January 28 is the feast day of perhaps the greatest intellect of the Catholic Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. He gave up a life of nobility and wealth to be a poor Dominican friar, at the time a new religious order, much to the consternation of his family. One biographer notes that prior to his birth a holy hermit prophesied to his mother, “He will enter the Order of Friars Preachers, and so great will be his learning and sanctity that in his day no one will be found to equal him.” Unfortunately that didn’t prevent her from locking him up in a tower for two years in an attempt to dissuade him from his vocation.
The hermit’s prophecy eventually proved true, for St. Thomas quickly surpassed the greatness of even his teacher, St. Albert the Great, who himself was no dummy; St. Albert himself was called the “teacher of everything there is to know.” St. Thomas Aquinas wrote copious volumes on theology and philosophy, even dictating his teaching to up to four secretaries at one time. St. Thomas Aquinas is now the foremost of the 35 Doctors of the Catholic Church. Numerous Popes have recommended to seminarians, clerics, and lay people the careful study of his works, the most notable of which is the Summa Theologica, a master compendium of Catholic faith and doctrine.
In addition to his brilliance, St. Thomas Aquinas was known for his holiness and sanctity. He was given the grace of perpetual chastity of mind and body along with numerous and profound mystical experiences, many of which had witnesses. On one such occasion, after defending the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist following an academic dispute on the matter, St. Thomas laid his work before a crucifix and asked Christ to be the judge of its merits. All present heard a voice say, “Thou hast written well of the Sacrament of My Body, and thou hast well and truthfully answered the question that was put to thee, so far as it is possible to know these things on earth.” In line with his profound understanding of the doctrine of the Real Presence, Aquinas was commissioned to compose the office for the feast of Corpus Christi. His most famous hymn is the Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium, the last two stanzas of which are sung today during each benediction following Eucharistic Adoration.
Among the Popes who have praised him are our two most recent popes. As said by Pope John Paul II and repeated by the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, “In his encyclical Fides et Ratio, my venerated predecessor, Pope John Paul II recalled that ‘the Church has been justified in consistently proposing St. Thomas a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology’. It is not surprising that, after St. Augustine, among the writers mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. Thomas is quoted more than any other — some 61 times! He was also called the Doctor Angelicus, perhaps because of his virtues, in particular the loftiness of his thought and purity of life. In short, Thomas Aquinas showed there is a natural harmony between Christian faith and reason. And this was the great work of Thomas, who in that moment of encounter between two cultures — that moment in which it seemed that faith should surrender before reason — showed that they go together, that what seemed to be reason incompatible with faith was not reason, and what seemed to be faith was not faith, in so far as it was opposed to true rationality; thus he created a new synthesis, which shaped the culture of the following centuries.”
St. Thomas Aquinas is truly one of the most influential saints, his work helping to define and articulate many Catholic doctrines in addition to harmonizing the faith with the natural light of human reason. Because of this, he is the patron saint of students and Catholic schools. St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!
Prayer of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart
Which no unworthy thought can drag downwards;
An unconquered heart
Which no tribulation can wear out;
An upright heart
Which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.
Bestow upon me also,
O Lord my God,
Understanding to know Thee,
Diligence to seek Thee,
Wisdom to find Thee, and
A faithfulness that may finally embrace Thee;
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.