St Thomas Aquinas
If there is one name synonymous with philosophy and theology in the Church, it is that of Thomas of Aquino, the learned Dominican of the 13th century, whose Summa Theologica dominated Catholic thinking for centuries.
He was born of aristocratic parentage, and even as a boy sent to the Benedictines for his education. By the time he was 18, he had decided to devote his life to God as a Dominican. This displeased his family, which tried by force to get him to change his mind. They did not succeed. Thomas continued as a Dominican, and enrolled as a student of that great master Albert the Great, at the university of Paris. In a few years, the student Thomas outshone his teacher.
Thomas’s intellectual gifts were those of lucidity, accuracy and comprehensiveness. His classes in Paris were phenomenally popular. His mind ranged over the whole field of science, metaphysics and theology. He borrowed unceasingly from the early Greek philosophers, from Aristotle particularly, through Arab translations. His Summa, or ‘summary’ of theological and philosophical topics, was the students’ handbook in Catholic seminaries for centuries. “Since the aim of this sacred science – theology – is the knowledge of God,” he wrote, “we shall first treat of God, then of our approaches to God, and lastly, of Christ, who as man, is our way to God.”
Thomas the theologian was also a mystic of a high order, whose focus was the Eucharist. The office and Mass for the feast of Corpus Christi, with its much loved hymns, Tantum Ergo and O Salutaris Hostia, sung millions of times in churches since, are his compositions.
This was the saint, who on his deathbed, looked forward to seeing God whom he had served faithfully all his life, and who asked his confreres to burn all that he had written, for “compared to that Vision, it is all so much straw.”
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