Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Thomas Aquinas, O.S.D., Doctor of the Church, and Prince of Christian Philosophers

photograph of a Saint Thomas Aquinas roundel, Convento de Las Duenas, Salamanca, Spain; swiped with permission from the flickr account of Father Lawrence Lew, OPArticle

Died A.D. 1274.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, commonly styled the Angelic Doctor, was born at Belcastro, Italy, in the year 1226. He belonged to a noble family, which was allied by marriage with several of the royal houses of Europe. His father was Count Landolpho of Aquin, and his mother, Theodora, a daughter of the Count of Theate.

From his cradle Thomas seemed to be a favored child. He preferred books to any other playthings. If he cried, an old volume would at once pacify the little warbler. But the calmness of his countenance, the evenness of his temper, and the winning modesty of his manners were visible marks of the bounty of Heaven.

When but five years of age his father placed him under the care of the Benedictines of Monte Cassino. These good monks laid the foundation of learning and religion in the soul of little Thomas. With joy they beheld the rapidity of his progress, his great mental gifts, and his happy inclination to virtue.

He was only ten years of age when the abbot of Monte Cassino advised Count Landolpho to send his son to some university. Thomas left the quiet solitude of the monastery and was sent to the University of Naples. It was a great change. The boy suddenly found himself surrounded by disorder and wild young men. But he was wise beyond his age. He guarded his eyes. He was the soul of modesty. He shunned bad company. And while others engaged in foolish or sinful diversions, Thomas made a good use of his time among his books, or retired to some church to pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.

The Saint studied philosophy under a famous Irishman named Peter of Hibernia, and so astonishing was his progress that it is said he could repeat the lessons more clearly than they had been explained by his master. But his chief care was to advance in the science of the saints. He prayed much. He walked in the holy presence of God. He was a doer of good deeds. His humility, however, concealed them as much as possible. The many alms which self-denial enabled him to bestow upon the poor were given in such a manner that his left hand scarcely knew the bounty of the right.

Having formed an acquaintance with a Father of the Order of Saint Dominic – a learned and holy man – Thomas resolved to consecrate himself to God in the same Order. His father, Count Landolpho, was informed of this design and was highly displeased. He threatened and promised, but the future Doctor of the Church listened only to the call of Heaven The student earnestly asked to be admitted into the Order, and in 1243 he received the habit in the convent at Naples. He was then seventeen years of age.

When the news of this event reached the ears of his mother, she at once set out for Naples. Thomas asked to be removed to another convent, that he might be spared the pain of an interview. His wish was granted. He was on the road to Paris when he was arrested by order of his brothers, who held commands in the emperor’s army in Tuscany.

They endeavored to tear off his religious habit, but Thomas made a manly resistance. He was now conducted to the family seat at Rocca Secca. His mother was overjoyed, for Thomas had been arrested at her express command. She made no doubt about overcoming her son’s resolution to be a Dominican. She urged him to throw off the religious dress, but he respectfully declined. She did not, however, despair of changing his views and inducing him to embrace another profession. But her hopes were illusory. In vain did she urge her parental authority; in vain did she shed tears, entreat, and caress. Thomas was deeply grieved that he was the cause of such pain to his mother, but nothing human could shake his heroic resolution. He was as firm as the granite hills on the subject of his religious vocation.

The Countess was much disappointed, and at length had recourse to very harsh measures in order to force her son into compliance with her wishes, so worldly and unreasonable. She had him closely confined. No one was allowed to see him but his two sisters, and they used every means in their power to overcome his opposition. But so far from being successful, these good young ladies became the conquest of their gifted brother. He spoke to them so touchingly on the contempt of the world and the beauty and grandeur of virtue that they resolved to imitate his example by devoting themselves to the practice of Christian perfection.

Thomas was improving the leisure of his confinement by prayer, the study of the Sacred Scriptures, and the perusal of various works on philosophy and theology, when his two brothers, returning home from the army, added new rigors to his painful situation. On learning of his opposition their wrath was boundless. They rushed to his apartment, tore the religious habit from his shoulders, and locked him up in the tower of the castle.

Nor was this all. These corrupt military officers added crime to cruelty by introducing a shameless young woman of great beauty into the Saint’s room for the vile purpose of overcoming his virtue. It was a critical moment. But Thomas prayed, looked up to heaven, and, snatching a firebrand, he drove the infamous visitor from his chamber.

After this signal victory, the young hero dropped on his knees and, with tears in his eyes, thanked Almighty God for His mercy and goodness. He consecrated himself anew to the religious life, and implored the grace of never losing the priceless treasure of chastity. This prayer was followed by a gentle slumber, during which he was visited by two angels, who seemed to gird his waist; and never afterwards was he troubled with any temptation against holy purity. It is no wonder that he is styled the Angelic Doctor.

Thomas, after having suffered imprisonment in silence for over a year – some say two years – found relief and liberty in the intervention of Pope Innocent IV and the Emperor Frederick. His persecutors began to relent. The Dominicans of Naples being informed of this, and that his mother was disposed to connive at any measures that might be taken to procure his escape, they hastened in disguise to Rocca Secca, where his favorite sister, knowing that the countess no longer opposed the escape of her son, contrived to let him down from the tower in a basket. Friendly arms clasped him on reaching the ground, and he was carried with joy to Naples. He made his profession the year following.

His mother and brothers, however, renewed their complaints to Innocent IV, and earnestly requested him to interfere in the matter. The Pope called Thomas to Rome, and, in their presence, examined him on the subject of his vocation to the state of religion. The young Dominican gave his reasons with unanswerable force and clearness, and the Holy Father admired his virtue and good sense, and approved his choice. From that time he was allowed to pursue his career in peace unmolested by the schemes of blind and worldly relations.

It was very important to choose an able and saintly teacher to second the genius of the gifted novice. Happily, such a rare man was not far away. It was Albertus Magnus, a Dominican Father of vast intellect, and one of the greatest masters of science in his age. He taught at Cologne, and there Thomas was sent to pursue his studies.

The Saint studied with intense application. Every moment not employed in devotion and other duties was given to his books. He scarcely allowed himself time to eat or sleep. But this eager pursuit of knowledge sprang from no vain passion or desire of applause. He toiled hard that he might one day be the better able to defend the Catholic faith and advance the glory of God.

His modest humility, however, made him conceal his progress and intellectual power; and many of his fellow-students thought he learned nothing. His silence was remarkable. Hence they called him the “dumb ox.” Even his celebrated master was at first deceived as to the rich mental gifts of his silent genius. But on one occasion he asked Thomas a number of questions on the most knotty and obscure points, and the clear, masterly answers given astonished all present. Albertus Magnus was fairly overjoyed. “We call him,” he exclaimed, “the dumb ox, but he will one day give a bellow in learning that his voice shall fill the whole world!”

When Albertus Magnus was called to the chair of theology at Paris, in 1245, Thomas accompanied him. It was here that he made a special study of Holy Scripture and the works of Saint Augustine. After three years, however, the Saint and his master returned to Cologne. There, at the age of twenty-two, he was appointed assistant to Albertus Magnus. He now began to publish his first works, which consist of comments on Aristotle.

His manners were kind and winning. He was still the same hard student, but said that he learned less in books than before his crucifix or the Blessed Sacrament. It was while at Cologne that he was raised to the priesthood.

He was again sent to Paris in 1252, where his growing reputation attracted a great number of students to his lectures. He accepted the degree of Doctor with much reluctance at the age of thirty-one. Such was his acknowledged ability at this time that the professors of the University of Paris consented to abide by his decision in a point of controversy that had arisen among them in relation to the Blessed Eucharist. Thomas humbly prayed to God for light, and then wrote a treatise on the disputed question. He carried the manuscript to the church and laid it on the altar. Several persons were present. Our Lord appeared visibly and said: “My son, you have written worthily on the Sacrament of My Body.”

The illustrious Saint Louis, King of France, had a great respect for our Saint, and honored him with his intimate friendship. He often consulted him on affairs of state. It was at the table of this holy monarch that Thomas – whose attention was absorbed in deep reflections on the subject of his studies – suddenly exclaimed: “The argument is conclusive against the Manichees!” His superior, who was present, told him to remember where he was. Thomas asked pardon for such an oversight; but the king was much edified, and, calling his secretary, said: “Write the argument, as it might be forgotten.”

The meekness of Saint Thomas was as remarkable as his learning and genius. No dispute ever disturbed his habitual calmness. No insult ever ruffled his temper.

In 1261 Pope Urban IV called the great Doctor to Rome, where he filled the chair of theology and wrote several of his ablest treatises. As a preacher our saint has never been surpassed for force and unction. The people hung on his words, and often the whole congregation was melted to tears. Nor were miracles and conversions wanting. On one occasion, while Thomas was leaving Saint Peter’s Church, a poor woman, by touching his dress as he passed, was instantly cured of dysentery. Two famous Jewish rabbis, after a conference with him, embraced the faith. The Pope offered him the archbishopric of Naples, but the Saint declined all ecclesiastical dignities.

He consecrated the last period of his life to the preparation of his incomparable “Summa” which he began to write about the age of forty. It was while engaged in the composition of this unrivalled theological masterpiece that a voice from the crucifix addressed him thus: “Thomas, you have written well of Me. What recompense do you desire?” “No other than Thyself, O Lord!” he answered. One of his companions – who was present when this occurred – asserts that he saw the Saint raised from the ground during this wonderful dialogue.

During the last three months of his life, this extraordinary man did little less than to prepare for the great end, which he felt was rapidly coming. In obedience, however, to a Papal Brief, he set out for Lyons, in France, where a General Council was to assemble, May, 1274. His illness increased as he journeyed along, and he was finally compelled to stop at Fossa- Nuova, a famous Cistercian monastery. The good monks treated him with all tenderness and veneration, but it was in vain they tried to prolong that bright and valuable life.

The great Doctor made a general confession of his whole life, and with tears bewailed frailties that had never amounted to a grave sin. 7 He then expressed a desire to receive the Holy Viaticum, and begged to be laid upon the floor. He was thus prostrate – weak in body, but vigorous in mind – when the abbot and community advanced in solemn procession, carrying the Bread of Angels.

“I firmly believe,” began the illustrious Dominican, on seeing the Host in the hands of the priest, “that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is present in this august Sacrament. I adore Thee, my God and my Redeemer. I receive Thee as the price of my redemption and the viaticum of my pilgrimage – Thee for the love of whom I have studied, labored, preached, and taught. I hope I have never advanced anything as Thy word which I have not learned from Thee. If through ignorance I have done otherwise, I publicly revoke everything of the kind, and I submit all my writings to the judgment of the Holy Roman Church.”

He then received the Holy Viaticum, and made his thanksgiving on the floor. As they all stood about him in tears, he thanked the abbot and his community for their kindness and charity.

His dying words to a monk who asked him how we might always live faithful to the grace of God were: “Be assured that he who shall ever walk faithfully in His Presence, always ready to give Him an account of all his actions, shall never be separated from Him by consenting to sin.”

To men he spoke no more, but murmured a prayer, and died on the 7th of March, 1274, at the age of forty-eight years. And thus the Angelic Doctor and prince of Christian philosophers passed out of this life to realize away from the twilight of earth the one dream of his magnificent soul – to see God in his glory, and the Blessed adoring before the Everlasting Throne.

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Thomas Aquinas, O.S.D., Doctor of the Church, and Prince of Christian Philosophers”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 September 2018. Web. 13 November 2018. <>