This is a special week for all of us at Aquinas and More. January 28 is the feast day of one of our namesakes—Saint Thomas Aquinas. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, “Aquinas” doesn’t mean he was Mr. and Mrs. Aquinas’s little boy; he’s called that because he came from Aquino, Italy, of which his father, Landulph, was Count. His mother, Theodora, was Countess of Teano.
A genius misunderstood.
Thomas can seem a larger-than-life figure sometimes…a super-smart intellectual that the rest of us couldn’t begin to understand. But that wasn’t always everybody’s opinion of him. Sure he was smart but his family, for instance, found his life choices hard to take, being a family of some means and position.
They were all for him entering religious life, as a matter of fact, that was their plan for him. But Thomas started veering away from the traditional monastery life his family had in mind and toward an alms-begging somewhat young order called, the Dominicans. The family didn’t exactly see him as an intellectual heavyweight on this point; they saw him going down a path that led to a decided lack of advancement and influence.
So what does any well-meaning family of means do when concerned about its youngest son’s life choices? Take him prisoner, of course, and hold him captive for a couple of years trying every possible way available of killing his misguided vocation.
Spoiler alert! Nothing they tried worked. Thomas became a Dominican.
You would think people would have stopped looking at him sideways at that point, but that didn’t happen.
Got a question? Ox an expert.
As Thomas continued his Dominican studies, it became evident that his was a mind to be reckoned with, but he was also quiet, humble and even a bit awkward, so he was known among peers as the “dumb ox.” Albert the Great, renowned Dominican teacher and mentor to Thomas, responded to that nickname: “We call this young man a dumb ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world.”
Various sources phrase that quote in different ways, but what Albert was saying, basically, is “Dumb ox? YOU should be such a dumb ox, wiseguy.”
The ox heard ‘round the world
Thomas’s “bellowing in doctrine” resounded and continues to resound in a big way. It’s impossible to even try outlining his influence on the Church in a space the size of a blog post, so we won’t. It may be impossible to measure anyway, since even Thomas probably didn’t realize the immensity of his intellect.
Ever try reading Thomas’s Summa Theologica? Pretty dense stuff. And you know what? He wrote it as a book for beginners! Really. Here’s what he said about it, “a doctor of Catholic truth ought not only to teach the proficient, but to him pertains also to instruct beginners.”
If the Summa was the low-bar for St. Thomas, good luck to the rest of us in trying to figure him out. Since we don’t have a resident theological and philosophical genius on staff, we’ll recommend reading his Shorter Summa and just list a few reasons why St. Thomas Aquinas is a hall of fame saint:
- He has his own school of philosophical thought named after him—Thomism.
- He identified the cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude.
- Oh, yeah. He explained the existence of God.
- And he has an online Catholic store named after him. Not many guys from Aquino can say that!
Theodora’s son, (doctor) Saint Thomas Aquinas!
St. Thomas is also a Doctor of the Church, someone whose teaching has been declared so essentially useful, so universal, so timeless and essentially Catholic, that it deserves the special attention of the universal Church. It’s an exclusive club. In more than 2000 years of Christianity, only 36 Doctors of the Church have been named. Thomas got his “doctorate” so to speak in 1567, courtesy of Pope Pius V (the most recent Doctor, by the way, is Armenia’s St. Gregory of Narek, declared by Pope Francis in 2015).
Sure he was smart…but what’s he patron saint of?
It seems St. Thomas has been called upon as patron for wide swath of Christianity—at some point he even became patron saint of pencil makers. He’s best know, though, as the patron of students and universities. Quite fitting for a man who loved teaching so much that he was teaching just shortly before the last moments of his life.
Early Life of St. Thomas Aquinas
Thomas, son of Count Landulf of Aquino, was born 1225 in a family castle in Lombardy, near Naples. His family was related to Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II and the kings of France, Aragon, and Castile. At the age of five, Thomas’s education began when he was sent to receive training from the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino. Even at this age, Thomas was meditative and prayerful.
Around the year 1236, Thomas was moved to the university at Naples at the urging of the Abbot of Monte Cassino, who wrote to Count Landulf that a boy of Thomas’s talent should not be left in obscurity. Thomas excelled in his studies, as the Catholic Encyclopedia relates:
“At Naples his preceptors were Pietro Martini and Petrus Hibernus. The chronicler says that he soon surpassed Martini at grammar, and he was then given over to Peter of Ireland, who trained him in logic and the natural sciences. The customs of the times divided the liberal arts into two courses: the Trivium, embracing grammar, logic, and rhetoric; the Quadrivium, comprising music, mathematics, geometry, and astronomy . . . Thomas could repeat the lessons with more depth and lucidity than his masters displayed.”
Religious Life and Career
Landulf's brother Sinibald was abbot of the original Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino. As the younger son of Italian nobility, following his uncle’s career path would have been natural for Thomas and his education prepared him for the role. However, God had another path for Thomas to take.
Thomas was about 16 years old when he became intrigued by the Dominican Order. Much to his family’s chagrin, Thomas secretly joined the Dominicans and prepared to don the robes of a poor friar. Upset, his family detained him, holding him captive for nearly two years as they tried to convince Thomas to ignore this vocation. Eventually, after this duration of captivity during which he spent much time studying, his family relented and accepted his vocation.
In 1244 or 1245, Thomas then went to Cologne, where he studied under the great philosopher and theologian, Albert Magnus. Thomas was humble, quiet, and reserved, which led people who did not realize his intelligence to assume he was dull, giving him the name the ‘Dumb Ox.’ But as quoted in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Albert, upon hearing Thomas’s defense of a difficult thesis, cried out “We call this young man a dumb ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world.”
1251 or 1252 essentially marked the start of Thomas’s public career, when he began teaching in Paris. His teaching attracted the attention of both students and teachers alike. In time, he earned his doctorate and taught in several Italian cities.
The Catholic Encyclopedia describes more of Thomas's life:
“From this time St. Thomas's life may be summed up in a few words: praying, preaching, teaching, writing, journeying. Men were more anxious to hear him than they had been to hear Albert, whom St. Thomas surpassed in accuracy, lucidity, brevity, and power of exposition, if not in universality of knowledge.
Paris claimed him as her own; the popes wished to have him near them; the students of the order were eager to enjoy the benefit of his teaching; hence we find him successively at Anagni, Rome, Bologna, Orvieto, Viterbo, Perugia, in Paris again, and finally in Naples, always teaching and writing, living on earth with one passion, an ardent zeal for the explanation and defense of Christian truth.
So devoted was he to his sacred task that with tears he begged to be excused from accepting the Archbishopric of Naples, to which he was appointed by Clement IV in 1265. Had this appointment been accepted, most probably the “Summa Theologica” would not have been written.”
As it was, the Summa was not completely finished. As he neared completion, in December 1273, Thomas received a vision so glorious that he abandoned the Summa and all his other writing, stating that these writings were “so much straw in the wind compared to the reality of the divine glory.” Four months later, Thomas died while on his way to the Council of Lyons. He was canonized in 1323 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1567.