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Catholic Culture Solidarity

Thomas Aquinas: the Angelic Doctor

by Sal Ciresi


Sal Ciresi gives a biographical sketch of St. Thomas Aquinas' life.

Larger Work

Arlington Catholic Herald

Publisher & Date

Most Rev. Paul S. Loverde, November 18, 1999

Pope Leo XIII, writing in Aeterni Patris (The Restoration of Christian Philosophy, 1879), states "Among the scholastic doctors, the chief and master of all towers Thomas Aquinas" (n. 17). Echoing this theme in our own day, Pope John Paul II writes in Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason, 1998), that "the Church has been justified in consistently proposing Saint Thomas as a model..." (n. 43). Following this lead given to us by these Magisterial texts, it would seem profitable to glance at the life of St. Thomas Aquinas; who is considered one of the greatest intellectuals of the Catholic Church.

Known by such titles as "Universal Doctor of the Church" and "The Common Doctor;" the best title attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps "Angelic Doctor." This title hints at true piety coupled with serious learning: two traits that are indispensable for any Catholic.

Thomas was born circa A. D. 1225 in Southern Italy, near the town of Aquin, to which the "Angelic Doctor" owes his surname. Thomas was reared from a home that providentially set the course of the young boy toward a life of holiness and intellectual acumen. Thomas' parents were both interesting in their own right: his mother was a descendent from the Norman barons, and his father was the nephew of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.

Near the age of five, Thomas came under the tutelage of the Benedictine Abbey in Monte Cassino, located within a reasonable distance from the Aquin household. It was at the Abbey that the future genius of Thomas was seen and nurtured. The young Thomas had a love of reading; preferring codices (early books) to childhood games. A quite child by nature, the future genius loved to spend time in quite reflection; thinking about the things of God.

The Aquin family decided to send their son, at the age of ten, to a tutor at the University of Naples. It is here where Thomas continued to develop intellectually, and his spiritual life was tended with great care. Held up as a model for other students, the young Thomas was held in high regard by his fellow class mates: for the fact of Thomas' genuine humility and sincere Christian charity. Much time was spent in prayer and good deeds, noble endeavors for a boy of ten.

Soon, Thomas realized that he had a vocation to the Dominican order, although he felt unworthy of such a noble calling. Eventually, he took the cherished white habit of the Dominicans when he became a novice. However, certain problems began to ensue, which may seem humorous to read in our day, but which nevertheless caused the Aquin family much sorrow. This shows that even saintly families are not immune from the difficult trials of daily life. The dilemma was as follows.

After hearing of her son entering the Dominicans, the Countess wished to visit young Thomas, so as to share his joy that she too experienced upon hearing the news of a vocation. However, Thomas and his friends may have thought that the Countess was attempting to persuade Thomas to forgo a vocation. As a result, Thomas fled Naples and went to Rome, hoping to avoid what he thought would be a difficult meeting with his mother. Not to be deterred, the Countess changed course and now headed to Rome to see her son. This meeting never came to pass, and now Thomas was to flee to Paris with the General of the Dominican Order, John the German. To say the least, the Countess was becoming frustrated.

Tired of these ill-fated journeys which never materialized into a simple visit with her son Thomas, the Countess had a plan. Her elder two sons, who served in the Emperor's Army in Italy, would capture the young novice and bring him home.

Eventually, the two military men were successful in their mission: before reaching Paris, Thomas was brought back home to southern Italy, to the fortress of Rocca-Secca. The elder brothers had succeeded in their mother's wishes.

Not surprisingly, after all of these problems, Thomas' father would also hold the Dominicans in low regard. Instead, Thomas' father wished the novice to abandon the Dominicans and instead embrace the Benedictine order, as members of the Aquin family had done in the past.

In order to deter Thomas from a Dominican vocation, the young novice was actually imprisoned in one of the towers at the castle in Rocca-Secca. However, this would not change the resolve of the young Thomas, who still felt a calling to the Dominican order. In time, both his sisters Marietta and Theodora sided with the wishes of Thomas, and these two siblings even brought their brother codices and clothes. It is a commonly held belief that during this imprisonment, Thomas committed the entire Holy Bible to memory; a memory which facilitated the great learning of the "Angelic Doctor."

Over time, the family conceded that Thomas would not change his resolve to wear the white habit of the Dominicans. The family soon conceded to their beloved son and sibling, and Thomas immediately headed back to Naples, to fulfill his heavenly calling.

After arriving in Naples, Thomas shortly departed for Cologne, where he would study under one of the finest scholars of the day--the future St. Albert the Great. This proved very providential for the young Thomas. Albert had a world reputation for his own theological brilliance, and the union of Albert and Thomas would benefit the Dominican novice and the entire field of theology, as history has shown.

As a disciple of Albert, the young novice kept to himself, exercising to heroic form the virtue of humility, in fear of abusing his intellectual gifts. Thomas was always charitable to the other students, and often refrained from correcting anyone, lest he breach Christian charity in the process. Once, after giving an answer to a perplexing problem, news traveled back to Albert of the genius of Thomas in tackling this question. Shortly thereafter, this spurned Albert to utter his now famous maxim: "We call Brother Thomas the 'Dumb Ox,' but I tell you he will one day make his bellowing heard to the uttermost parts of the earth!" These words were prophetic.

A year after studies in Cologne, Albert went to Paris, circa A. D. 1245, and took his disciple Thomas with him. In Paris, Thomas would cross paths with a Franciscan who would prove to be another influential churchman--the future St. Bonaventure, known today as the "Seraphic Doctor." These two men of great learning struck up a loyal friendship, and after several years, both obtained the Bachelor of Theology degree at the same time period.

Thomas returned to Cologne, where he was ordained to the priesthood, an office he considered one of his greatest privileges. With reverence and awe, Thomas offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on a regular basis, and as an alter Christus (another Christ), the Dominican took great joy in uniting his own life to Christ's sacrifice. Thomas devoted himself to the Dominican order with the utmost loyalty and devotion. This priest of God continued to set a Christ-like example, in word and deed, for his fellow Dominicans, who loved their genius of a friend.

Many years later, in A. D. 1257, Thomas returned to Paris to receive his doctorate in theology. Thomas' friend Bonaventure also earned his doctorate at this time--a fitting scenario for two good friends and two top-rate theologians.

With respect to his piety, the "Angelic Doctor" really established his reputation by his scholarly writings. Thomas was a fine expositor of the Sacra Pagina, and his Biblical commentaries written in the 1200s still surpass many contemporary works for their learning, common sense, and practical application. Thomas had a particular fondness for the writings of St. Paul; and spent many hours meditating on the works of the "Apostle to the Gentiles." In addition, Thomas had combined all of the relevant commentaries on the Gospels, written by the Fathers of the Church, and placed them in one collection. This work, the Catena Aurea (Golden Chain), is a boon to any student of Sacred Scripture.

Thomas solidified his mark as one of the greatest minds of the Catholic Church via his two most famous written works: Summa Contra Gentiles (Summary against the Gentiles) and Summa Theologiae (Summary of Theology).

Summa Contra Gentiles addressed philosophical difficulties that were current at that time (and still exist today), and showed the relation between Catholic Faith and human reason, both of which cannot stand in contradiction; having God as their author. Thomas took the best of philosophical ideas, eliminated the erroneous, and fine-tuned the good; thereby establishing a trustworthy philosophical system--commonly called "Thomism."

After the Holy Bible, the Summa Theologiae is considered by many to be one of the greatest theological treatises ever written. The Summa treats of almost every major topic of theology: God's existence, the Commandments, the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Sacraments, and numerous other subjects. Sadly, Thomas never finished this theological opus; however, the extant material should keep theology and philosophy students busy until the Second Coming.

A survey of the entire Thomistic corpus is beyond the scope of this article; however, readers are highly encouraged to visit any library to discover the many writings of the "Universal Doctor" for themselves. Many "beginner level" books which explain Thomistic thought are available on the market for the new student--books which experienced theologians and philosophers consult too.

As well, we would be remiss if we failed to mention the oratory skills of the "Angelic Doctor." Thomas was known in his day as a brilliant preacher; one who exhorted his hearers toward a love for the Savior and the Catholic Church He established (cf. Mt. 16:13-21). The Dominican was known especially for his sermons during Lent, preaching the "crucified Christ" and all of the graces which flowed because of the Passion of the Redeemer.

Finally, Thomas was known for his great love for the Blessed Sacrament, and is largely responsible for the Feast of Corpus Christi, with its wonderful hymns such as Pange Lingua and Tantum Ergo.

St. Thomas Aquinas has set the standard for all future theologians and philosophers, and has given a model for laity and clergy to follow, as far as their particular state in life permits. It is no surprise that at the Council of Trent in the 1500s; the Bible, the Pontifical Acts, and the Summa Theologiae were the three main works of reference utilized to address the theological questions of the day. We should hope and pray for a revitalization of Thomistic studies in our own time, which would certainly give greater glory to God and rejuvenate the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

Ciresi serves on the faculty at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and is the Director of the St. Jerome Biblical Guild.

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