Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas Aquinas (San Tommaso d’Aquino) was one of the most prolific theologians of all time. He is considered one of the pioneers of the philosophy of the Catholic Church and hence was hugely influential in both religious and political life.

Published Categorized as Biography
Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, "Doctor Angelicus", with saints and angels,
Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, "Doctor Angelicus", with saints and angels, Andrea di Bonaiuto, 1366. Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, fresco

Saint Thomas Aquinas biography

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) – Philosopher, Theologian

Thomas Aquinas was born around 1225 in the Castle of Roccasecca near the town of Aquino in Italy, to Landulf, a knight of Rocasseca, and Theodora, a Countess. He was born in nobility and to show allegiance to his hometown, D’Aquino was added to his name.

Thomas was brought up as an oblate (which wasn’t unnatural given that he was the younger son in his family). He obtained an excellent education in the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino and was immersed in a life of prayer and study from an early age. This is also where he learned mathematics and Latin. He was introduced to great scholars of the past including Aristotle and Averroes. His parents hoped that he would become an abbot, but Thomas refused for he wanted to fulfill his theological predilection by joining the Dominicans.

Due to the disappointment and in hopes of urging Thomas to forgo his dream, his mother ordered his brothers to kidnap him on his way to Rome. He was abducted while he stopped to drink water from a natural spring and was confined in the family castle for a year. Thomas spent his time widening his knowledge and reading. To shatter his will, his brothers hired a prostitute. The prostitute tried to seduce him, but her efforts were futile, Thomas picked up a burning stick from the fire, and drove the woman away. He then carved a sign of the cross on the wall. According to the legend, since then he remained celibate his entire life.

Finally, his family relented, and he was allowed to communicate with his Dominican contacts. Thomas pronounced his vows and his superiors sent him to Cologne to focus on advanced studies. Thomas arrived in Cologne in 1248 and studied under the tutelage of Albertus Magnus, a renowned professor who would later be canonized as a saint.

Under Albert’s supervision, Thomas was able to master the philosophical sciences and theology. As a student, he was meek and very introverted. His peers assumed that he was dim-witted, and as a result, he was bullied and called, “The dumb ox”. But after reading his thesis, Thomas’s tutor, Albert, defended him and exclaimed, “We call this man a dumb ox, but someday his bellowing will resound throughout the world”. This proved to be true as his writings, ideas, and theories became a guide not only in religion but also in ethics, philosophy, logic, and literary circles generally.

Albert decided to appoint Thomas as a Respondent Bachelor. His responsibility was to deliver a lecture on the bible. Moreover, Thomas commented on the Nicomachean Ethics and the Divine Names and made contributions to Albert’s projects.

Sometime between 1250 or 1251, he was ordained as a priest. Shortly after his ordination, Master General John of Wildeshausen asked Albert to recommend a student who could be sent to Paris in preparation for the Master of Theology. Albert recommended Thomas, for he was astounded by his brilliance and piety. However, the master general was hesitant about his recommendation because of Thomas’s age. (He was only 27 at the time of the recommendation, the average age of the recommended students was 29 years old).

Albert sought the assistance of the Dominican Cardinal Hugh of Calutcher, the former master of Paris. In the fall of 1252, Thomas was sent to the priory of Saint Jacques in Paris to prepare himself for the teaching of Sentences, a standard book in theology during his time. Unfortunately, he arrived during the turbulent years in Paris, when the Dominicans and the secular masters of the university had numerous disputes and oppositions. Thomas’s four years of lecturing on the Sentences were tumultuous, due to the alterations that resulted from the anti-mendicant controversy and the legislation brought by this controversy.

To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.

Thomas Aquinas

Despite these turbulences, his lectures were recommended because of their lucidity, parsimony, and veracity. His eloquence astounded his students and left an impact on them. He also took part in responding to the disputation of his own master and other masters. Through this, his competence in the acquisition of a license was being measured.

He filed disputes 253 times in the first three years of teaching (84 times each year, two full disputes each week). He disputed several topics such as divine providence, the book of life, angelic communication, sense-desire, or sensuality, and a desire for good and the will. No wonder he was known as the “disputing machine”.

Francisco de Zurbaran. Apoteosis de Santo Tomas. Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla
The Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1631

On April 14, 1255, the Bull Quasi Lignum Vitae was approved. And finally, Thomas became a fully accredited theologian and incepted by Elias Brunet. Even before his inception, he composed some treaties and significant works such as Dei Cultum Religionem, which attacked the opposition in the university of Paris, and De Ente Et Essentia, an expository work in metaphysics, wherein his fundamental ideas in philosophy are laid and elaborated. De Ente Et Essentia discusses the distinction between created essence and existence, the pure potentiality of primary matter, the denial of materiality in separated substances, the participation of all created reality (material and immaterial), and the divine being.

Thomas invested his time in preaching, traveling, and praying. He always preached in Latin and refused to preach in French although he lived in Paris for years. Some witnesses state that he wrote in his unintelligible hand early in his career, and later in his life, he needed to dictate to his secretaries. According to several testimonies, he had a retentive memory, “Whatever he once read and grasped, he never forgot”. This claim is also strengthened by the testimony of one of his secretaries.

The image of God always abides in the soul, whether this image be obsolete and clouded over as to amount to almost nothing; or whether it be obscured or disfigured, as is the case with sinners; or whether it be clear and beautiful as is the case with the just.

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas tried to reconcile logic and faith. Most of his ideas are still frequently discussed and are essential topics of debate.

Summa Theologia – This book tried to prove the existence of God. Thomas stated in this book, “Whatever is in motion is moved by God, because God is the first mover”. If there were no first element in it, there would be no motion. He argued that nothing is autonomously in Motus (in motion), objects change through exterior cause.

Summa Contra Gentiles, which is written in four volumes is divided into two basic parts: Books I-III consisting of truths about God that can be recognized through human reason, and Book IV which discusses truths about God that can be unveiled only by revelation.

On September 14, 1961. Thomas was appointed lector at the Priory of Orvieto by Pope Urban IV. A warm friendship with Pope Urban IV started during his period. Thomas Aquinas was given a variety of tasks to handle. He lectured the entire Dominican Community on the book of Sacred Scripture. Pope Urban IV sensed Thomas’s ability to give plausible theological advice. Hence, he requested Thomas to create a commentary of four gospels (Catena Aurea) and as a result, he wrote his Contra Errores Graecorum. Moreover, he asked Thomas to compose a liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi. Normally, the author of the liturgy is anonymous, and it is difficult to determine the author of the liturgies, but in the feast of Corpus Christi, Thomas’ authorship was claimed repeatedly.

Even in his later years, Aquinas remained pious and adhered to a strict regimen. He rose early in the morning for a confession and celebrated Mass in the chapel of Saint Nicholas. According to a legend, he was always abstracted and in ecstasy. His brethren saw him levitating from the ground, and he heard a voice from the crucifix saying, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward do you want?”. He replied, “Nothing. Nothing but Thyself my Lord “.

Just as it is better to illuminate than merely to shine, so to pass on what one has contemplated is better than merely to contemplate.

Thomas Aquinas

Later in December or January of 1274, he decided to visit his sister, Theodora. Countess of Severino, Friar Reginald accompanied him, and he traveled with difficulty. When he was about to meet his sister, he became so weak he couldn’t utter a single word. Hence, he stayed at Severino for a couple of days. Three months later, he died on March 4, 1274.

Aquinas’ death and canonization are all controversial, full of rumors, and turbulent. A story has it that he was poisoned to death by King Charles I of Naples. It is said that King Charles disliked Thomas, so he sent his physician and ordered him to poison Thomas on his journey. The physician administered the poison that caused Thomas’s death. Another rumor has it that King Charles was afraid that Aquinas would become Pope.

Forty-nine years after his death, he was declared a saint by the Holy Catholic Church on the orders of Pope John XXII. Thousands of miracles are attributed to him. He is considered the patron saint of celibacy, universities, and academics. He wanted Thomas to be regarded not only as a model of chastity, and sanctity but also of doctrine, wisdom, and reasoning. Thomas’s canonization was a memorable occasion for the Christian world. His ideas became a reference for the resolution of theological controversies. Pope XXII stated that among the early doctors of the church, Thomas unveiled the truth more than anyone else.

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