St. Thomas Aquinas


Patron Saint of Teachers and Students

by Very Rev. Anthony Barratt

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On the 28th January, we celebrated the feast day of a remarkable saint: St. Thomas Aquinas. He is a saint with much to teach us. Why? Because he is very much a saint for our time; both because of his spiritual wisdom and plain common sense and because he lived in very turbulent and troubled times not unlike our own. We are also beginning Catholic Schools Week (31st January to 6th February) and he is the patron saint of teachers and students. So, who was he, what did he do and say and, perhaps most importantly, how can he help us?

He was a priest and a member of the Dominican religious order. He is also a doctor, that is an eminent and reliable teacher in the Church. He was born in 1225 in Roccasecca (in the middle of Italy, near Naples) of a noble family. He could have had a life of great ease and privilege, but he felt our Lord’s call to be a priest from an early age. Eventually (and reluctantly) his family agreed. At one stage they even kidnapped him and then imprisoned him for a year, to stop him joining the Dominicans! He was ordained a priest in 1257. He died in 1274 and he was canonized in 1323. He was an outstanding pastor, both in terms of his pastoral care and spirituality, and especially as a great writer and teacher.

As we know, all the saints can inspire and encourage us. Let us recall that the saints are real people who lived real lives and they are shining examples of how God works thorough who we are… of how God’s “grace perfects our nature.” His questions, his struggles are very much ours, even though we are separated by eight centuries and the Atlantic Ocean! So what can we learn from Saint Thomas Aquinas to help us in our spiritual journey and growth?

First of all, it was another saint, St. Albert the Great, that inspired Thomas, whilst a student at college with St. Albert as his professor, to become a teacher himself. Albert became known as the teacher of THE teacher. How often it is that the example of others that can inspire us. It is also a reminder that we are called to inspire and help others to be who God calls them to be. Perhaps this is a very special calling both for parents, but also for teachers. May we never be a counter example to those placed in our care.

Thomas lived in a time when all sorts of new discoveries were being made and all sorts of new ideas were flooding into society (sound familiar…?!). He would have been puzzled, even shocked, by our current mindset of opposing science and faith. He would have said that the wonders of science should lead us to a deeper faith and wonder about our world and the universe, that is of God’s creation. Instead of having and either/or approach or mindset, he believed we must embrace the new but always guided by the old: a both/and approach to everything in life. Often, he was asked is it X or is it Y: he would reply “Yes.” As he liked to say; “rarely affirm, seldom deny, always distinguish.” May we have that open, yet questioning, faculty.

Thomas even offered five proofs for the existence of God. However, he also reminded his listeners of the need for reason, yes, but also, and first, for faith. One of his famous both/ands! In fact, he said, “to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary; to one without faith, no explanation is possible.” Faith AND reason!

Thomas is famous for his teaching on how God’s grace and love works in and through us. It is a matter of collaboration, with God’s love always coming first. God does not take away our human freedom. Quite the opposite, he heals it and also makes it possible. To this end he wrote that God’s “grace perfects our nature.” He even uses a rather comical example to illustrate what he means. He asked: if a mouse runs onto the altar and nibbles the consecrated host, does the mouse receive Holy Communion? His answer, not surprisingly, was yes and no! Yes, because God never takes back his Word and the host is the real presence of our Lord. However, no, because to receive Holy Communion fruitfully needs faith and cooperation from the recipient. May we always cooperate with God’s love and grace and never oppose it.

Thomas had a great love of the Eucharist, and he has written a number of hymns and prayers that we still use today, such as the Adoro Te devote, that is “humbly we adore you”, or the hymns used at Benediction such as the “Tantum Ergo.” As he wrote, “the Eucharist is the consummation of the whole spiritual life.” May we always have the Eucharist at the heart of all our endeavors.

What fueled all this amazing work and teaching? Well, it was, of course, God’s gift to Thomas of an incredible intellect. However, and as Thomas would say, behind that was always prayer. Indeed, before he wrote anything, he would spend much time in prayer. May we always find time for prayer before we go about our daily activities, whether at home, at school or on the way to work.

He was a very human saint too. He had a great sense of humor and a good, down to earth, common sense. He was once asked about a cure for sadness. The person was expecting some deep spiritual answer, but Thomas famously replied “sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine.” Another asked him: what does it take to become a saint. Thomas replied with two words: “will it.”

He was renowned for his love and charity. He offers such good and straightforward advice on how to be a loving person. He said: “to love is to will the good of the others.” We also have to be passionate about love and even to be angry when we see wrong or hatred. As he noted: “he who is not angry when there is just cause for anger is immoral. Why? Because anger looks to the good of justice. And if you can live amid injustice without anger, you are immoral as well as unjust.” May we always have that strong sense of justice and of actively working for the good.

St. Thomas had the most amazing gifts, but he was never proud or boastful. He was acutely aware that any gifts we have are just that: gifts from God, not ours, and that they are to be used in love of God and neighbor. For example, singlehandedly, he wrote what is still, in many ways, the theological guide for the Catholic Church, even after 800 years, called the Summa Theologica. Yet he never finished this masterpiece. Why? One day, while he was still writing the Summa, he was celebrating Mass and he had an amazing spiritual experience that burned his soul. He realized the enormous gift of God’s love, especially in the Eucharist. And so, as he said, in the face of this, “all that I have written is just straw.”

Let us give thanks for the example of St. Thomas Aquinas, very much as a saint and a guide for our time. Let us ask for his prayers, especially for our teachers and students. Let us finish with a prayer written by him:

Grant me, O Lord my God,

a mind to know you,

a heart to seek you

the wisdom to find you,

a way of life pleasing to you,

faithful perseverance in waiting for you

and a hope of finally embracing you.