Fr Anthony Nzubechukwu Ibegbunam
It is clear that he does not pray, who, far from uplifting himself to God, requires that
God shall lower Himself to him, and who resorts to prayer not to stir the man in us
to will what God wills, but only to persuade God to will what the man in us wills. –
St Thomas Aquinas
The Church calls St Thomas Aquinas, Doctor Communis, (Common Doctor).
Since the early 14th century, the popes have recognized that Aquinas’s instruction in theology and philosophy displays the capacity to serve the whole Church. In his Encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), Pope John Paul II, recalled that “the Church has been justified in consistently proposing St Thomas
as a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, Encyclical Letter On The Relationship Between Faith and Reason, 14 September, 1998, no. 43). Thus, Pope Benedict XVI notes that, it is not
surprising that, after St Augustine, among the ecclesiastical writers mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, St Thomas is cited more than any other, at least 61 times! He was also called the Doctor Angelicus, (Angelic Doctor) perhaps because of his virtues and, in particular, the sublimity of his thought and the purity of his life. (Benedict XVI, General Audience: St Thomas Aquinas, St Peter’s Square, 2 June 2010).
Thomas was born between 1224 and 1225 to a wealthy noble family of Landulph and Theodora at Roccasecca near Aquino, Italy near the famous Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino. The early biographer of Thomas, Peter Calo
related that a holy hermit foretold Thomas’ career, saying to Theodora before his birth: “He will enter the Order of Frias Preachers, and so great will be his learning and sanctity that in his day no one will be found to equal him” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Catholic Encyclopedia, newadvent.org) Landulf’s brother, Sinibald
was abbot of the first Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino. The family intended for Thomas to follow his uncle into the monastery with the hope that he will one day become an abbot. At the age of five, his parents sent him to the Benedictine monks at Monte Cassino to begin his education. Diligent in study, he was thus early noted as being meditative and devoted to prayer, and his teacher was surprised at hearing the child ask frequently: “What is God?” (ibid).
About the year 1236 he was sent to the University of Naples, Italy founded by Emperor Fredrick II in 1224. Calo said “that the change was made at the insistence of the Abbot of Monte Cassino, who wrote to Thomas’s father that a boy of such talents should not be left in obscurity” (ibid). It was here that he was exposed to the entire works of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Also, he was attracted to the Order of Preachers, newly established order by St Dominic.
By 1243, Thomas abandoned his family’s plans for him and joined the Dominicans, much to his mother’s dismay. On her order, Thomas was captured by his brothers as he was fleeing to Rome. He was held prisoner for over a year in the family castles at Monte San Giovanni and Roccasecca in an attempt to prevent him from becoming a Dominican. The family was so desperate that at one point, two of his brothers resorted to hiring a prostitute to seduce him; Thomas drove her away wielding a fire iron. “Towards the end of his life, Thomas confided to his faithful friend and secretary, Fr Reginald of Piperno, the secret of a remarkable favour
received at this time. Thomas said that when he drove the temptress from his room, he knelt down and most earnestly implored God to grant him integrity of mind and body. He fell into a gentle sleep, and, as he slept, two angels appeared to assure him that his prayer had been heard. They then girded him about with a white girdle, saying: “We gird you with the girdle of perpetual virginity.” And from that day forward he never experienced the slightest motions of concupiscence” (ibid). By 1244, seeing that all of her attempts to dissuade Thomas had failed, Theodora released her son from captivity. The Dominicans first sent Thomas to Naples where he made his religious profession and then to Rome to meet Johannes
von Wildeshausen, the Master General of the Dominican Order.
In 1245, Thomas was sent to study theology at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Paris, France under the guidance of St Albert the Great (1200-1280), then the holder of the Chair of Theology at the College of St James in Paris. Thomas once again came into contact with all Aristotle’s works and his Arab commentators
that Albert described and explained. When Albert was sent by his superiors to found
a new theological studium at Cologne in 1248, Thomas followed him, declining Pope Innocent IV’s offer to appoint him abbot of Monte Cassino as a Dominican. Because Thomas was humble, quiet and didn’t speak much, some of his fellow students thought he was dull and slow; but when Albert had heard his brilliant
defence of a difficult thesis, he exclaimed: “You call this young man a dumb ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world.” “In this period the culture of the Latin world was profoundly stimulated by
the encounter with Aristotle’s works that had long remained unknown. They were writings on the nature of knowledge, on the natural sciences, on metaphysics, on the soul and on ethics and were full of information and intuitions that appeared valid and convincing. All this formed an overall vision of the world that had been developed without and before Christ…. Many accepted it enthusiastically; others, however, feared that Aristotle’s pagan thought might be in opposition to the Christian
faith and refused to study it. Two cultures converged: the pre-Christian culture of
Aristotle with its radical rationality and the classical Christian culture. Many were led to reject Aristotle by the presentation which had been made of him by two Arab commentators, Avicenna (980-1037) and Averroës (1126-1198), who transmitted the Aristotelian philosophy to the Latin world. Thomas Aquinas, at the school of Albert the Great, did something of fundamental importance for the history of philosophy and theology. He made a thorough study of Aristotle and his interpreters, obtaining for himself new Latin translations of the original Greek texts (of the works of Aristotle). Consequently he no longer relied solely on the Arab commentators but was able to read the original texts for himself. He commented on most of the Aristotelian opus, distinguishing
between what was valid and what was dubious or to be completely rejected, showing its consonance with the events of the Christian Revelation and drawing abundantly and perceptively from Aristotle’s thought in the explanation of the theological texts he was uniting. In short, Thomas Aquinas showed that a natural harmony exists between Christian faith and reason…. thus he created a new synthesis which formed the culture of the centuries to come.” (Benedict XVI, General Audience: St Thomas Aquinas, St Peter’s Square, 2 June 2010) Because of his excellent intellectual gifts Thomas was summoned to
University of Paris to be professor of theology on the Dominican chair in 1252. Here he began his literary production which continued until his death. His best-known works are the Disputed Questions on Truth, the Summa contra Gentiles, and the Summa Theologiae. His commentaries on Scripture and on Aristotle also form an
important part of his body of work. He did not stay long in Paris. In 1259 he took part in the General Chapter of the Dominicans in Valenciennes where he was a member of a commission that established the Order’s programme of studies. Then from 1261 to 1265, Thomas was in Orvieto. Pope Urban IV, commissioned him to compose liturgical texts for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which he established subsequent to the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena, Italy in 1263. Thomas had an exquisitely Eucharistic soul. The most
beautiful hymns that the Liturgy of the Church sings to celebrate the mystery of the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of the Lord in the Eucharist were composed by him. From 1265 until 1268 Thomas lived in Rome where he probably directed a Studium, that is, a study house of his Order, and where he began writing his Summa Theologiae” (ibid). In 1269 Thomas was recalled to Paris for a second cycle of
The life and teaching of St Thomas Aquinas could be summed up in an episode passed down by his ancient biographers. On one occasion, in 1273, while Thomas was praying before the Crucifix in the early morning in the Dominican convent chapel of St Nicholas in Naples, Domenico da Caserta, the church sacristan, overheard a conversation. Thomas was anxiously asking the Lord whether what he
had written on the mysteries of the Christian faith was correct. And the Crucified One (Jesus Christ) answered him: “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labour?” Thomas responded, “Nothing but you, Lord.” On December 6, 1273, Thomas had another mystical experience. While he
was celebrating Mass, he experienced an unusually long ecstasy. Because of what was revealed to him during ecstasy, he abandoned his routine and refused to dictate to his secretary, Fr Reginald. When Reginald begged him to get back to work, Thomas replied: “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like so much straw (worthless) to me compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.” (mihi videtur ut palea). As a result, the Summa Theologica would remain uncompleted. According to Benedict XVI, “This is a mysterious episode that
helps us to understand not only Thomas’ personal humility, but also the fact that, however lofty and pure it may be, all we manage to think and say about the faith is infinitely exceeded by God’s greatness and beauty which will be fully revealed to us in Heaven (Benedict XVI, General Audience: St Thomas Aquinas, 2 June 2010). Thomas died on 7 March, 1274 while on his way to Lyons, France to take part
in the Ecumenical Council convoked by Pope Gregory X. He died in the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova, Italy after receiving the Viaticum with deeply devout sentiments. When the Holy Eucharist was brought into the room he pronounced the following act of faith: “If in this world there be any knowledge of this sacrament
stronger than that of faith, I wish now to use it in affirming that I firmly believe and know as certain that Jesus “Christ, True God and True Man, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, is in this Sacrament . . . I receive Thee, the price of my redemption, for Whose love I have watched, studied, and laboured. Thee have I preached; Thee have I taught. Never have I said anything against Thee: if anything was not well said, that is to be attributed to my ignorance. Neither do I wish to be obstinate in my opinions, but if I have written anything erroneous concerning this sacrament or other matters, I submit all to the judgment and correction of the Holy Roman
Church, in whose obedience I now pass from this life.”
Numerous miracles attested his sanctity, and he was canonized by Pope John XXII, 18 July, 1323. St Pius V proclaimed St Thomas a Doctor of the Universal Church in 1567.
LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF ST THOMAS AQUINAS
St Thomas Aquinas declared to his friend and secretary, Fr Reginald of Piperno that he had learned more in prayer and contemplation than he had acquired from men or books. Scholars concluded that the extraordinary learning of St Thomas Aquinas cannot be attributed to merely natural causes. They said that truly, he laboured as if all depended on his own efforts and prayed as if all depended on God.
“In an age when Christian thinkers were rediscovering the treasures of ancient
philosophy, and more particularly of Aristotle, Thomas had the great merit of giving pride of place to the harmony which exists between faith and reason. Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God, he argued; hence there can be no contradiction between them (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, no. 43. Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 7).
The life of Thomas may be summed up in a few words: praying, preaching, teaching, writing and travelling. He was always teaching and writing, living on earth with one passion, an ardent zeal for the explanation and defence of Christian
truth. So devoted was he to his sacred task that with tears he begged to be excused from accepting the Archbishopric of Naples, to which he was appointed by Clement IV in 1265. Had this appointment been accepted, most probably the “Summa Theologica” would not have been written. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Catholic
St Thomas had great devotion to the Holy Eucharist. The early biographers claim, that he would lean his head against the Tabernacle, as if to feel the throbbing of Jesus’ divine and human heart. Like St Thomas, let us fall in love with this Sacrament! “Let us participate in Holy Mass with recollection, to obtain its spiritual
fruits, let us nourish ourselves with this Body and Blood of Our Lord, to be ceaselessly fed by divine Grace! Let us willingly and frequently linger in the company of the Blessed Sacrament in heart-to-heart conversation!” (Benedict XVI,
General Audience, St Thomas Aquinas (3), 23 June 2010).
With a prayer that is traditionally attributed to St Thomas and that in any case reflects the elements of his profound Marian devotion we too say: “O most Blessed and sweet Virgin Mary, Mother of God… I entrust to your merciful heart… my entire life…. Obtain for me as well, O most sweet Lady, true charity with which from the depths of my heart I may love your most Holy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and, after
him, love you above all other things… and my neighbour, in God and for God” (ibid).
It is important to always remember that the depth of St Thomas Aquinas’ thought flowed from his living faith and fervent piety, which he expressed in inspired prayers such as this one in which he asks God: “Grant me, O Lord my God, a mind to know you, a heart to seek you, wisdom to find you, conduct pleasing to you,
faithful perseverance in waiting for you, and a hope of finally embracing you”. (Cf Benedict XVI, General Audience, St Thomas Aquinas (2), St Peter’s Square, 16 June 2010
Fr Anthony Ibegbunam is a priest of Nnewi Diocese
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