aristotelianism.
The atmosphere at Paris was clearly uncongenial to scholarship, so Thomas left for Florence in 1272 to attend a general meeting of his order, and then went to Naples where he taught for the remaining two years of his life. On December 6, 1273, at the conclusion of the St. Nicholas Mass he departed from his usual custom of spending the rest of the day after mass writing or teaching, and never again wrote or dictated anything. For whatever reason—stroke, mystical experience, mental breakdown—his productive life was over. Questioned by his companion Reginald, he is said to have replied, “I cannot go on….All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”
In poor health he was summoned to the Council of Lyons, where reconciliation of the Eastern and Western Churches was planned. He fell sick on the journey and was taken to the Cistercian Abbey of Fossa Nuova near Maenza where he died March 7, 1274, not yet fifty years old. He was canonized in 1323 and since 1567 has been known by the title “the Angelic Doctor.”
Thomas’s work is one of the great expressions of the relationship between the experienced facts of everyday life and the teaching of Catholic theology. His boldly innovative system attempted to make sense of life without destroying its mystery, and it saved Christian theology from the corroding effects of non-Christian Aristotelian and Arabic philosophy. Finally, Thomas for all his intellectual gifts, was a man of humility and deep piety.
On the calendar in the Lutheran Book of Worship Thomas is commemorated on the date of his death, March 7, but this date is also the commemoration of Perpetua and her companions. It is more convenient therefore to remember him on January 28, the date of the removal of his relics to Toulouse in 1369; this is the date of his commemoration on the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, and Evangelical Lutheran Worship calendars.
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
See also: Thomas Aquinas
From Summa Contra Gentiles by Thomas Aquinas
The pursuit of wisdom is more perfect than all human pursuits, more noble, more useful, more full of joy.
It is more perfect because as one gives oneself to the pursuit of wisdom one even now shares in true beatitude. Therefore a wise man has said. “Happy are those who fix their thoughts on wisdom.” [Ecclesiasticus 14:20]
The pursuit of wisdom is more noble because especially through this pursuit one approaches a likeness to God, who made all things by wisdom [Ps. 104:24]. And since likeness is the cause of love, the pursuit of wisdom joins humanity to God in friendship. That is why it is said of wisdom, “She is an inexhaustible treasure for humanity, and those who profit by it become God’s friends.” [Wisd. 7:14]
The pursuit of wisdom is more useful because through wisdom we arrive at the everlasting kingdom: “Honor wisdom so that you may reign for ever.” [Wisd. 6:21] The pursuit of wisdom is more full of joy because “there is no bitterness in her company, no pain in life with her, only gladness and joy.” [Wisd. 8:16]
And so, in the name of the divine Mercy, I have the confidence to embark upon the work of wisdom, even though this may surpass my powers; and I have set myself the task of making known, so far as my limited powers will permit, the truth that the Catholic* faith professes, and of setting aside the errors that are opposed to it. In the words of Hilary, “I am aware that I owe this to God as the chief duty of my life, that every word and sense may speak of him.”
Trans. PHP, based on the translation of Anton C. Pegis.
*In this passage, “Catholic” means, of course, the same as it does in the Creeds: whole, entire, complete in all its parts. The opposite of Catholic is heretic: a person, faith, or church, which accepts only selected parts of the received teaching,
Almighty God, you have enriched your church with the singular learning and holiness of your servant Thomas Aquinas: Enable us, we pray, to grow in wisdom by his teaching and deepen our devotion by the example of his faith and holy life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
PHP.RS + LFF
Readings: Wisdom 7:7-14; Psalm 37:3-6,32-33 or 119:97-104; 1 Corinthians 3:5-11; Matthew 13:47-52
Prayers: For the spirit of inquiry; For the gift of wisdom; For grace to perceive the mystery of God’s presence; For teachers of theology; For the grounding of theology always in prayer and in the life and worship of the church.
Preface: Trinity Sunday