Saint Thomas Aquinas

Friar, Priest, Philosopher, Theologian, Poet, Mystic, Saint

Saint Thomas Aquinas was a 13th century Dominican Friar, philosopher and theologian. Named a Doctor of the Church and given the title “Angelic Doctor,” he is the patron of Catholic universities, colleges and schools. Renowned for his proofs for the existence of God, Aquinas believed that both faith and reason discover truth; a conflict between them is impossible since they both originate in God. He was instrumental, therefore, in the assimilation of the works of Aristotle into the intellectual life of Western Christendom.

Medieval Depiction of Plato, Seneca and Aristotle

Saint Thomas was born in 1224 or 1225 to noble parents, being the youngest son of Landulf (descendent of the counts of Aquino) and Theodora, a noble woman of Naples. At the age of five, he was placed in the Monastery of Monte Cassino to be educated for a career in the Church. Because of the promise he showed in his studies, around the age of fourteen he was sent to the University of Naples to continue his education and excelled under his new masters. It was there that he was probably first exposed to the recently rediscovered natural and metaphysical works of Aristotle.

Aquino Family Castle

At about the age of nineteen, he joined the Dominican Order, the Order Friars Preachers. His noble family was not pleased with this choice, however, since the friars, with their extreme poverty and itinerant lifestyle, were not held in very high esteem. When his mother set out for Naples in order to retrieve Brother Thomas from the clutches of the Dominicans, the friars sent him to Rome, but Thomas was captured by his brothers, soldiers in the Imperial Army. He was taken to a family castle and imprisoned for nearly two years as his family tried to dissuade him from carrying through his resolution to continue as a Dominican.

Angels girding the young Brother Thomas

His brothers even sent a prostitute into his cell, but Thomas drove her away with a burning brand he took from the fire. After this act to preserve his chastity, he was supposed to have been visited by angels who bound him with blessed cincture which preserved him from temptations of lust. While in prison, he continued his study, and when finally released, he professed his vows in the Order of Friars Preachers.

Saint Albert the Great

At the age of twenty, he was placed under the instruction of St. Albert the Great, first in Paris and later in Cologne. Because of his large stature and quiet nature, Thomas’ fellows called him a dumb ox, but St. Albert declared that Thomas’ bellows would resound throughout the world. In Cologne, probably at the age of twenty-five, Thomas was ordained to the priesthood.

After a few years, Thomas was sent to Paris to teach his brethren and to earn a Doctorate in Theology from the University there. He became embroiled in a controversy, however, and was delayed in receiving his degree and occupying a place on the faculty. When a student was killed by the Paris guard, a dispute between the University and the city of Paris erupted. The University went on strike, but the Dominicans and Franciscans refused to join in. Consequently, St. Thomas and the Franciscan, St. Bonaventure, were refused their Doctorates in Theology. One of the Parisian professors, William of St.-Amour, even wrote a vicious attack against the friars, The Perils of the Last Times. Thomas responded by writing his own defense of the religious orders, Against Those Attacking the Worship of God and Religion. Finally, Pope Alexander IV and St. Louis IX of France resolved the dispute, and Thomas and Bonaventure received their degrees.

In the fifteen years from 1257-1273, St. Thomas was prolific in his writing, teaching and preaching. He is said to have been able to dictate several different treatises to various scribes at once. He held many academic debates at the University of Paris, far more than most other professors, and in his life-time he wrote over 50 major works, from original philosophical works, to theological treatises, to commentaries on works of Aristotle and on Scripture. His monumental Summa Theologiae is a masterpiece of medieval scholasticism. He is also credited with religious poetry in praise of the Eucharist which is used by the Church for the Feast of The Body and Blood of Christ. He traveled tirelessly around Europe, being called upon alternately by the Papal court and by his Order to teach in Anagni and Orvieto, then in Rome, then in Viterbo.

Siger of Brabant

He was called back to Paris in 1269, however, to help quell another controversy there over the use of Aristotle by the Christian scholars. Siger of Brabant, a professor on the Faculty of Arts, had asserted (following the Muslim philosopher Averroes) that Aristotle proves that there is one separate intellect for all human persons and that the world is eternal. Concerned with the threat to the Christian faith posed by these positions, Thomas wrote On the Unity of the Intellect against the Averroists and On the Eternity of the World against the Murmurers, arguing that such positions cannot be supported by reason.

Finally in 1272, he was appointed head of the faculty of theology at the University of Naples. On 6 December 1273, however, he stopped writing; he is said to have had a vision, after which it seemed to him that all he had written was as straw. Having been called to the Council of Lyons by Pope Gregory X in 1274, Thomas traveled as far as Terracina in Central Italy, not far from his family’s estates, before collapsing. He was brought to the Cistercian Monastery of Fossa Nuova and died there on 7 March 1274 at the age of about 50.

Thomas Aquinas was canonized by Pope John XXII on 18 July 1323, and Pope Saint Pius V proclaimed Saint Thomas a Doctor of the Church in 1567. Pope Leo XIII, in the Encyclical Aeterni Patris, recommended the study of Saint Thomas as the model and norm of Christian philosophy. This last endorsement helped to inaugurate the Thomistic revival of the twentieth century.

For a more extensive biography, see this one by D.J. Kennedy.

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