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St. Thomas Aquinas . . . “Trying To Know God, Love God, And Help Others Get There”

May 21, 2020 Frontpage No Comments


PHOENIX — The ultimate purpose of theology isn’t probing religious theories or citing the Bible, but gaining the unimaginable joys of Heaven.
That seemed to be the message of a presentation on the Catholic Church’s “premier theologian,” St. Thomas Aquinas, livestreamed on May 2 because of the pandemic by the Institute of Catholic Theology (ICT), an adult education program based at St. Thomas the Apostle Church here.
In medieval ages when university graduates with their licentiates or doctorates were expected to be able to converse about all the knowledge of the time, that period’s St. Thomas Aquinas still had a remarkable degree of scholarship that earned him recognition as “the greatest teacher the Church has ever known,” a Phoenix instructor with a master’s degree in theology told the ICT program.
Sometimes a twenty-first century Catholic has been given the belief that a theologian is someone who undermines or defies the Church.
Without pointing out that idea, ICT speaker Rocky Brittain said that one of the first things one notices about St. Thomas “is that he saw his own role as a Catholic teacher as perfectly in line with what the Church had been doing for 12 hundred years before him.”
Aquinas, a prolific author, “would have been appalled and offended and humiliated if somebody now had told him…that he was breaking from the Church tradition,” said Brittain, who earned a master’s degree in theology at Florida’s Ave Maria University and teaches religion at St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix.
ICT background information says Brittain’s “areas of focus are Thomistic morality and anthropology.”
Aquinas “had the Church Fathers so deeply in his soul that he was drawing on them constantly,” Brittain said. “. . . This was a man who was utterly grounded in the Church’s tradition and saw himself as trying to carry on…protect the Church tradition in a way that he could.”
He wasn’t interested in being recognized for his work but he wanted to serve Christ, which was how he was to get to Heaven, Brittain said.
The future saint’s ecstasies when saying Mass — which made others have to wait for him to finish — make one think of the scriptural promise that eye has not seen, ear has not heard what God has prepared for those who love Him, Brittain said.
“He would often go into ecstasy in Mass, so they would just have to wait for him to come out of supernatural bliss, transubstantiating the Lord,” Brittain said, adding that the saint said, “What God has shown me makes everything that I have written seem to be as straw” in comparison.
“According to St. Thomas, what he saw made all the things that he wrote seem as nothing,” he said. “He was first and foremost a lover of Christ,” Brittain said.
Earlier in his talk, Brittain said that to Aquinas, “to know God is of no benefit if it does not lead you to love God more.”
Born at a location between Rome and Naples in 1225, Aquinas acquired titles as his reputation grew that included “the Dumb Ox” — not meaning stupid but mute because he “often was very reserved in manner” — and “the Angelic Doctor,” for his purity, Brittain said.
He was called all over Italy and elsewhere to teach and write but showed his humility when he begged “in tears” not to be made a bishop because those responsibilities would have taken him away from teaching, “which was far too valuable” to him, Brittain said. He added:
“Certainly many men have fallen in their pursuit of the Lord, and they’ve gotten sidetracked by falling to the desire of having more power in the Church.”
Aquinas “just wanted to be a wandering preacher,” not troubled “by the power struggle and all the trappings that come with being a bishop,” Brittain said.
The future saint wrote at least 60 books, some short and some thousands of pages long, writing commentaries including on all the major works of Greek philosopher Aristotle, on Scripture, on Job, the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and all four Gospels, he said.
Turning to the topic of medieval scholasticism, Brittain said Aquinas “definitely pushed the limits of scholasticism, and I think it’s better to say actually he found the perfection of scholasticism.”
Brittain described this period as a time “when intellectuals were discovering and trying to figure out for the first time the balance between faith and reason in the intellectual world.” Among them, such questions as, “What can we know by faith? What can we discover about God by reason?”
Toward the end of his life, Aquinas wrote what is considered his most important work, the Summa Theologiae, Brittain said. “He orders all of sacred theology from the beginning to the end, in such a masterful way, with such clarity, without anything superfluous, without multiplying rhetoric.”
This is the most clear and systematic approach to sacred theology that the Church has, he said. “There is not a more comprehensive, clearly thought-out, well-organized book on sacred theology in the entire world, and the Catholic Church has said as much.”
Nearly every Pope since Aquinas’ time has recommended him to the laity and clergy “as the premiere theologian,” Brittain said, with Pope Benedict XV saying anyone would benefit more from reading Aquinas for one year than from reading all the other saints for the rest of his life.
There have been other great theologians, like St. Augustine, and even Aquinas said it would be a mistake to read only one theologian, Brittain said. However, “Most of the great theologians over the last 500 years were Thomists” and devoted their lives to expounding him.
Thomas Aquinas was the youngest of eight children and was sent to study at the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino at age five, Brittain said, adding there is some speculation that the Benedictines recognized his “unique genius” at a very young age and sent him to the university in Naples in 1238.
Medieval universities were “very well established by that point” and taught in such subjects as grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy, and civil and canon law, he said. “The crowning jewel of the universities was theology.”
Priests were likely expected to have memorized large portions of the Bible, such as seen in the knowledge of St. Augustine, Brittain said. “He’s not flipping through pages and finding a text,” but just had it at his fingertips, while Aquinas was much the same.


The family’s aspirations were for Thomas to become an abbot at a well-established monastery of a well-established religious order, but Thomas heard a different call, to join the recently founded Dominicans, and his family was not pleased, Brittain said.
They had him kidnapped during a trip from Paris to Naples and “put in a high tower on one of their large estates” for more than a year, but he wouldn’t accede to their wishes, so his father and mother gave up and he joined the Dominicans, he said.
Responding to a question from ICT director Eric Westby, Ph.D., as the program ended, Brittain said that all Aquinas “cared about was trying to know God, love God, and help others get there.”

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