St. Thomas Aquinas
"Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace."
January 28 is the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, widely considered the greatest theologian and philosopher of the Catholic Church. His works systematized the Truth of the Catholic Church and combined it with Greek wisdom and scholarship methods. In the several hundred years since Thomas, one of the most influential among the Church’s saints, preached, taught, and defended the Faith, his ideas and writings have become seminal to the Church.
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.