The Angelic Doctor

News: Commentary
by Paul Brock III  •  •  June 28, 2021   

Profiling St. Thomas Aquinas

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Born in Italy in 1225, Thomas Aquinas grew up in the province of Frosinone in the town of Roccasecca. 

Abbey of Monte Cassino

He was the youngest boy in a large wealthy family. His parents, Landulf and Theodora, held the high rank of count and countess of Aquino. 

Thomas' uncle was abbot of Monte Cassino — the oldest Benedictine monastery, and although his brothers pursued military careers, Thomas was expected by his family (for their own advantage) to follow his uncle's footsteps into religious life as an abbot. 

As a young man Thomas was sent to the University of Naples, and that's where he first encountered the philosophical works of Aristotle — the student of Plato (who was the student of Socrates). Aristotle's teachings played a huge role in shaping the young mind of Aquinas because his ideas deepened his understanding of the natural world. 

"Philosophy is the science which considers truth," Aristotle once said. 

Family, Angels Intervene

When Thomas was 19 years old, he joined the brand new Dominican Order, which was established about 30 years earlier by St. Dominic.  

This decision to join the Dominicans upset his family because it took him off the path to the high-ranking position of abbot of Monte Cassino. 

The order arranged for Thomas to move to Rome, but his own mother had his older brothers, members of the emperor's army in Italy, kidnap and imprison him at their family castle for about a year. 

It's commonly held that during his imprisonment he memorized the entire Bible and instructed his older sisters in Scripture — actually converting his oldest sister, Marotta. 

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Attempting to change Thomas' mind, his brothers hired a prostitute to seduce him.

As recorded in his official canonization records, at not even 20 years old, Thomas Aquinas drove the prostitute out with a burning log, inscribed a cross onto the wall with the log, and then fell into ecstasy where two angels told him: "Behold, we gird thee by the command of God with the girdle of chastity, which henceforth will never be imperiled. What human strength cannot obtain, is now bestowed upon thee as a celestial gift." 

The 'Dumb Ox' Studies

Unfazed by his family's ardent disapproval and now carrying with him the grace of perfect chastity, Thomas joined the Dominicans and was sent to study at the University of Paris. 

At the time, Albertus Magnus (future St. Albert the Great), was the chair of theology at the college and taught the young Thomas there. 

After three years, Albertus was sent by his superiors to teach in Cologne and brought Thomas with him. 

You call him the 'dumb ox,' but in his teaching, he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.

There, Aquinas was quiet and did not speak much — and because of this, his fellow students thought he was stupid. 

This is what caused St. Albert the Great to famously say about Thomas: "You call him the 'dumb ox,' but in his teaching, he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world." 

After his studies under Dominican St. Albert the Great, Thomas studied alongside another great mind. This time it was a Franciscan named Giovanni di Fidanza (future St. Bonaventure). The two (one who came to be recognized as the "Angelic Doctor" and the other who came to be recognized as the "Seraphic Doctor") became great friends and were recognized as two of the best young theologians at the time. And a couple centuries later, they would be recognized by numerous popes as two of the greatest Doctors in the history of the Church.   

Prolific Writer

St. Thomas is well-known for: 

  • Compiling the Five Ways (the five proofs for God's existence) 
  • He wrote extensively in his Summa Contra Gentiles about the truth of the Catholic faith and the errors of unbelievers
  • He was summoned to Rome by Pope Clement IV to serve as papal theologian 
  • He wrote commentaries on Aristotle's works and emphasized the necessity of the study of philosophy 
  • He wrote the Summa Theologica — a compendium of all the main theological teachings of the Catholic Church (his most famous work) 
  • He wrote (with much help) lengthy commentaries on the Epistles 

This help in writing his commentaries on the Epistles did not come from any one of his fellow Dominican friars. St. Thomas' secretary, Friar Reginald, used to hear him conversing with men in his cell. Forced by the prior under holy obedience to reveal who they were, St. Thomas told them it was Sts. Peter and Paul, who would visit him and explain the meaning of their words in the Epistles. 

'Most Brilliant Light of the Church'

St. Thomas Aquinas was canonized by Pope John XXII in 1323, who said of him before he was even declared a Doctor of the Church: "He enlightened the Church more than all the other Doctors." 

More than 200 years later and Pope St. Pius V declared him a Doctor of The Church in 1567, saying he was "the most brilliant light of the Church." 

Popes throughout the centuries, too many to count, have esteemed St. Thomas in the same manner:

The Council of Trent
  • Pope Benedict XIII called his work "more brilliant than the sun and written without the shadow of error." 
  • Pope Leo XIII said about the Angelic Doctor: "Among the Scholastic Doctors, the chief and master of all towers [is] Thomas Aquinas." 
  • Pope St. Pius X warned Catholics: "One may not desert Aquinas, especially in philosophy and theology, without great harm; following him is the safest way to the knowledge of divine things." 
  • Pope St. John Paul II referred to Thomas as "a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology. ... In his thinking, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought." 

Largely in response to the 16th-century heresy of Protestantism, the Council of Trent looked to St. Thomas' work as the main defense; the Summa Theologica was even placed on the altar alongside the Bible during the council. 

After Trent, seminaries as we know them today were established all over the world, and St. Thomas' work was the standard for men discerning the priesthood. 

'Nothing But You, Lord'

About a year before his death, Thomas was seen levitating in prayer with tears in his eyes in front of a crucifix. Our Lord said to Thomas, "You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?" His response: "Nothing but You, Lord." 

St. Thomas died in the year 1274 — just before his 50th birthday. He received last rites and his final words were: "I receive Thee, ransom of my soul. For love of Thee have I studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached and taught." 

Watch the full episode of Mic'd Up—The Angelic Doctor.

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