Rorate Caeli

The 750th birthday of St Thomas Aquinas into eternal life

Today, 750 years ago, Friar Thomas d'Aquino of the Order of Preachers breathed his last, at a Cistercian monastery in Fossanova, en route to an ecumenical council (Lyon II) that his friend and colleague, the Franciscan Bonaventure, would reach but where he, too, would die.

Before dying, Thomas received the Viaticum with tremendous devotion and submitted all his writings, especially on the Blessed Sacrament, to the judgment of the Church. The Church's judgment has been clear: for over 700 years, the magisterium has held up St Thomas Aquinas's writings as the norm and measure of studies in the Catholic Church. At the Council of Trent, alongside the Bible was placed the Summa theologiae as a trustworthy reference. And why? As the early biographers relate, Thomas heard one day the voice of Christ saying to him: "You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have?" To which the friar replied: "Only yourself, Lord." This was the reward he always sought, and it was the reward given to him.

Most people think of Aquinas as an argumentative scholar, if not a proto-rationalist. And there is no doubt he was philosophically acute, syllogistically supple, dialectically driven. But he was above all a man of faith, pervasive prayer, intense devotion, and radical service to his neighbor.

As a young boy, he was saturated with the liturgical life of the Benedictines. As a young man, he threw in his lot with controversial mendicant itinerant preachers who demanded that he "follow poor the poor Christ." That's not something your typical rationalist would do. As a student, he was a faithful companion to Albert the Great, assisting him in his work. As a professor, he wrote book after book, not having exclusively his own "research interests" in mind, but primarily responding to the needs of others: his students (e.g., the commentaries on Aristotle), fellow preachers (e.g., the two Summae), fellow religious (e.g., polemical works in defense of the Mendicants, expert responses to questions from the master general and from far-flung missions), and, indeed, the entire body of Catholics, when he composed at Pope Urban IV's request the Office and Mass of Corpus Christi, the greatest masterpiece in the Latin liturgical books.

Even at the end of his life, shattered and exhausted, he began the journey to Lyon to participate in a council, unusually riding on horseback due to his weak condition, rather than tromping the roads as he had done the rest of his life, as mendicants were required to do out of their vow of poverty.

What is perhaps least known about this great saint is his liturgical theology and spirit. As his early biographer William of Tocco puts it:

He was especially devoted to the most holy Sacrament of the Altar; since it had been granted him to write so profoundly of this, he was likewise given grace to celebrate it all the more devoutly…. During Mass he often would be seized by such strong feelings of devotion that he dissolved in tears, because he was absorbed in the holy mysteries of the great sacrament and invigorated by its offering.

In a biographical sketch, Fr Simon Tugwell observes:

Thomas’ deep devotion to the Mass emerges clearly from all our sources. Sometimes he evidently became deeply absorbed in it and was profoundly moved by it. Toward the end of his life he sometimes became so absorbed that he just stopped and had to be roused by the brethren to continue with the celebration.

If we would see up-close how attentive St Thomas Aquinas was to the Latin ceremonies he performed (already by that time, in the thirteenth century, viewed as immemorial and “set in place”!), how conscious he was of their numerous open and hidden meanings, how ready to defend their legitimacy and fittingness, we need look no further than to certain extensive passages of his writing where he comments on the liturgy much as he does on Scripture or the Philosopher.

Happily, the work of collecting and synthesizing the relevant passages from Aquinas’s writings has been completed in time for this 750th anniversary by Urban Hannon in his new book Thomistic Mystagogy (Os Justi Press), which I encourage you to check out.

I wish one and all a happy feast of St Thomas Aquinas!