This Saturday, 28th January is the Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian, dubbed “The Angelic Doctor”. A good day to go to Mass if you can, let’s also pray on Saturday for the Dominicans, the ‘Order of Preachers.’ Here, I reproduce the short biography for the day given by Dawn Marie Beutner in her book Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year (San Francisco, Ignatius Press: 2020).
Thomas was born on 1225 into a noble family at Rocca Secca in the central part of modern Italy. When he was five years old, he was sent to be educated of the famous Abbey at Monte Cassino where a relative was abbot. At the age of 13, he was removed from Monte Cassino, probably because of the dangers of the times, but a year later he was sent to study at the University of Naples. There he became acquainted with the members and practices of the Dominicans, and he became one himself at the age of 19. His family was outraged that he had chosen a mendicant order rather than a more established and wealthy one. Although the Dominicans were able to send him away on two occasions before his angry mother arrived, she then sent two of his brothers with a troop of soldiers to capture him. He was kidnapped and then imprisoned by his brothers at Rocca Secca and Monte Sang Giovanni; during that time, he wasn’t allowed to see anyone but two of his sisters. He used his two years’ imprisonment to memorise much of the Bible and to study The Four Books of Sentences by Peter Lombard, which was a standard theology textbook at the time; he even quickly sent away a woman who was sent to seduce him. The Pope himself tried to intervene in this very public family disagreement. Eventually, Thomas was released so that he could return to the Dominicans to study.
An extremely intelligent student with a demanding, inquiring mind, Thomas studied at the University of Paris under a great teacher, Saint Albert the Great. Although some underestimated Thomas’s abilities due to his quiet nature, Albert did not. After completing his degree, Thomas taught, preached and wrote. He was highly respected by the king of France, St. Louis IX. While living in Paris, he began work on his famous Summa Theologiae, which was intended to be a comprehensive summary of Catholic teaching for theology students. His many writings, which are still studied today, addressed the philosophical and theological questions of the day with a depth and clarity that came from his deep prayer life. For example, at the university’s request and after praying fervently for divine assistance, he wrote a treatise explaining the doctrine of transubstantiation to explain the Blessed Sacrament; it was his explanation that was later accepted by the whole Church. As a man, he was noted for his chastity and fervent prayer life; as a friar, he was noted for his obedience; as a writer and teacher, he was noted for his humility and charity towards his opponents. Late in his life, Thomas was called back to Italy where, while celebrating Mass, he received a vision that affected him deeply. He explained to his friend, Brother Reginald, that he could no longer work on his Summa because “the end of my labours has come. All that I have written appears to be a so much straw, after the things that have been revealed to me.” Although he was ill, he obeyed Pope Gregory X’s order to attend the general council at Lyons to try to bring about a reunion between the Eastern and Latin churches, but during the journey, his health declined so seriously that he was taken to a nearby Cistercian abbey. Seeing that he was dying, the monks prayed with him. While he was explaining to them, at their request, the biblical book The Song of Songs, he died. It was the 7th March 1274. Often called the angelic doctor for his writings and one of the most influential theologians and philosophers in Church history, Thomas was unsurprisingly named a Doctor of the Church. His works have been praised by popes and studied by Catholic theologians ever since.
“We must point out that what we are discussing here is the contemplative life as it concerns human beings. And the difference between us and the angels, as Dionysius makes clear, is that angels look at the truth with a direct grasp of it, whereas we have to start with many different things and proceed step-by-step from there before we reach the point where we can see truth in its simplicity” (ST II.II. Q179-182)