Saint Thomas Aquinas
By Timothy G. Greene
Europe was slowly emerging from the dark ages by the early 1200’s. Population growth was increasing steadily with long hot summers and short mild winters. There was a growing restlessness throughout the land, especially in Italy where there seemed to be something like a precursor to the renaissance, with a rising interest in the finer things of culture like art and music. However, it could not yet be realized due to the fact that most people lived in poverty and could never look forward to advancement because of the Feudalistic system in which all of Europe was trapped.
Feudalism, by definition meant a system for ordering society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service of labor, a most inefficient form of government, in which nobles owned the land and vassals were the managers, with a multitude of serfs who would work the land. The surfs, little better than slaves, lived harsh lives, while the noble class lived in castles and indulged themselves in their great wealth. There was much warfare between the nobles; it was a world of seemingly endless corruption and violence. Yet in 1225 in the kingdom of Naples, would be born to a noble family of the castle Roccasecca a son who would be named Thomas Aquino, who would become one of the greatest thinkers of all time. Thomas’ father was the Count Landulf of Aquino and his mother Theodora Countess of Theate were related to the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman empire. (Britannica) All of Thomas’ brothers would take up military careers like their father, however Thomas was clearly of a different sort, his goal in life was to become a Dominican priest, much to the dismay of his family.
Thomas began his early education at Monte Cassino but after the military conflict that broke out between the Emperor Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX spilled into the abbey in 1239, Thomas’ parents enrolled him in the Studium Generate University recently established by Frederick in Naples. (Columbia Encyclopedia) During his study at the university Thomas would meet an influential figure named Petrus de Ibernia. From this Dominican teacher Thomas would learn mathematics, astronomy, music and most of all Ibernia would convince Thomas to join the Dominica order. Thomas’ parents would not be pleased with this, a Benedictine yes, but never a Dominican. When Thomas was on his way to Paris for more schooling his parents had his brothers kidnap him while he had stopped to take a drink at the spring. He was imprisoned in the family castle for up to two years, and his two sisters, Marotta and Theodora, attended to his needs, but tried in vain to weaken his will. After a time the sisters were converted to Thomas’ view point. The most dramatic episode of his imprisonment came when his brothers sent a temptress to his quarters. As soon as Thomas saw this girl’s intention; which was to seduce him, he rushed to the fire place and grabbed a burning stick and forced her out. He then closed the door and drew a cross on the door with the charred end of the stick. (Fr. Christopher Rengers, O.F.M., Cap)
When he fell asleep that night, he had a dream that two angels came and placed a cord around his waist saying, “On God’s behalf we gird you with the girdle of chastity, a girdle which no attack will ever destroy.” (Lives of the Saints, Richard P. McBrian) For the rest of his life Thomas would remain free from any such temptations. Finally his family released him and after some traveling he would eventually end up in Cologne, where he would study under St. Albert the Great, from 1248 to 1252. It is not known for certain but Thomas was probably ordained at Cologne. This large quiet young man was dubbed the dumb ox by fellow students at Cologne. He was so quiet and non committal that no one seemed much impressed by him at first, but after getting to know him better his genius became evident. St. Albert the Great had said regarding Thomas, “Today you call this man a dumb ox, but one day the bellowing of this ox will resound throughout the world.” (Fr. Christopher Rengers, O.F.M., Cap)
Of this St. Albert the Great was quite correct, because Thomas Aquinas would become a Doctor Universalis, or Doctor of the Catholic Church. Thomas Aquinas is held in the Catholic Church to be the model teacher for those studying for the priesthood. The works that he is best known for are the Summa Theologica, and the Summa Contra Gentiles. As one of the 33 Doctors of the Church, he is considered to be the greatest theologian and philosopher. Pope Benedict XV declared, “This Dominican order acquired new luster when the church declared the teaching of Thomas to be her own and that Doctor, honored with the special praises of the Pontiffs, the master and patron of Catholic schools.” (Oxford Encyclopedia) Thomas was the foremost proponent of natural theology, and the father of Thomasism. His influence on western thought is considerable, and much of modern philosophy was conceived as a reaction against, or as an agreement with his ideas, particularly in the area of ethics, natural law, metaphysics, and political theory. Thomas was influenced by many of the great philosophers, but by far he was most influenced by Aristotle of ancient Greece (384 BC to 322 BC), who was the inventor of formal logic, which is the science of valid inference. (Philosophy, Christian, 11th edition) Aristotle was a seeker of truth and Thomas would use many of his methods in his teaching.
In Naples, 1273 Thomas was celebrating the Mass of St. Nicholas when, according to some, he heard Christ speak to him. Christ asked him what he desired, being pleased with his meritorious life. Thomas replied, “Only you Lord. Only you.” (Lives of the Saints, McBrien) After this exchange something happened, but Thomas never spoke of it or wrote it down. Because of what he saw, he abandoned his routine and refused to continue his work. When asked if he would return to work, Thomas’ response was, “I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.” Thomas’ behavior seemed to be affected by a supernatural experience of God. Later in 1274, Pope Gregory X convened the Second Council of Lyon to be held on the 1st of March, and requested that Thomas attend. On his way to the council riding on a donkey along the Appian Way, he struck his head on a branch of a fallen tree and became seriously ill. He was escorted to Monte Casino to convalesce. After resting for a while he set out again, but stopped at the Cistercian Fossanova Abbey after again falling ill. He died on March 7th 1274 while giving commentary on the Song of Songs.
Fifty years after the death of Thomas, on July 18, 1323, Pope John XXII, seated in Avignon, pronounced Thomas a saint. In a monastery in Naples, near the Cathedral of Saint Januarious, a cell in which Thomas supposedly lived is still shown to visitors. His remains were placed in the Church of the Jacobins in Toulouse in 1369. Between 1789 and 1974, they were held in Basilique de Saint Sernin, Toulouse. In 1974 they were returned to the Church of the Jacobins, where they have remained ever since.
In 1879 Pope Leo XIII decreed that all Catholic seminaries and universities must teach Thomas’ doctrines, and where Thomas did not speak on a subject, the teachers were urged to teach conclusions that were reconcilable to his thinking. (Encyclopedia Britannica, Britanica.com) In 1880, Saint Thomas Aquinas was declared patron of all Catholic educational establishments.