Few saints were more revered than Saint Thomas Aquinas a learned Dominican who contributed so much to Holy Mother Church in writings and songs. He is best known for the great theology tome "Summa Theologica", which incorporates three parts covering the entire teaching of the Church in regards Faith and Morals. He also penned the awe-inspiring Benediction hymns of "O Salutaris Hostia" and "Tantum Ergo". He was born of noble heritage in Aquino, Italy in 1226 five years after the death of the founder of the Dominicans Saint Dominic. Though Thomas studied at the Dominican University in Naples, his brother kidnapped him on his way from Naples to the Order's University in Paris. This absconding was ordered by Thomas' own mother, so incensed was she that Thomas was considering the priesthood. Thomas was forcefully taken to the family's castle of Rocca-Secca and kept there against his will for two years, often being coerced by his own brothers to abandon his holy vow of chastity. But Pope Innocent IV intervened, ordering Thomas be brought to Rome. From there Thomas, also an expert chemistry scholor, was free to go on to Paris to study. In France he studied under Saint Albert the Great who had joined the Dominicans in 1223.
Albert was eighteen years older than Thomas and, yet, would go on to outlive his younger counterpart by six years. It was Albert, the pioneer of the Scholastic method, who first recognized Thomas' brilliance as a theologian and, with Louis' help, convinced the Holy See of his potential. It was Albert also who served Pope Alexander IV and who had a hand in convincing the supreme pontiff to canonize Saint Clare as well as confirming the reality of the stigmata given to Saint Francis. It was also Albert's steady hand and brilliant mind which aided the Holy Father in composing several tomes of popular jurisprudence. And finally, it was Albert, at the age of seventy-one, who staunchly defended his fellow Dominican Aquinas and his theological position against the attacks of Paris' Bishop Stephen Tempier and a cadre of upstart theologians at the University of Paris in 1977, three years after Thomas' death. His argument played a significant role in furthering the works of Aquinas and expediting his cause for canonization. For Albert it would be a much longer time after his death in Cologne, Germany on November 15, 1280. He would not officially be declared a saint until 1931 by Pope Pius XII at which time he received the well-deserved title also of Doctor of the Church.
As for Thomas, one of his close classmates was Saint Bonaventure and therein reveals the close ties between Dominican and Franciscan. Just as Dominic and Francis were so intricately aligned at the same time in history, thirty years later Thomas and Bonaventure were also. Bonaventure was four years older, yet they were classmates and died the same year. Known as the "Seraphic Doctor," Saint Bonaventure, was born near Viterbo in Tuscany, Italy in 1221 five years before Saint Francis of Assisi died. As a child Bonaventure had contracted a mortal sickness and Francis came to his deathbead. There little Bonaventure was miraculously cured. So overcome was Francis with thankfulness to God for this wondrous event that he proclaimed "O bona ventura!" - Italian for "goodness goes with you wherever you go." From that moment on the child became Bonaventure. The fruits of Francis' zeal touched Bonaventure so much he entered the Franciscans in 1240 and was assigned to the University of Paris. There he met Thomas. After graduating and being ordained, he became a professor there where he teamed with Thomas to defend the Franciscan friars who were being pressured to resign from teaching by the Diocesan priests. Bonaventure had the full support of his friend who he advised - the king -Saint Louis. Thomas was greatly moved by Bonaventure's tact and intelligence and asked him how he had acquired such great learning in so little time. Bonaventure answered simply by pointing to his crucifix. Thomas knew intuitively what he meant. Bonaventure also compiled the biography on the life of St. Francis during this time and once, while writing it, was discovered by Thomas to be in total ecstacy. Thomas remarked to his fellow teachers, "Let us leave a Saint to write of a Saint." Shortly thereafter in 1257 Bonaventure was selected Superior General of the Franciscans at the unusually early age of 35. In this position he promulgated the revision of the Franciscan constitution so that it would be more in line with what Francis intended. Yet he was prudent in keeping a peaceful balance between those who sought to observe the rule in the strictest sense and those who were more relaxed in the interpretation of the rule. He wrote, "look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love." He was offered the position of archbishop of York but respectfully declined in order to give his attention to his order and the people. Eventually, however, Blessed Pope Gregory X, through Albert's counsel, convinced him he should become cardinal and head the diocese of Albano. In obedience he complied and the Holy Father commissioned him to prepare everything for the Second Council of Lyons where he also spoke, winning over the Greeks as they came back in union with Rome. It was there a few weeks after the Council that Bonaventure died in 1274 with Blessed Gregory, most of the bishops assembled for the Council, and numerous loyal Franciscans at his bedside.
Besides studying under Albert and with Bonaventure, France was where Thomas was reunited with a distant relative of his: Louis IX. Though it is not documented that Thomas counseled Louis, there is strong suspicion that Louis, a humble and holy man, could see the sanctity in this Dominican and submitted to his teaching because of Bonaventure's holy influence. It was Louis who confirmed Thomas and Bonaventure's extraordinary talent at the university in his country to Rome. Because of that, after graduating summa cum laude, Thomas landed teaching dockets at universities in Paris, Rome and Naples. So great was his tutelage that Pope Urban IV summoned Thomas to personally advise the pontiff in 1261. Thomas stayed on for three years. There in Rome, he composed the Mass and office for the feast of Corpus Christi as well as writing the hymns "Pange Lingua" and "Adoro Te". It was through Thomas' steady influence that Urban IV declared the feast of Corpus Christi and became forever after known as the "Corpus Christi Pope". Though Thomas was an extremely learned man, he was also humble enough to realize his vital need for God. Once, while in prayer, he heard Jesus say to him from the crucifix, "Thomas, thou has written well of Me. What reward dost thou wish?" The holy preacher didn't hesitate in his response, "No other reward, Lord, except Thyself." Besides St. Albert, Thomas remained a close confidant to St. Bonaventure. He became such a counselor to the papacy that Pope Blessed Gregory X personally invited him to participate in the General Council of Lyons in 1274, along with Bonaventure and Albert, but the great Thomas died on his way there at Fossa Nuova near Terracina, Italy on March 7, 1274. He was only 49 when he was called home to Heaven and exactly 49 years later he was canonized by Pope John XXII. Thomas was officially declared a "Doctor of the Church" in 1567 by Pope Saint Pius V, whose feast we celebrate in two days, and Thomas' feast day had always been celebrated on March 7th until after Vatican II when it was changed to January 28th.
In a time when German domination and Italian in-fighting curtailed many of the efforts of the Vatican, Thomas, Albert and Bonaventure were a breath of fresh air as they strove to be obedient to Rome and to the ideals of their founders, constantly staving off attacks against their solid teachings and styles and a desire to soften the rules. All three held firm and for their efforts the Church was strengthened. The thirteenth century was truly a time of quality saints and because of their efforts, Holy Mother Church would grow stronger and more influential in carrying out Christ's mission on earth. In the next installment we will leave the saints and continue our journey with the Popes of the thirteenth century, picking up where we left off a few installments ago on Pope Clement IV the "interim pontiff" between Urban IV and Blessed Gregory X who would launch the Eighth Crusade and Louis IX's last hurrah.
To review all past installments of this on-going series, go to Archives beginning with the inaugural A CALL TO PEACE internet issue in January 1996. volume 7, no. 1.