(c. 1225 – 1274)
“Angelic Doctor” and “Doctor Communis” (“Everybody’s Teacher”) are only two of the terms of praise bestowed on St. Thomas Aquinas, the most important and influential Catholic philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages.
Thomas was the youngest child of a member of the landed gentry, a government official of Emperor Frederick II. Born at Roccasecca, between Rome and Naples, Thomas was sent as a small child to the great nearby Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino, whose abbot was a distant relative of his family. The parents enrolled him there not only as a student, but as an oblate. They hoped that he would become a monk, and eventually abbot of Monte Cassino. Thus, they thought shrewdly, his education and his life career would be taken care of.
It didn’t work out that way. In 1239, Emperor Frederick II took over the monastery as a fortress, so the abbot had to send his oblates to study at the University of Naples. There Thomas met his first Dominican Fathers. Attracted by their ideals, he joined this “Order of Preachers” in 1244. Both he and his Dominican superiors knew that his parents would be mad, so they whisked him off to Rome. His mother was hopping mad! She at once sent Rinaldo, her older son, to chase after Thomas and bring him home. Rinaldo succeeded, and indeed, practically kidnapped Tom. Only after a year of virtual imprisonment in his family palazzo, did the young Dominican succeed in persuading his parent that he really did prefer to be a member of that order than a Benedictine.
St. Dominic had founded the Order of Preachers to combat error by teaching truth. That meant that his friars had to be very well educated. Thomas was therefore sent to study at the order’s study houses, first at Paris and then at Cologne. St. Albert the Great, one of his professors, quickly saw that he had intellectual gifts of the first order. Thenceforth, Albert became Thomas’ sponsor.
Thomas was called by his talents to an academic rather than a missionary life. He taught at Paris, 1252-59; at Rome and elsewhere in Italy, 1259-60; and again at Paris, 1269-72. His last teaching assignment, 1272-74, was at Naples.
Meanwhile, to provide his students with texts, he turned out 20 books. The most noted of his multi-volume works was his Summary of Theology (Summa Theologiae), one of the most influential books ever written. However, the average Catholic knows Aquinas best for the Eucharistic piety he expressed in the office and Mass he (apparently) composed for the feast of Corpus Christi. For this feast he wrote the lovely hymns “O Salutaris Hostia,” “Tantum Ergo,” “Lauda Sion,” and “Adoro Te Devote.” These are still used, in Latin or in translation, in Catholic Eucharistic devotions.
In 1274 the pope commanded Thomas, as a theological expert, to attend the ecumenical council about to open at Lyons, France. Thomas set out obediently, although he was ill. Unfortunately, he died before he got as far as Rome. Already revered as a mystic as well as an intellectual, Thomas of Aquinas was canonized a saint in 1323, and his body was enshrined at Toulouse, France. St. Pius V designated him a doctor of the Church, and Leo XIII declared him patron of all Catholic schools.
Despite his phenomenal brilliance, Thomas had always been a man of humble obedience, prone to think of others as superior to himself. When he first went to Paris to study, his companions nicknamed this quiet, plump young man the “dumb Sicilian ox.” But when in class he came forth with a sharp solution for a knotty problem, St. Albert warned his class: “We call Brother Thomas ‘the dumb ox,’ but I tell you that he will make his lowing heard to the uttermost parts of the earth.”
Yet St. Thomas always submitted his writings to the judgement of the Church. A year before his death, he also had some sort of mystical experience that prompted him to stop further writing. “All that I have written appears to be as much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.”
What he had written were world classics. But how indeed, can even the most creative of human beings match in skill the Creator of the world? That was what the Angelic Doctor meant.
–Father Robert F. McNamara