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ADVISOR TO THE POPE, A KING AND US

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Saint Thomas Aquinas

In the 2000 years of Church History Thomas Aquinas stands out as one of the great figures. He was literally a huge man, tall and heavily built, but with a quiet and reflective manner. At university, his fellow-students called him the "Dumb Ox" - little knowing that his intellectual achievements would shape Catholic theology for centuries to come!

His family were Italian aristocrats and he was born in 1225 in a castle near to the small town of Aquino. One of his relatives was the Abbot of the nearby Abbey of Monte Casino and when Thomas was five years old he was sent there to begin his education. About ten years later he went to the University of Naples where he spent five years studying arts and sciences. During this time he became friendly with some Dominicans and at the age of 19 he joined the Order. When his mother heard this news she was far from pleased, not because of his religious vocation - she would have been happy enough if he had followed his relative and become a Benedictine Abbot - but the fact that he had joined a newly founded order of mendicant friars. She had him brought home by force and kept him virtually a prisoner, hoping that he might give up his plans. His two sisters begged him to leave the order but Thomas quietly reasoned with them and in the end they understood and accepted his decision. Evidently, even at that early age, Thomas had a gift of convincing argument!

In time the family allowed him to return to the Dominicans and he was sent to Cologne to study under Albert of Bollstadt. Thomas was a brilliant student but when it came to debates and discussions he would often remain silent and reserved. This led to the “Dumb Ox” nickname, thought his superiors recognized his exceptional abilities.

At the age of 27 Thomas began teaching at the University of Paris and at the same time writing scripture commentaries. He gained his doctorate and from 1259 to l268 he was back in Italy where he was made a preacher-general and an adviser to the Papal Court. He travelled with the Pope and preached, in spite of his quiet nature, with enthusiasm and conviction. It was during this period that he began writing his "Summa Theologica", the greatest of his 98 works. Although he never finished it, this has remained a standard authority in the Church's teaching.

Thomas spent another three years in Paris where he was greatly respected. Even the King, Louis IX, held him in high esteem and often sought his advice. For a time he faced opposition from the Bishop of Paris, who disapproved of his method of working, but these objections were withdrawn by a later bishop several years after his death.

He was recalled to Naples to be in charge of the Dominican study house and two years later, in 1274, the Pope asked him to attend the Council of Lyons which was attempting to reconcile the eastern and western churches. On the journey Thomas was taken ill and died at the Cistercian Abbey of Terracina on 7th. March 1274. He was 51 years old.

His understanding of theology and philosophy were remarkable. He studied the writings of the Greek philosophers and interpreted them m the light of Catholic teaching. His own thinking blended together Aristotle and the Bible, logic and revelation. For Thomas, faith and reason went hand in hand. Yet he remained a humble and generous man, giving God the credit for his achievements. The starting point of his study was always prayer, asking God to enlighten him. In sharing his knowledge, Thomas followed the Dominican principle of "handing on the fruits of contemplation".

Thomas Aquinas is the patron of all schools, colleges and universities. He reminds us today that we should be striving all our lives to learn more about our faith which we, too, have a responsibility for handing on that knowledge to others. We cannot all be intellectual giants but we can follow his example of beginning every task with a humble prayer.

We owe so much to Thomas for our knowledge and understanding of the Blessed Sacrament – to which he had a special devotion and described as “pledge of future glory”. The liturgy of Corpus Christi is the fruit of his meditation on the Blessed Sacrament and he is the author of ‘Pange lingua’ and ‘Adoro te devote’. Whenever we attend Benediction or a Holy Hour and sing the ‘Tantum Ergo’ we can pray to St. Thomas Aquinas to increase our love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.