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Lessons from St. Thomas Aquinas

Doctor of the Church reminds us that all things point to God

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Entering the theological world of St. Thomas Aquinas can be like stepping into a dauntingly vast and variegated universe, not unlike how meeting St. Augustine, Dante or Shakespeare can be. Certainly St. Thomas presents unique challenges, being one of history’s greatest geniuses, who also was given to mystical experiences. Then there is the matter of his language. Not his Latin, but his methodology and professional vocabulary, which demand particular concentration. Nevertheless, fundamental, consistent principles undergird that universe, which remain connected, build upon each other and can lead to surprisingly familiar territory bathed in new light.

At the outset I must confess I am not a Thomist, nor was my seminary theological education Thomistic. My own specialization is in patristic theology, and when I began those studies, a seminary faculty member who had spent his life teaching Thomistic philosophy and theology commented that if he were to start all over again he would spend more time with Augustine. He did not mean his years with Aquinas were ill-spent but that he saw a great complementarity between the two thinkers that he would love to explore. Thirty years since that conversation, I admit my own wish to have spent more time with Aquinas — and for similar reasons.

Like Augustine, who saw humans as a unique part of God’s creation specially made to know, praise and delight in him and his works (see Confessions I.1), Aquinas, whose feast day we celebrate Jan. 28, was fully a child of the Creator of the universe. G.K. Chesterton once remarked that had the Dominican been a Carmelite who took a religious name based on his spiritual preferences, he would have been called “Thomas de Creatore.” For Aquinas, being this specific creature was the opening to inexhaustible wonders designed to draw one in, enthrall and lead one yearningly to rejoice in the Maker.

Existence is real; matter matters, and, therefore, there is meaning to be found. Like the tiny mustard seed with its explosive life force (see Mk 4:31-32), this simple grounding helped St. Thomas pursue his relentless endeavors with a distinctive serenity of mind, humility of spirit and delight of heart by which he embraced the challenges of his times, his mission within the Church and his priestly ministry of word and Eucharist. What follows is an attempt to trace some broad lines of Aquinas’ thought that converge in a life of priestly ministry.

Man for All Seasons

Admittedly, the expression “a man for all seasons” gets a bit hackneyed, but it has special application in St. Thomas’ case. The seasons, of course, pertain to creation, which comes from God directly as a result of his free act, will, purpose and love (see Summa Theologica I, q.20, a.2; q.44, aa.1, 4); all creation thereby is good, has purpose and continues to be held in being by its loving Creator. And ultimately creation, with Christ as its Head, provides a vehicle for being led back to the Trinity (see Summa III., q.3, a.8). These premises may seem obvious to a Christian, but Aquinas mined them for the radical implications they contain.

Seasons also denote the passing of time. The one creating God who is always good and self-revealing is the one constant, supreme reality throughout the passing of time. This legitimizes consulting the achievements of other ages, peoples and civilizations to discover something of God. Unsurprisingly, Aquinas felt at ease in the company of pagan, Jewish, Muslim, Latin Christian and Greek Christian thinkers. “Every truth, no matter who utters it, is from the Holy Spirit” (Summa Ia-IIae, q.109, a.1, ad.1). This inspired in Thomas what Pope St. Paul VI recognized as a sincere affection for writers of other eras and traditions who also showed him the unique advantages of the Christian dispensation (see Lumen Ecclesiae, No. 11). The deeper implications of faith in the Creator fostered the confidence of a true intellectual freedom simultaneously free from the dangers of a reductionist relativism or syncretism.

Finally, seasons involve change. Thomas’ century is well-known as a period of profound transformations in the West on the economic, political, educational, artistic and religious levels. His own story touches upon virtually all these changes, being part of an aristocratic family with his life largely predestined to play out in imperial, papal and local political circles. Yet, he abandoned this not simply for any religious life but particularly for a newborn movement that still puzzled parts of the prevailing ecclesial order.

Son of the Church

Humans, being created things, exist in a real form moving toward a natural end or fulfillment, which is God and which they perfectly or imperfectly desire (see Summa Ia-IIae, q.1, a.7; q.2, aa.3, 8; q.3, aa.1, 2, 7), and the same Christ who is the head of all men and also the head of the body, the Church (see Summa III, q.8, aa.1, 2, 3, 6). The multiplicity and harmony that characterize creation are also basic features of the Church. Aquinas spent his life in a very specific vocation that remained constant, yet it required constant adjustments. His fidelity and devotion to Christ through his vocation is the stuff of legend, from his family’s multiyear attempt to thwart his call, to the opposition he later met in Paris. Mere personal tenacity does not explain this; rather, his basic theological understanding of the Church grounded his life in the Church.

For St. Thomas, the Church exists for the purpose of making Jesus Christ present and known, and thus, through him, the Triune God, in order to lead people to salvation. It is a singular creation of God, and, as in creation itself, it requires a variety of concrete forms or offices and relationships that all are necessary, yet none all-sufficient or all-possessing in themselves of all the gifts God gives his Church (see Summa IIa-IIae, q.183, aa.2-3; q.184; q.188, a.1; Summa III, q.61, a.1). Instead, all aspects of the Church during these days are relational and function in service. Seen in this light, his famous obedience to his superiors is not only a measure of his virtue but also logically consistent with his ecclesiology.

Aquinas’ service especially was evident in his active contributions to his community. Major writings we might view today in the modern academy as primarily products of a professor’s own interests actually were his labors for his brothers. The Summa Contra Gentiles and Summa Theologica were meant as handbooks to assist friars in their pastoral missions apart from formal studies. He composed programs of study, scriptural studies and conferences all for the community’s benefit. At the close of his life, after he had concluded all his writings were as mere straw, he offered a commentary on the Song of Songs in gratitude to the Cistercians caring for him — still giving, in other words, anything he had to give.

Priest of the Word and Eucharist

Thomas the priest was formed by his ministry of the word and the Eucharist. Like the Church Fathers, whose sermons and Scripture commentaries would have been, in their estimation, their most significant works, Aquinas spent his life devoted to the study of the sacred page — one of God’s paramount gifts to his Church. Scripture, for him, was the supreme expression of revelation, the principle authority and thus what we today call “the soul of theology” (see Summa I, q.1, a.8, ad.2; Summa IIa-IIae, q.1, a.9, ad.1). One cannot be a Christian without it. There can be no doctrine apart from it. The formal study and explication of Scripture were always part of his priestly life, from the earliest days to the last ones.

‘A Master of Thought’
“In an age when Christian thinkers were rediscovering
the treasures of ancient philosophy, and more particularly
of Aristotle, Thomas had the great merit of giving pride of
place to the harmony which exists between faith and reason.
Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God,
he argued; hence there can be no contradiction between
them. …  This is why the Church has been justified in consistently
proposing St. Thomas as a master of thought and a model of
the right way to do theology.”

— Pope St. John Paul II in Fides et Ratio, No. 43

It is estimated that perhaps 20-25 percent of his writings are Scripture commentaries, running the range of the canon from Psalms to prophets to Gospels to the Pauline corpus. In this labor, he applied the same broad learning as his did in his theology and philosophy, seeking insight from any helpful source, including availing himself of the Greek Fathers beyond what was typical in his day. His method of interpretation varied, too, from the literal to the spiritual senses. This kind of tenacious devotion to Scripture is only imaginable in one who abides in the task with serenity and delight. He remained a true magister in sacra pagina his whole life.

But what must the experience of offering Mass have been like for St. Thomas? The Eucharist becomes the epicenter of this universe of mind and soul. In Aquinas’ theology of the Real Presence, Jesus Christ — the one through whom all creation came to be, who is head of the body the Church and of all mankind and who brings with him the presence of the Triune God — stands amidst his Church and his creation. He comes to save and to heal, for all the sacraments are rooted in the redemptive act of the Cross — the Eucharistic sacrifice most especially. By this liturgical act, Christ also completes his priest’s vocation, whose ability to sanctify is his chief duty within the Church and the created order (see Summa III, q.62, a.5; q.63, aa.3, 6; q.76, aa.1-4; q.82, aa.1, 3; q.83, a.1). One comes to view St. Thomas’ famous revelation during Mass of the chasm between his writings and the One about whom he wrote as the culmination of a life spent in silent awe and wondrous joy before this Lord the priest held in his hands.

This leads to the verses he composed for the feast of Corpus Christi, which have become staples of the Church’s Eucharistic devotion and worship. Theologians atypically burst into verse and song. Aquinas is an exception, because within this extraordinary, abundant universe all the theology and philosophy serve the one end of coming to know God. Each poem or song rewards reflection, but two examples may suffice here. First, there is his description of the Sacrament as sacrum convivium. Convivium is not the Vulgate’s term for the Eucharist or the Last Supper. Aquinas has favored a richly resonant word. It means no ordinary meal, but a banquet, an occasion for joy, a gathering of loved ones and therefore something of a communal nature from which life is derived. Its sacred character translates all these qualities to the level of the divine.

These are but the briefest glimpses into the experience of the Eucharist and the Mass for a priest such as St. Thomas, yet they suffice to illustrate how tightly his spiritual, theological and vocational vision pulls together.

Final Straws

Clearly these are broad lines, indeed, not drawn by a specialist. But St. Thomas pitched to nonexperts to invite them to contemplate the ineffable wonder of being God’s creation and part of his Church. Even clearer is that his thought was not a matter of random, detached intellectual curiosity but an exercise in the far bolder pursuit of uncovering the connectedness of things to God’s plan. Undeniably, Aquinas’ Eucharistic celebrations would not be entirely the same as today’s; scriptural exegesis has acquired many techniques since his time, and our ecclesiology considers more factors than existed by the 13th century. Yet he himself surely would delight in having so many modern tools to assist his reflection and probably puzzle at our comfort with specializations that can neglect integrating thought and learning.

Certainly his understanding of the Church as a structured community possessing charisms of mutual service fitting indispensably into God’s plan of salvation is consistent with the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. And it is not as if our own age has been immune from inferior ecclesiologies — for example, if dioceses and parishes seem more like religious corporations or institutional branch offices than Churches or communities. Aquinas’ thought still benefits the Church in the modern world. Moreover, the harmony between his theological conceptions and real-time living of priesthood offers much to contemplate and imitate. St. Thomas has long been called Doctor Angelicus and Doctor Communis. He makes a particular claim as Doctor Perennis.

FATHER DOUGLAS J. MILEWSKI is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, and holds a doctorate in patristic theology and sciences. He teaches theology at the archdiocese’s Seton Hall University.

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