Sermon on St. Thomas Aquinas

Source: District of Asia

"Thou waterest the hills from Thy upper rooms; the earth shall be filled with the fruit of Thy work." Psalm, ciii.

It is nearly seven centuries since a young priest, dressed in the Dominican habit, preached from this text before the assembled doctors of the University of Paris. He was a candidate for the degree of Master of Theology, and from these words of the royal Psalmist he set forth the office and operation of the Holy Spirit among men. Little did he suspect that these same words were marvelously descriptive and prophetic of his own theological career, then opening in the heart of the most famous and influential of the great schools which have ever guided and uplifted the ardent and studious youth of the Christian world.

For the young priest was Thomas of Aquino, a great Italian noble of the proudest Teutonic stock, born in the heart of the rocky fastnesses of the kingdom of Naples, heir to large estates and much authority, cousin of kings and emperors, the fond hope of his powerful feudal clan, and the envy of every mother who sought for her son a career of success in the highest walks of life. The ruined castle of his ancestors is still interwoven with the gray crags of Aquino, from whose sharp peaks one may see the huge pile of Monte Cassino, the home of the Benedictine Order, and nearby the green valley of the Liris, by whose clear waters the first Triumvirs divided the Mediterranean inheritance of the Roman people and made possible the Empire of Rome and the quick diffusion of the Gospel.

Future of St. Thomas

None of the great men who voted for Thomas of Aquino on that eventful day foresaw that this tall and stately youth, whose clear and open countenance suggested the angelic purity of his life, would run a short career of less than fifty years. Neither could they foresee that their own fame--world-wide as it was and richly merited-would be swallowed up in the admiration of all posterity for this glorious disciple of the University. Nor again could they forsee that of all this wonderful thirteenth century, crowded with great names from Innocent the Third to Dante Alighieri, no man would climb to so great an intellectual height or live so efficiently in the heart of Christian Europe and of that vast New World whose shadow was even then beginning to fall athwart the course of religion and discovery.

In his short life, crowded with prayer and mortification, with reading and writing, with luminous reflections and rapid and solid mental growth of every kind, he came to dominate, as from the heights of commanding genius, all the religious knowledge of the Christian world, East and West, from the days of St. Paul and St. Augustine to his own time. In his writings, particularly in the wonderful book known as his "Summa Theologica," a complete manuel of theological knowledge, he laid up with perfect fullness, clearness, good order and precision the whole intellectual life of the Christian religion prior to his own day.

Sources of His Learning

Open these glorious pages and you will find there the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its entirety, the witness and the teachings of the disciples of Christ, of the Fathers of the Church, of the great councils of ancient Christendom; you will find the great outlines of the spiritual and temporal experience of the Catholic Church; the dictates of right reason, and a broad equitable appreciation of the relations of this life and the life to come, as seen in the light of Christian faith and Christian virtue. You will find a perfect account of the nature of man, his true end, the purpose and uses of human life, the nature of good and evil, of right and wrong, of virtue and vice. You will find not only the right knowledge of man and creation, but also in shadowy though clear outline the state of man in the life to come, whatever be the portion he shall have laid up for himself.

St. Thomas and the Church

While St. Thomas is a vast encyclopedia of religious teaching, it is possible that in our own day we are most interested in his teaching concerning Almighty God, the Catholic Church and the Blessed Eucharist, three great fundamentals of our holy religion, and all three of the most immediate interest to mankind, Christian or non-Christian. While St. Thomas would easily agree that the Catholic Church was the society of the faithful professing the same Christian faith, sharing the same sacraments and under the guidance of their Bishops, notably of the Successor of Peter, we are particularly indebted to him for emphasis on the religious and ecclesiastical authority of the Holy See. He exhibits, indeed, with fullness and exactness the nature and end, the function and authority of Holy Church, its rights and dignity, its freedom and independence, its benefits and world-wide influence, but he is nowhere more practically the teacher of the Catholic world, the guide of its conscience, than when he deals with the headship of the Church as vested by divine right in the Successor of Peter. Even while he taught and wrote the secular power was waging a desperate warfare with the Popes, the purpose of which was their enslavement as creatures of a mediaeval imperialism of the feudal type. He lived to see the acme of this long struggle of two centuries in the meteoric career of his brilliant contemporary, Frederick the Second. And when St. Thomas died in 1274, on a pallet of straw, within view of his own birthplace, the imperial usurpations and anti-Catholic ambitions had lost their driving power on the same fated soil of Naples, and with the last of the Hohenstaufen vanished from the scene they had dominated for two hundred years. They vanished, however, in favor of new usurpations and new ambitions, this time of a domestic nature. Wearied of long efforts for needed re- forms, misguided men set up the novel and impossible theory of the ecclesiastical supremacy of a general council, and filled a whole century with their unedifying efforts to realize this new order of government, that contemplated the humiliation of the See of Peter and its reduction to a mere honorary and executive office in the Church of God.

But St. Thomas had written too well and had formed too soundly the thought of Europe in regard to the status and rights of the Holy See, and so in due time this great menace to the divinely-appointed constitution of the Catholic Church was banished by the Catholic conscience.

Martin Luther's onslaught on the unity of Catholicism was broken on the same rock, for which reason St. Thomas was the pet aversion of the Reformers. "Remove Thomas," said Buser, "and I will destroy the Church." But the Papacy was by this time too well buttressed in the heart of Catholic Europe, and all its outposts too well defended in the spirit of St. Thomas, and with the zeal and affection that his teaching had so long inspired in every centre of Catholic theology. No wonder that when the Council of Trent met to heal the wounds of the Church in her campaign against the final heresy, the "Summa" of St. Thomas was placed on the altar beside the Bible and the decrees of the Councils.

The Blessed Eucharist

Had St. Thomas written no other pages of theology than those in which he summarizes the teachings of Holy Church concerning the Blessed Eucharist, he would be entitled to the gratitude of our Catholic people through all time. It was his favorite subject, and on it he has expended all his learning and the fullness of his love. For him the heart of the Catholic religion is the perpetual presence of its Divine Founder upon its altars. The Blessed Eucharist is the source of all graces, the rock of our faith against all the attacks of the world, the flesh and the devil. It is the comfort and consolation of the people of God, the light of the soul in moral darkness, and the pledge of the divine promise of immortality and happiness without end. St. Thomas is rightly called the "Doctor of the Blessed Eucharist," and as such daily raises his sweet voice the world over in praise of the Divine Prisoner of the Tabernacle. What can surpass in sublimity and poetic charm his Office and Mass of the Blessed Sacrament, written by order of the Pope for the feast of Corpus Christi. It is the perfect gem of our Catholic liturgy. From it are taken the "Tantum Ergo", the "O Salutaris Hostia," the "Lauda Sion," and other exquisite cries of piety and faith and love unequalled in the literary annals of Catholicism. With the "Stabat Mater" and the "Dies Irae" they make up the world's most glorious trilogy of compassion, contrition, and gratitude.

"What writer," says an eloquent historian, "has so fixed his name in every sanctuary, has made ten thousand churches ring for hundreds of years with such an ever-repeated, never-omitted anthem of joy and praise? H who lived at the foot of the altar and drank of the dew of heaven, whose conversation was with the sons of God, had learned, as no other, how to throw into human words an angel's song." "Henceforth Catholic poetry and Catholic art are under the magic charm of the great Master of the Schools, and in the "Paradiso" of Dante Alighieri and the "Last Supper" of Leonardo da Vinci exhibit the heights to which human genius can rise under the potent spell of such celestial doc- trine.

God and the World

The great book of the Angelical Doctor is based on his noble and perfect teaching concerning God as the First Cause, the Creator of the world and of man, our Provider and Preserver. Creation is an act of divine love, and the cruel presence of evil is the work of Satan and of human frailty. The glory of the Creator is the true end of creation, and the sufficient incentive of the highest endeavors of mankind. In his teaching concerning God St. Thomas combats at every step the

prevailing pantheism and materialism of his day. Owing to these errors and to the scandal of the long and bitter conflict between the Church and the Emperor, Cardinal Newman says that never was the Catholic Church in greater peril than in the century which preceded the birth of St. Thomas. Fed from the sources of intellectual Arabism and fantastic Judaism, the pantheistic teachings of the time enjoyed great vogue. God was everything and man was his highest manifestation. There was no personal God, and no revelation of His will to man. There was no free-will and matter was eternal, nor was there an individual soul but only a common soul, disseminated, so to speak, through the world. Surely St. Thomas has a living interest for us moderns, since the pantheism and materialism of our own day are substantially identical with the great destructive errors he laid low with such vigorous blows. Both errors are most active again, and both are merged in that practical atheism which from day to day takes on a more violent character, manifests an ever fiercer hostility to the idea of a personal God, the God of the Old and the New Testaments, even our Heavenly Father, and is ready to wreck all civilization, provided He can be displaced from the minds and hearts of men. Could St. Thomas return he would see the mediaeval pantheism triumphant in literature and art, and the mediaeval materialism triumphant in the worship of pleasure, in social decay and the adoration of success. He would see that both errors have become basic elements in the schools, in laws and in civil institutions, nor would he wonder that our once Christian society was fast losing its distinctive traits and was sinking to the level of an immoral and brutish paganism. Only in the Catholic Church would he find the pure and sane doctrine concerning the Creator of heaven and earth, the fountain of all goodness, truth and beauty, the origin and end and key of all life, and the divinely passionate lover of all mankind.

The University of Paris

We owe St. Thomas to the University of Paris, for he is the glorious product of its teachers and its system of teaching. Created by the Papacy and nourished to greatness by the same power, it was the foremost intellectual agency of those centuries of faith. Directly or indirectly all the universities of Europe are its offspring, and for many centuries its elevating influence is traceable in every European land. All the sciences, sacred and secular, are deeply indebted to that mighty parent of learning and virtue. Kings sat at the feet of its doctors, and Bishops innumerable filled the sees of France and other countries after graduating from its halls. The roll-call of its professors represents the flower of knowledge, almost to the French Revolution. For long centuries its doctors scattered over France as parish priests, canonists, administrators, teachers, were the moral rulers of the nation and fascinated the popular heart and imagination as no other scholars in the memory of mankind. Heresy trembled before them and tyrants hesitated while these men held their chairs in freedom and esteem. They taught the rich to endow splendidly the great seat of all European learning, while they kept free its approaches to the very poorest, and thus deserved well of democracy by reason of the gate they held open to every youth of good will and promise who could reach these venerable halls.

Innocent III and Boniface VIII were graduates of the University of Paris, and it was long the petted child of the Papacy, whose religious and temporal interests it served loyally and generously, and whose freedom from the evils of the Western Schism it urged and furthered without fear through long years of opposition and intrigue. The annals of this great school are "as rich in praise as are the ooze and bottom of the sea," but on their fairest page is emblazoned the name of Thomas of Aquino, saint, theologian, philosopher and universal scholar.

Architect of Theology

St. Thomas beheld the finishing touches of the glorious Cathedral of Notre Dame of Paris, and of other incomparable Gothic edifices that religious and generous France was then uplifting to the honor and glory of God. But he was himself a greater architect than any master builder of Europe, and the edifice he raised to God's honor and glory was destined to outlive the noblest pile that human genius could conceive and finish.

On the Scriptures and the Fathers, he reared a perfect system of Catholic theology, and buttressed it with the teachings of history and reason. He tied all its parts together with consummate skill, and he decorated it. within and without with marvelous erudition, drawing for this purpose on all the resources of the human mind. Unity and order, logic and consistency, are the dominant features of the great structure, while all who reverently enter it are struck by its spacious proportions and the place it generously makes for every intellectual interest of the divine science. Its approaches by the roads of philosophy and experience are broad and easy, and its great spaces are made vocal by divinest music, while from its highest pinnacle shines eternally the Cross of Jesus Christ, illuminating the world and all mankind through every age.

St. Thomas and the Papacy

This supreme teacher of Catholic mankind has been the guide and the monitor of the Papacy since his own day. Over fifty Popes have sung his praises and proclaimed his doctrines to be safe and sound, and the profound study of his writings to be the necessary equipment of every theologian worthy of the name. In our own time Leo XIII poured forth from year to year, in his marvelous encyclical letters, the riches of the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas, and no Pope ever ranged more widely in these great fields of religious knowledge. Yet no Pope spoke more persuasively or more pointedly or threw a warmer light upon the truths he undertook to place before the Catholic conscience. In this splendid body of Catholic doctrine, touching all the burning moral questions and acute intellectual situations of our own time, Leo XIII is the faithful echo of the Angelic Doctor, and follows with accuracy all the leading lines of his teaching. This is particularly true of the famous encyclical on the condition of the workingmen, in which notable document, the most influential of all modern contributions to the relations of labor and capital, the great Pope laid down the solid principles of true social science and the broadest applications of distributive justice, as he found them in the letter and the spirit of the writings of St. Thomas. Similar practical and far-reaching wisdom is found in the incomparable encyclical letters of the nature and office and limits of the State, on education, on Christian marriage, the family and the home, and on other great fundamental matters that lie close to every Catholic heart and call for definite and sure guidance in a world and a time when all traditional safeguards of Catholic thought and life have been destroyed or moved from their immemorial settings. Nor need we doubt that future Popes will find in the same inexhaustible treasury of Catholic teaching similar guidance of the Holy Spirit amid the difficulties and the tribulations of their exalted office.