In my last post, I bemoaned the misconceptions under which Hollywood labors when averring that anyone disagreeing with Saint Thomas Aquinas’s faced testicular peril from the medieval Church (and possibly still does). For some contemporary confirmation that no such threat persists, one can look to the case of Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., who has declared his aversion to the teaching of transubstantiation (as championed by Saint Thomas) because of his, Reese’s, disbelief in Aristotelian accidental and substantial forms [NB, prime matter does not figure into the doctrine of transubstantiation]. And I wager no knife wielding functionaries from the CDF have come after him to make of Fr. Reese a eunuch.
Last year on the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, I noted that January 28, the present date for its celebration, comes not from the date on which he died in 1274 (March 8, the date of his feast day until the reform of the general calendar of the Roman Church after the Second Vatican Council), but from the date on which his relics were translated in 1323 from the Benedictine monastery of Fossa Nova, where he died. In that religious house not of his own order, the monks, seeing the value of his relics as an object of pilgrimage, interred his body (or (according to a tradition (legend/myth) I was told) after boiling down his body, his bones). Part of my point in that post was to note that the eyes with which we view Aquinas differ greatly from 13th century ones, our concerns being far-removed from the concerns and sensibilities of his own time.
In reflecting again on his upcoming feast day, I am reminded of another way we tend to view the saint differently than his contemporaries did, in that we are mostly concerned with his academic writings on theology, and probably more so, on the philosophy contained therein: the Summa Theologiae, and Summa contra Gentiles, his Quaestiones Disputatae, his commentaries on works of Aristotle, his opuscula such as De Principiis Naturae and De Ente et Essentia, and to a much lesser extent, his commentaries on Scripture. These were not, for the most part, Saint Thomas’s primary concerns, nor what he was known for to his contemporaries, for he was, first and foremost, a Catholic priest, and a Dominican friar, a member of the Order of Preachers.
This fact was underscored for me when I attended a weeklong workshop on campus ministry to Hispanic and Latino/a/x students wherein a certain theologian introduced, apologetically, Aquinas’s conception of justitia (as right order) as the theme of our discussion. I say ‘apologetically,’ for, we were informed, Aquinas had been a product and chief example of Scholasticism which of its nature was far-removed from pastoral concerns of prayer, social justice, or practical, lived morality. Surprised by this assertion, I pointed out that, to be fair, Saint Thomas wrote liturgical poetry used for the feast of Corpus Christi, and, as a Dominican friar and holder of a Chair in Theology at Paris, was required to, and often did, preach. Our theologian presenter granted my observation, but insisted it did not refute the point that Scholasticism was out-of-touch with the real concerns of lived Catholicism (especially of Hispanic/Latino/a/x Catholic college students – the focus of our workshop. This was only one of several times my observations grated against this theologician’s implicit biases, I think.)
So, for this year’s feast day, I want to bring to the reader’s attention some details about the pastoral sensitivities of Saint Thomas as displayed in his sermons.
In a recent article on the Sermons of Saint Thomas, Randall Smith has noted:
as a Master of the Sacred Page at Paris, one of Thomas’s official duties, along with lecturing on the Bible and engaging in disputation, was preaching. All of his extraordinarily valuable commentaries on the works of Aristotle were, by contrast, largely products of his spare time.
Indeed, according to his earliest biographers, Thomas was renowned as an excellent preacher, not only to educated, “academic” audiences, but to simple uneducated laymen as well. William of Tocco, who in his old age spoke as a witness at Thomas’s canonization enquiry in 1319, testified that he himself had heard Brother Thomas preach and that, on these occasions, “many people came to hear him preach.”
Another early biographer, Bernardo Gui, says of him that:
To the ordinary faithful he spoke the word of God with singular grace and power, without indulging in far-fetched reasoning or the vanities of worldly wisdom or in the sort of language that serves rather to tickle the curiosity of a congregation than do it any real good. Subtleties he kept for the Schools; to the people he gave solid moral instruction suited to their capacity; he knew that a teacher must always suit his style to his audience.
The people, reports Gui:
heard him with great respect as a real man of God. He was a teacher who taught others to do what he himself was already doing, or rather God in him, according to that saying of the Apostle, “I dare speak of nothing except of what Christ has done in me” (Rom 15.18). Hence his words had a warmth in them that kindled the love of God and sorrow for sin in men’s hearts.
Indeed, you can see this warmth and pastoral concern in a sermon Saint Thomas delivered, it is believed, during his second Paris residency (1268-1272). Saint Thomas preached this particular sermon at about the same time of the liturgical year as we find ourselves in, the weeks following Christmastide. His theme is the adolescence of Christ as an example for those who are in the years they are coming to discernment, i.e., their own adolescence. He addresses an age-old puzzle about the Incarnation of the Son of God as a human baby: how could Jesus grow physically and mentally if He is all knowing as True God (as well as being truly human)? Many people genuinely struggle with such questions, especially young people, as obstacles to accepting the truth of the gospels and the teaching of the Church. It is interesting to see Aquinas apply a very medieval academic approach to the question (leading with objections (“we must be amazed”) and distinguishing various sense of words, in order to synthesize them into a coherent whole) in a bit of popular theology in order to serve a very pastoral end. His skill as a preacher is a testament to the pastoral service intellectual and academic efforts can be put. Note well, ye preachers in our midst!
Luke 2:52- The boy Jesus advanced in age and wisdom and in grace with God and the people.
All the things together that the Lord has done or undergone in the flesh are salutary lessons and examples. Hence we read this in John 13:15: I have given you an example, that whatever I have done you may do likewise. And because there is not any age from which the way of salvation is absent—and to the highest extent this applies to the years in which one comes to discernment— the adolescence of Christ is made an example for adolescents. Growth and progress are proper to adolescents. Therefore, the progress of Christ is made an example for adolescents.
But, to begin, let us ask God to enable us to say something about the progress of Christ for the honor of God and for the salvation of our souls.
The boy Jesus. If we want to consider these words carefully, we will find in them four progresses of Christ, namely, the progress of age in regard to the body, the progress of wisdom in regard to the intellect, the progress of grace with God, and the progress also of grace in view of his living together with the people.
Truly, all these progresses are amazing, yes, even full of astonishment and amazement.
For we must be amazed that eternity advances in age, for the Son of God is eternity and from eternity. Psalm 117 and Psalm 119: in eternity, Lord, your truth remains (Ps 119:90, 160; cf. 117:2).
Likewise we must be amazed that the truth advances in wisdom, because the progress of wisdom is knowledge of the truth, whereas Christ is himself the truth, as we read in John 14:6: I am the way, the truth, and the life.
Likewise we must be amazed that the One from whom grace originates advances in grace; Christ is the One who renders grace. Thus we read in John 1:17: grace and truth came through Christ.
Likewise we must be amazed that the One who exceeds all people advances with the people. Even more, the people ought to advance in grace with him. Psalms 113:4 says: the Highest is he above all the nations.
How, then, would Christ advance in these respects? I say that if we want to consider this properly, immediately the reason regarding his progress in age comes to our mind: the eternal Son of God willed to become temporal, so that he could advance in age. Isaiah 9:5 says: a little child is born unto us. If he is born as a little child, why then would he not have grown as a little child does?
The other progresses of Christ contain a greater difficulty. Christ took on the full human nature: according to the flesh he was born as a little child, but not according to the soul. For, from the beginning of his conception, his most blessed soul was full of every grace and truth, because it was connected with God. Thus we read in John 1:14: we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. He was full of every grace and truth because he was the only-begotten Son of God. Well, from the beginning of the conception he was the only-begotten Son. Hence from the very beginning he was full of grace and truth and perfect in virtue. Jeremiah 31:22: a woman will encompass a man; not in age, but as for the perfection of the mind.
But in what is meant by advancing in wisdom and grace? We must say that someone is said to advance in wisdom, not only when he acquires a greater wisdom, but also when the wisdom in him is more evident. It is true that Christ from the beginning of his conception was full of wisdom and grace, but he has not shown it from the beginning, but at an age when others usually show it. In that case we speak of advancing in wisdom, not in the absolute sense of the word, but in view of the effect through which he advanced amidst other people.
If he had willed to show his wisdom when he was seven years of age, people could have doubted the truth of the assumed human nature. And because of this, Christ wanted to be similar to others. Thus the Apostle says in Philippians 2:7: he has emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men. Christ has made himself little by taking on our littleness, in order to show that he truly was little: he was made in the likeness of men. Baruch 3:38 reads: he is seen on earth, and he has lived with the people. At the time when a sign of wisdom normally appears for the first time in a human being, Christ manifested his wisdom for the first time, namely, when he was twelve years of age: thus little by little. He did not will to show his [full] wisdom, so that the truth of the human nature in him would be acknowledged and in order to give us an example of advancing in wisdom.
So, fourfold, as was said, is Christ’s progress, namely, of age, wisdom, grace, and the human life.