Hardly a word can be breathed about Catholic theology without mentioning the great name of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic and Universal Doctor of the Catholic Church. He was God's chosen theologian, for his times and all subsequent ones. But not only was he intelligent and erudite, he was—what is far more important—filled with Divine Charity to overflowing, adorned with every virtue in angelic fashion. For, as he himself wrote, "the least love of God is greater than all knowledge," and St. Thomas's learning was surpassed only by his holiness.
Born around 1225 in Aquino, Italy, he was the son of a count and a countess, and thus had access to all the best education available in that era. Tradition conveys that a hermit prophesied about him when he was in the womb that he would become a Dominican and be unparalleled in sanctity and learning. Initially taught by the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino, he was considered both diligent in study and devout in prayer. The monks sent him to the University of Naples, where he soon surpassed his professors and where he joined the Dominican Order.
Since he had done this without his family's consent, the Dominicans sent him to Rome, but on the way, his brothers captured him at the order of his mother. They imprisoned him in a tower for two years, tempting him and seeking to dissuade him from professing his religious vows. On one famous occasion, his brothers tried to tempt him to impurity by sending a prostitute into his holding room, but St. Thomas drove her away with a firebrand. After this, angels came to gird him with a belt of perpetual virginity, an extraordinary grace that drove away from him any temptation to lust ever again.
St. Thomas had had access to books, and when he was finally released (possibly at the insistence of the Pope and the Emperor), he had advanced as much in learning as if he had been in the regular course of the novitiate. Indeed, many guess that he had memorized the Scriptures in his captivity. After making his vows and being examined by the pope, he was sent to Paris and Cologne, where he became a student of St. Albert the Great, up to that point the most learned Dominican. It was St. Albert who pronounced another prophecy about St. Thomas, that though he was called a "dumb ox" because of his humble silence, the thunder of his future doctrines would sound throughout the world. St. Thomas spent his time under St. Albert, bot h in Paris and in Cologne, where Thomas was ordained priest. He began an illustrious career of preaching throughout Germany, France, and Italy that grew his fame. Later, he was assigned to teach in Paris, and he prepared for a doctorate in theology. There were bitter conflicts between the university and the mendicant orders at that time, which delayed his graduation. Nevertheless, in 1257, he was promoted to doctor of theology and afterwards became renowned as a preacher, teacher, and writer who traveled about Europe—so high in demand was he by everyone from popes to the University of Paris, as well as the Dominicans all over Italy and France.
Though he wrote over 60 great works, the largest of which was the Summa Theologiae (continually used and promoted as the primary theological manual of the Church ever since), Thomas never wavered in humble virtue, staying assiduous in prayer and angelically pure: he refused the episcopate with anxious tears. Not only a professor and preacher, he was also a mystic, frequently experiencing spiritual ecstasies. One of the most famous came after he had written a tract on the Blessed Sacrament; from the crucifix, he was asked, "Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?" The saintly answer of the preacher came: "Nothing but Thee, Lord!" Near the end of his life, during Mass, he experienced an ecstasy so profound that he ceased to write any more of his theology. He explained that, compared to what mysteries he had been revealed, all he had written was so much straw. At last, in 1274, on his way to the Greek reunion Council of Lyons, he fell ill and, after a brief illness, died pronouncing his fidelity and deference to the Holy Roman Church. Never again was such a combination of piety and learning, knowledge and charity, or natural wisdom and supernatural wisdom found in any son of the Church. St. Thomas remains the greatest theologian; here is his magnificent story.
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