St. Joseph Tomasi

(1649-1713)

In Renaissance times Cardinals were usually accustomed to live rather splendidly. Not all of them were worldly, however. St. Joseph Tomasi, for instance, was a model of the simple life.

If any man was justified in courtly bearing, it was Tomasi. His father was the Duke of Palermo, Sicily. But this Duke and his Duchess Maria were also unusually devout Christians. The Duke founded a Benedictine convent, in which his four daughters became nuns, and he and his wife eventually parted to become tertiaries in a religious order.

Joseph, well-educated and a good Greek scholar, entered the Theatine order of priests in 1664. Because he was frail of constitution, he was delegated to a career of study. After ordination to the priesthood in 1673, he was assigned to the Theatine house in Rome, and there he was to spend the next three decades.

As Fr. Joseph’s reputation for scholarship spread, he became particularly noted as an expert on church music and liturgy. Impressed by this mounting fame, his nun-sister Isabella, with whom he was very close, is said to have predicted that he would end up a down-to-earth cardinal. But Isabella added, “Of course a horse is still a horse, however fine its trappings.”

Joseph would then have waved aside any such prediction. But he certainly was a workhorse in his spiritual and intellectual life. To his heavy schedule of prayer he added a disciplined career of study. His skill at Greek led him into a profound analysis of Greek philosophy. Finding Hebrew a key language for bible studies, he studied Hebrew under a Jewish rabbi (who through his example was led to become a Christian). Gradually Tomasi began to issue important tracts on ancient Christian liturgy. Out of modesty, he published one of these tracts, on the Book of Psalms, under the pen name Giuseppe Caro. But when Pope Innocent XII became aware of the book and the identify of its author, he called him to the Vatican in 1704, naming him the official theologian of the Congregation in charge of religious orders. Cardinal Francis Albani chose him as his personal confessor. When Albani was elected pope as Clement XI (1700), he fulfilled Joseph’s sister’s prediction by naming him to the cardinalate, despite his protestations of unworthiness.

Now his official duties in the Vatican Curia multiplied. But Cardinal Tomasi still remained a workhorse despite the cardinalitial trappings. He continued his modest life style. In the church assigned to him he devoted himself to its liturgical life, replacing figured music with Gregorian chant, and he personally taught the children catechism. Despite his declining health, he continued his own policy of self-denial, yet he was the most commonsense of spiritual counselors. The people loved him and flocked to him. Seeing him sometime in an ecstasy of prayer, they called him a saint while he yet lived, and there were reports that those who touched his clothing had been cured.

Cardinal Joseph Tomasi died in January 1713. Now the reports multiplied of miracles granted through his intercession. Beatified in 1803, he was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1986. A liturgical scholar long in advance of his time, “Thomasius” is venerated by Anglicans as well as Catholics as “the prince of liturgists.”

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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