Illustrated Catholic Family Annual – Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas AquinasArticle

The Italian town of Aquino is situated in the centre of a vast and fertile plain called Campagua Felice. This plain is nearly surrounded by bare and rugged Alpine mountains, on a boldly jutting spur of one of which, named Rocca Secca, may still be seen the ruins of the once splendid castle of the Aquinos. In this stronghold dwelt Landulf, of the illustrious house of Sommacoli – otherwise called Counts of Loreto, D’Acerra, and Belcastro – and his wife Theodora, descended from the noble Norman family of Caraccioli, and Countess of Teano in her own right. Of Count Landulf but little is known except that he combined a martial spirit with sentiments of piety. His countess possessed great energy of character and a somewhat haughty spirit, tempered by fasting and prayer. It was in a chamber of this castle that a rough ly-clad but godly hermit one day suddenly made his appear ance before the countess, and, pointing to a picture of Saint Dominic which hung upon his breast, exclaimed: “Rejoice, 0 lady ! for thou shalt bring forth a son, whom thon shalt call Thomas; and thou and thy husband wilt think to maks a monk of him in the monastery of Monte Casino, in which the body of blessed Benedict rests, hoping to obtain possession of the great income of that monastery through his elevation. But God will provide otherwise, for he will become a brother of the Order of Preachers.”

In due time the event foretold by Bonus the Solitary came to pass, Thomas being born in 1227. Despite the prophecy of Bonus, when Saint Thomas was but five years of age his parents sent him to Monte Casino (then ruled by his uncle, the Abbot Sinnebald), hoping that he would in time join the Benedictines and become master of those vast possessions which were under the dominion of its abbots. This great abbey, though several times destroyed by earthquakes and siege, sprang up as often as cast down, and, at the time of Saint Thomas’ entrance there, was the first school in the land. “The reception of a child in those days,” says Archbishop Vaughan in The Life and Labors of Saint Thomas of Aquin, “was almost as solemn as a profession in our own. His parents carried him to the church, and whilst they wrapped his hand, which held the petition, in the sacred linen of the altar, they promised, in the presence of God and his saints, stability in his name.” Saint Thomas seems to have been peculiarly fitted by character and temperament for the monastic life. He loved solitude, meditation, and prayer, spending hours together, as a child, in contemplation, so that “all wondered at his power and his holiness.” “The personal appearance of young Aquino indicated the presence of a governing spirit…. His massive head betokened strength. His broad, tranquil brow, his placid, meditative eyes, produced the impression not so much of quickness and vivacity as of breadth and of command…. Though he seldom spoke, when he did speak he set hearts beating faster; and often, whilst thus conversing with his companions, the monks would approach the little gathering by stealth, to listen to the precocious wisdom of this extraordinary child.” While Saint Thomas peacefully pursued the course of grammar, logic, and philosophy, his mind seemed constantly oppressed with the great thought, Quid est Dens? – What is God? And this question the boy was continually asking his masters.

But this peaceful life was brought to an end in the seventh year of Thomas’ residence at Monte Casino. The abbey was besieged and taken by the adherents of the Emperor Frederic, and the monks were murdered or driven away. Saint Thomas returned to the home of his parents. Here he found the noisy mirth and excitements of a great feudal castle, but, though a boy of twelve, the pastimes of knights and squires gave him no pleasure. His chief delight was in acting as the almoner of his father’s charity.

After a time his parents sent him to the then celebrated University of Naples. But little is known of his life here, except that he studied under the great Benedictine scholar Erasmus, and that his precocious mind was the wonder of the city. Besides the Benedictines the orders of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic held chairs in the university. Saint Thomas seems to have been fascinated by the Dominicans. Their love of learuing, their active ministrations to humanity, their exercise of self-restraint and humility awakened the affection and admiration of Saint Thomas. He frequented their church and held discussions with his familiar friend, John a Santo-Facundo. The issue was that he petitioned for the habit, and at about the age of seventeen became a brother of the Friars Preachers. This step awakened stern opposition on the part of the family of the saint, and he was pursued with great rigor by his mother, brothers, and sisters, who still cherish ed the hope of his becoming a Benedictine. But entreaties, threats, and even personal violence failed to move Saint Thomas to abandon a call that seemed to him from heaven. He was thrown into prison, and remained there more than two years, finally escaping through the aid of his sisters, whom his constancy and gentleness had converted. His mother appealed to Pope Innocent to annul her son’s vows; but after an affecting interview with Saint Thomas the Pope refused her request, though, knowing the mother’s wishes, he is said to have proposed to make St. Thomas abbot of Monte Casino while wearing the Dominican habit. This proposal was resisted with prayers and tears by the saint, the conflict came to an end, and he was at last permitted quietly to enter upon that illustrious career which God had marked out for him.

Saint Thomas had already received a good education at Monte Casino and Naples, but to the Dominicans this seemed only to have opened his mind and prepared it to receive that perfect culture which should produce the ripest fruits. John of Germany, then general of the order, in quest of the best master for the pupil, journeyed to Paris, and thence to Cologne, where Albertus Magnus was then lecturing. As the character and learning of this great master have already been portrayed in our pages, we need only add here that, besides being the first theologian and philosopher of his day, he was also a botanist, a chemist, a geographer, a geologist, and a mechanician. Such was the master selected for Saint Thomas.

In the year 1221 the Dominican brothers, Jordan of Saxony and Henry of Cologne, had established an humble hospitium in the Stolkstrasse, in the city of Cologne. This had grown into a great school, presided over by Albert at the time of Thomas’ arrival. To one whose mind had been formed in the company of the gentle, silent Benedictines the noisy, garrulous youths who now surrounded Saint Thomas must have given a shock. Full of animal spirits, activity, and intelligence, ever ready to debate any question, and mistaking dialectical fence for profound reasoning, they could not understand the new-comer’s gentle humility and silence. Even Albert shared his pupils’ opinion that Saint Thomas was naturally obtuse and possessed no intellectual powers. He was dubbed “the great, dumb Sicilian ox.” Doubtless Saint Thomas keenly felt this treatment, but he bore it unmurmuringly. At length an incident occurred which opened all eyes to the manner of man who had come among them. Albert had given to his pupils for solution a very difficult question from the writings of Denis the Areopagite. Whether in joke or earnest, they handed the paper to Saint Thomas, with a request to write his opinion on it. The saint took it to his cell and wrote out the solution, and Ibis paper accidentally fell into the hands of Albert, who was greatly astonished at the talent it evinced. The next day ho requested Saint Thomas to defend a thesis before the whole school, which the hitter did in so masterly a manner that Albert cried out to his disciples, who were almost stupefied witli astonishment: “We call this young man a dumb ox. but so loud will be his bellowing in doctrine that it will resound throughout the whole world.”

In 1245 Albert was sent to Paris, and Saint Thomas accompanied him to finish his course under him at the convent of Saint James. Little is known of the life of Saint Thomas during the three years that he remained here, but in 1248 Albert the Great was ordered by his general chapter to return to Cologne, to resume the regent’s chair of the school there, and his pupil – not yet twenty three – was appointed assistant professor. Here Saint Thomas soon began to acquire that fame which eventually became world-wide. About this time he was ordained priest, and, besides lecturing in the schools, drew great crowds into the Dominican church by his preach ing. His life was a truly laborious one. “After he had said Mass, he prepared his lectures and then went to the schools. Next he wrote, or dictated to several scribes; then he dined, returned to his cell, and occupied himself with divine things till time for rest; after which he wrote again, and thus ordered his life in the service of his Master.” Tocco says Saint Thomas never discussed, read, or wrote with out begging, with tears, for illumination. “Prayer was the secret of his success. This was his daily prayer: ‘Grant me, I beseech thee, O merciful God, ardently to desire, prudently to study, rightly to understand, and perfectly to fulfil that which is pleasing to thee.'”

After four years at Cologne Saint Thomas was directed to proceed to Paris to take his degrees. His deep humility and distaste for honors and position made him wish to decline, but in a spirit of obedience he set out and begged his way to Paris. His fame had preceded him, he was received with unusual marks of distinction, and in 1252 received the degree of bachelor. His time was now wholly occupied with preaching, lecturing, writing, and correspond ing with the princes, ecclesiastics, and laymen who sought his advice. Such labors would have proved too much for an ordinary man, but the saint’s power of abstraction, his amazing memory, with the ability to dictate to two or three amanuenses on different subjects at the same time, carried him through. In 1256 Pope Alexander IV conferred the licentiate upon ” Brother Thomas of Aquino, a man eminent for his virtnes and for the treasure of science with which God has enriched him.” Saint Thomas was soon after summoned to Anagni by his general to defend his own and other mendicant orders against the attacks of the professors of the University of Paris, led by William of Saint-Amour, author of the celebrated “Perils of the Last Times.” In a few days Saint Thomas prepared a masterly defence, which was delivered in the presence of Pope Alexander and his court. Not only was the “Perils” condemned to be publicly burnt, but the mendicants were completely vindicated and established upon a firm and peaceful basis. Having fulfilled this duty, the saint returned to Paris, where, though reluctantly, he received the ring and cap of a doctor of theology. For about three years Saint Thomas continued to lecture as primarius regens at the convent of Saint James, when, in accordance with the rule that no master should teach more than three years in the same school, he retired. A month later he was summoned to Valenciennes, to attend a general chapter of his order. Here he was appointed one of a commission to reform and reorganize the whole course of studies. So well was this duty performed that its influence is felt in the Dominican schools to the present day. But the University of Paris, whose prestige seemed to depart with the great doctor, implored him, despite the rule above mentioned, to resume the theological chair. Saint Thomas consented, appeared once more in his school, and again great throngs of students flocked around him to drink in the matured wisdom which flowed from his lips.

And now the Sovereign Pontiff desired to have this wise and prudent counsellor at his side, and in 1260 he was summoned to Rome, where he found time not only to fulfil the duties of his new position, but to lecture in Viterbo, Anagni, and other Italian cities. In 1264 our saint’s patron and friend, Pope Urban IV, died. Five months later Guy Fourquois, Cardinal of Santa Sabina, was elected pope, and took the title of Clement IV. The new pope had long admired the great Dominican, and it seemed to him that such a man ought to be elevated to a place of dignity in the Church, not only as a reward for distinguished services but for the benefit of religion. To this end Pope Clement issued a bull conferring upon Saint Thomas the archbishopric of Naples, but neither prayers nor threats could induce him to accept the responsibility. The bull had to be withdrawn, and the saint was left in peace to pursue his literary labors.

In 1266 the “Angel of the Schools ” was appointed professor of theology in the then celebrated University of Bologna. His success here was as great as at Paris. But while thus lecturing, preaching, and composing trealises on morality, dogma, etc., Saint Thomas’ mind was also occupied with that vast master-work, the Summa Theologica, and in two years he produced the first part. After a residence of three years at Bologna, Saint Thomas was called to resume his old chair at Paris, which he filled for two years, when he returned to Bologna, where he completed the second part of the Summa. At the time of its appearance the general chapter of the Dominicans was sitting at Florence. Petitions poured in upon the fathers from Paris, Rome, Naples, and other cities, imploring them to send the Angelical to teach in their schools. It was decided to send him to Naples. During the year and a half that he remained here, in addition to his other labors, he did all he was destined to do to the Summa. The design of this great work was not fully realized; it was too vast for any one man to have completed. “The first part treats of the Godhead, His life, relations, and attributes, of creatures, and emphatically of man; the second treats of the rational creature as tending to or from God, his last and highest end; the third, of Christ, in so far as He is the way, the truth, and the life.” At length the mind of the Angelical became so absorbed in divine things that even his beloved Summa failed to interest him. Finally, he altogether ceased writing after a marvellous rapture which seized him while celebrating Mass in the chapel of Saint Nicholas, at Naples, and gave himself up wholly to contemplation and prayer.

In January, 1274, in obedience to a special bull of Gregory X, the saint set out to attend the Second Council of Lyons. His health was very feeble, and on the way he stop ped at the Castle of Maienza, in the Campagna, where dwelt his niece, wife of Hannibal Ceccano. Here he rested awhile, but did not rally. The report of his presence at the castle soon reached the monastery of Fossa Nuova, a Benedictine abbey about six miles from Maienza. The monks hastened to invite the saint to partake of their hospitality. tie gladly accepted the invitation, saying, “If the Lord means to take me away, it were better that I should die in a religious house than in the midst of seculars.” Here, during the whole of his illness, which lasted about a month, he was tenderly ministered to by the monks, who would permit no other hands to wait on him but their own – even to the very wood that burnt upon the hearth. As his last hour drew nigh “he sent for Reginald, his socius, and, with deep contrition and many sighs, made a review of his entire life”; he then begged the brethren to bring him the Body of our Lord. Lifted from his pallet, he knelt upon the floor, and, as the abbot was about to administer the saving Host, exclaimed: “I receive Thee, the price of my soul’s redemption, for love of whom I have studied, I have watched, and I have labored.” “Thou, O Christ, art the King of Glory; thou art the Everlasting Hon of the Father.” And thus passed away this great and glorious saint and doctor of the Church on the morning of 7 March 1274, being not quite forty-eight years of age. His remains were translated to the Dominican church at Toulouse. In 1323 he was canonized by Pope John XXII, and Saint Pius V declared him a doctor of the Church.

Did space permit, we might cite a vast cloud of witnesses as to the inestimable value to the Church of the labors of Saint Thomas, but we rest content with the following brief extracts from the encyclical of our Holy Father Leo XIII, dated 4 August 1879:

“Among the scholastic doctors, the chief and master of all, towers Thomas Aquinas, who, as Cajetan observes, because ‘he most venerated the ancient doctors of the Church, in a certain way seems to have in herited the intellect of all.’ The doctrines of those illustrious men, like the scattered members of a body, Thomas collected together and cemented, distributed in wonderful order, and so increased with important additions that he is rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith. With his spirit at once humble and swift, his memory ready and tenacious, his life spotless throughout, a lover of truth for its own sake, richly endowed with human and divine science, like the sun ho heated the world with the ardor of his virtues and filled it with the splendor of his teaching. Philosophy has no part which he. did not touch finely at once and thoroughly; on the laws of reasoning, on God and incorporeal substances, on man and other sensible things, on human actions and their principles, lie reasoned in such a manner that in him there is wanting neither a full array of questions, nor an apt disposal of the various parts, nor the best method of proceeding, nor soundness of principles or strength of argument, nor clearness and elegance of style, nor a facility for explaining what is abstruse.”

“But, furthermore, our predecessors in the Roman pontificate have celebrated the wisdom of Thomas Acjuinas by exceptional tributes of praise and the most ample testimonials. Clement VI, Nicholas V, Benedict XIII, and others bear witness that the universal Church borrows lustre from his admirable teaching ; while St. Pius V. confesses that heresies, confounded and convicted by the same teaching, were dissipated, and the whole world daily freed from fatal errors; others affirm with Clement XII that most fruitful blessings have spread abroad from his writings over the whole Church, and that he is worthy of the honor which is l>estowed on the greatest doctors of the Church, on Gregory and Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome; while others have not hesitated to propose St. Thomas for the exemplar and master of the academies and great lyceums, whom they may follow with unfaltering feet. On which point the words of Blessed Urban V to the Academy of Toulouse are worthy of recall: ‘It is our will, which we hereby enjoin upon you, that ye follow the teaching of Blessed Thomas as the true and Catholic doctrine, and that ye labor with all your force to profit by the same.’ Innocent XII followed the example of Urban in the case of the University of Louvain, and Benedict XIV with the Dionysian College of Granada; while to these judgments of great pontiffs on Thomas Aquinas comes the crowning testimony of Innocent VI: ‘His teaching, above that of others, the Canons alone excepted, enjoys such an elegance of phraseology, a method of statement, a truth of proposition, that those who hold to it are never found swerving from the path of truth, and he who dare assail it will always be suspected of error.

“The oecumenical councils also, where blossoms the flower of all earthly wisdom, have always been careful to hold Thomas Aquinas in singular honor. In the councils of Lyons, Vienna, Florence, and the Vatican one might almost say that Thomas took part and presided over the deliberations and decrees of the Fathers, contending against the errors of the Greeks, of heretics and rationalists, with invincible force and with the happiest results. But the chief and special glory of Thomas, one which he has shared with none of the Catholic doctors, is that the Fathers of Trent made it part of the order of the conclave to lay upon the altar, together with the code of Sacred Scripture and the decrees of the Supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason, and inspiration.”

The likeness of Saint Thomas from which we copy the picture we give our readers has the following lines engraved under it: “To the pastors of the Church of Christ, and to the clergy assembled in the (Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, the genuine and almost lifelike ancient portrait of the Angelic Doctor, made by the hand of a contemporary, is dedicated by Friar John Gabriel Polveroni, of the Order of Preachers, O.D.C.”; and on the left-hand corner are the words “Painted by Franciscus Jacobi, 1270.”

MLA Citation

  • “Saint Thomas Aquinas”. Illustrated Catholic Family Annual, 1881. CatholicSaints.Info. 14 January 2017. Web. 24 November 2017. <>