Most scholars consider St. Thomas Aquinas to be the Catholic Church’s greatest philosopher and theologian. He was born in southern Italy near Aquino in 1225 to a wealthy and aristocratic family. His father was a count. His mother was a countess.
When he was five years old, his parents sent him to be trained by the Benedictine monks at Monte Cassino. As a young student St. Thomas was known for his prayer and hard work. He had a philosophical bent early on and would ask questions like “What is God?”. His teachers realized his superior intellect and realized that he needed better instruction than they could provide. So at the age of fourteen he was sent to the University of Naples. In only a matter of months he surpassed his professors at the university in knowledge and understanding. It was at Naples that he first began to sense that God was calling him to join the Dominicans.
When he was 17 he revealed his plans to join the Dominican order to his family. His family was strongly opposed to this idea. St. Thomas’s uncle had been the Abbot at the prestigious Monte Cassino Abbey. They hoped Thomas would follow in his footsteps. The Dominicans were a new order known for their itinerant preaching and begging. His family found this unacceptable. So as Thomas was on his way to join the Dominicans in Rome, his brothers kidnapped him and imprisoned him at Roccasecca Castle. At one point his family even sent in a prostitute to his cell to try to tempt him, but he drove her out with a burning torch. His family kept him imprisoned for fifteen months until the Pope finally intervened for him. He was released and joined the Dominicans in Naples.
During his captivity, Thomas’s sister brought him a copy of the Bible, Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Peter Lombard’s Sentences to study. The Dominicans were delighted to see his intellectual progress during this time. The Dominicans sent Thomas to study with St. Albert the Great in Cologne, Germany and then the University of Paris. St. Albert the Great was a man of great learning who was interested in practically everything including science, mathematics, geometry, medicine, botany, astronomy and, of course, theology and philosophy.
St. Thomas was physically big man, but also gentle and humble. Because he was so quiet his fellow students nicknamed him the “Dumb Ox”. But when he was called upon in class to give a defense of a very difficult thesis, St. Albert the Great predicted “We call this man a ‘Dumb Ox’, but his bellowing in doctrine will resound through the whole world.” St. Albert’s prediction has been fulfilled. The writings of St. Thomas Aquinas continue to be influential in the Church and the world today, over 700 years after his death.
St. Thomas was ordained as a priest at the age of twenty-five. He preached to large crowds all over Italy, France and Germany. People would travel for many miles to hear his brilliant explanations of Holy Scripture.
As he became more well-known there were more demands on his time. He remained faithful to prayer, preaching, teaching and an arduous travel schedule. All the while, he was writing his greatest work – the Summa Theologica – a systematic presentation of philosophical and theological truths. He was offered the Archbishopric of Naples, but he turned it down to continue preaching and teaching.
When arguing against an opponent, he always presented the best version of his opponent’s argument. Then he would proceed to show how the argument fails. Many people, in order to win arguments, will misstate an opponent’s argument in order to argue against a weaker position. This is called setting up a “straw man” or “straw horse”, but St. Thomas never did this. He treated his opponents and their arguments seriously and with intellectual honesty.
St. Thomas was best known for incorporating insights from Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, to explain the truths of Christianity. In his work On Being and Essence he explains that God is pure being, fully actualized. Everything else borrows existence from God and is in a state of becoming. In teaching how Jesus is present in his body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist, he used the word transubstantiation to explain how the underlying substance of the bread and wine were changed while the appearances and other properties remain the same.
St. Thomas argued that the truths that we can come to know through a rigorous application of human reason and the truths that can only be known by a special revelation from God flow from the same source, and therefore, when properly understood, complement rather than contradict one another.
He taught that human beings were not simply souls using bodies, but rather are embodied souls. Our bodies are not just something we use, they are us. It is not just our souls that will live forever, but like Christ our bodies will be raised on the last day.
After this vision, St. Thomas could write no more. He said all he had written seemed to him as straw. It’s not that what he had said before was not true, but nothing he said or wrote compared with the beauty he had seen directly. It was like the difference between talking about love and being in love.
St. Thomas died while he was on his way to the Council of Lyons called for by Pope Gregory X. He was taken in along the route by Cistercian monks and died on March 7, 1274 at the age of 49. He was canonized by Pope John XXII in 1323, and proclaimed a doctor of the Church by Pope Pius V in 1567.
St. Thomas Aquinas is the patron saint of all Catholic universities and students. We celebrate his feast on January 28, the anniversary of when his body was transferred to a shrine in Toulouse.
There is so much we can learn from the life of St. Thomas Aquinas. We can learn from his courage and perseverance in pursuing his true calling in life. He was always patient when arguing against an opponent. He won many of them over to his position through his personality and great learning. He could have enjoyed a life of great wealth and privilege, but his tastes were simple and he lived his vow of poverty.
St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us of the importance and value of a good Catholic education. The knowledge and love of God should come first and then everything else flows from that. All of us are called to love God and serve him in different ways according to the unique gifts and talents he has given to each of us. A Catholic education should help us to be a well-rounded, knowledgeable, cultured person who loves God and loves their neighbor as himself.
A Catholic education is more than just job training. It seeks to develop the whole person, recognizing the human person as created in the image and likeness of God and destined to share everlasting happiness with Him in heaven.
Theology is the “Queen of all Sciences”, but a Catholic education should include not just the study of religion, but also of philosophy, science, mathematics, history, literature, music, art, poetry, theater, languages and participation in sports. A Catholic education should help form a person who loves God and their neighbor; a person who is always seeking to grow in knowledge, holiness and fidelity to the truth. It should instill a love for learning in the student and help them to understand that education is a lifelong process.
We ask St. Thomas Aquinas to help us to follow his example, to grow in wisdom and lead us to Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. (cf John 14, 6 )