"This much is abundantly manifest: by his words and by the example of his life [St. Thomas Aquinas] taught . . . that the greatest obedience, the greatest reverence was owed to the authority of the Catholic Church" -- Pope Pius XII
GLADE PARK, CO (Catholic Online) -- St. Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225 or 1226 into a family of three older brothers and four sisters. A room in the castle Roccasecca is still known as his birth place, which is situated near the town of Aquino, midway between Rome and Naples. There is much that could be said of the castle and the lives of the family nestled within its walls. While he was yet an infant, St. Thomas's little sister was killed by lightning as he slept nearby in the same room. It is easy to imagine him growing up amid the clash of swords and boyish cries of mock battles, surrounded as he was by his brothers who would one day become warriors, and who likely made use of the castle's rooms and corridors in playful -- perhaps tense -- engagements.
The d'Aquino family were dedicated, staunch Catholics whose lives displayed a high degree of loyalty to the Church, which no doubt had an immense effect on young St. Thomas. For instance, one of the questions frequently heard from his lips was "What is God?" In this question we find the seed of faith and love for God at work in the mind of the soon-to-be intellectual giant. Perhaps due to a mixture of piety and ambition, St. Thomas's parents sent him off to be educated by the Benedictines at Monte Cassino. In his early teens, as a result of political disturbances, he was taken from the monks, and sent to Naples to further his studies. A few years later, after having demonstrated a superbly keen intellect, he entered the order of St. Dominic at Naples.
St. Thomas's choice to enter the order was met with opposition from his family, which reached such severity that at one point he was literally captured by his brothers and imprisoned in the family castle. Many biographers of St. Thomas recount that the most dramatic event of this imprisonment came when his brothers sent a temptress into his room. It is reported that, on realizing her intentions, St. Thomas chased her from the room with a burning stick which he had seized from the fireplace. After the event ended, perhaps as a symbolic sign of the promise of himself to his Beloved, he traced a cross on the wall with the charred wood. Later, he feel asleep and dreamed that two angels girded his waist with a chord, saying, "On God's behalf we gird you with the girdle of chastity, a girdle which no attack will ever destroy." Reginald of Priverno, who heard St. Thomas's general confession on his deathbed, testified that St. Thomas had remained innocent throughout his entire life.
After his family released him, St. Thomas returned to Naples, and from there was transferred to Rome. Soon he found himself in Cologne, where he was to study under St. Albert the Great, from 1248 to 1252. Though St. Thomas was known by his fellow students as "the Dumb Ox" for his quiet and non-committal demeanor, his brilliant presentation of his thesis and razor-sharp handling of objections brought this remark from St. Albert the Great: "You call him 'the Dumb Ox,' but one day the bellowing of this Ox will resound throughout the world."
In 1269, St. Thomas was teaching at the University of Paris. With amazing energy, he poured forth an astounding amount of writing, which included scriptural and philosophical commentaries, as well as his most famous work, the Summa Theologica. This short time, which was slightly more than three years, is considered as St. Thomas's most productive literary period. In 1272, he was recalled to Italy. After being appointed to found a studium generale, he chose Naples as the location.
It was at Naples that, as witnessed by Brother Dominic, sacristan of the priory at Naples, the episode of St. Thomas speaking with the crucifix occurred. It was the last period of his life, and, as it was St. Thomas's custom to pray alone before the crucifix, he experienced our Savior speaking to him from the cross: "Thomas, you have written well of Me; what reward do you ask for your labor?" St. Thomas's wise and loving reply was, "None other, Lord, but Thyself."
On December 6, 1273, St. Thomas underwent a transformation while celebrating Mass. As a result of the ecstatic experience, he lay down his writing instruments. Reginald, a concerned friend, noticed the change in St. Thomas, and asked him why he had given up such a great work, one that was certainly for the glory of God. St. Thomas seemed unwilling to respond. After further questioning, however, he offered this reply: "I cannot go on." Later he gave this explanation: "Because all that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me." Here we clearly see the transformative change that is possible as a result of an infusion of extraordinary grace from the Beloved. In the blink of an eye, what we previously held in high esteem, what we thought were important accomplishments, becomes entirely insignificant when compared to the majestic, infinite glory of God. After gazing upon the Son, the eyes see differently from that point on.
St. Thomas had been summoned to the Council of Lyons, and, after a respite at his sister's castle, he proceeded along his way. At some point during the journey he hit his head violently against a fallen tree. The details of the incident are, of course, obscure. Whether as a result of weakness or serious injury, he stopped at the castle of his niece, located at Maenza, who observed that his condition was getting worse, and therefore asked that he be taken to the nearby Cistercian Monastery of Fossanuova. St. Thomas agreed with the decision, stating, "If the Lord is coming for me, I had better be found in a religious house than in a castle."
After greeting the monks in the monastery, St. Thomas quickly went to adore the Blessed Sacrament. On entering the cloister, he quoted the words of Psalm 131:14: "This is my rest for ever and ever: here will I dwell, for I have chosen it." On March 5, St. Thomas received Viaticum while kneeling on the floor beside his deathbed. There were fellow Dominicans, some Friars Minor, and the community of Cistercians present. On receiving the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Risen Lord, St. Thomas spoke the following beautiful words, which the Bull of Canonization records:
"I receive Thee, redeeming Prince of my soul. Out of love for Thee have I studied, watched through many nights, and exerted myself: Thee did I preach and teach. I have never said aught against Thee. Nor do I persist stubbornly in my views. If I have ever expressed myself erroneously on this Sacrament, I submit to the judgement of the Holy Roman Church, in obedience of which I now part from this world."
Pope Pius XI noted that in order to obtain the incomparable light of the Holy Spirit, St. Thomas "often abstained from all food, spent whole nights in watching and prayer; repeatedly impelled by piety, he placed his head against the tabernacle of the august Sacrament, and he turned his eyes searchingly to the image of Jesus crucified; as he confessed to his friend, St. Bonaventure, whatever he learned he had learned chiefly from that book" (Studiorum Ducem, 311-312).
On March 6, St. Thomas received Extreme Unction, and died early Wednesday morning. It was March 7, 1274. St. Thomas was drawn forth into the Beatific Vision, into unending joy and burning happiness. Yet there, in the silent room of his death, lay his now lifeless body: the nearly blind sub-superior, in the presence of about a hundred witnesses, reached out and lightly touched it -- his sight was immediately restored.
St. Thomas Aquinas was canonized by Pope John XXII on July 18, 1323. Pope Pius V declared him a Doctor of the Church on April 11, 1567.
F. K. Bartels is a Catholic writer who knows his Catholic faith is one of the greatest gifts a man could ever have. He is a contributing writer for Catholic Online. Visit him also at catholicpathways.com
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