Today’s his feast day and while his works are quite easy to find online, I thought I’d highlight what Pope Benedict had to say about him during his General Audience series on the Church Fathers, Mothers, Thinkers and Pray-ers. It was back in the summer of 2010:
In addition to study and teaching, Thomas also dedicated himself to preaching to the people. And the people too came willingly to hear him. I would say that it is truly a great grace when theologians are able to speak to the faithful with simplicity and fervour. The ministry of preaching, moreover, helps theology scholars themselves to have a healthy pastoral realism and enriches their research with lively incentives.
The last months of Thomas’ earthly life remain surrounded by a particular, I would say, mysterious atmosphere. In December 1273, he summoned his friend and secretary Reginald to inform him of his decision to discontinue all work because he had realized, during the celebration of Mass subsequent to a supernatural revelation, that everything he had written until then “was worthless”. This is a mysterious episode that helps us to understand not only Thomas’ personal humility, but also the fact that, however lofty and pure it may be, all we manage to think and say about the faith is infinitely exceeded by God’s greatness and beauty which will be fully revealed to us in Heaven. A few months later, more and more absorbed in thoughtful meditation, Thomas died while on his way to Lyons to take part in the Ecumenical Council convoked by Pope Gregory X. He died in the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova, after receiving the Viaticum with deeply devout sentiments.
The life and teaching of St Thomas Aquinas could be summed up in an episode passed down by his ancient biographers. While, as was his wont, the Saint was praying before the Crucifix in the early morning in the chapel of St Nicholas in Naples, Domenico da Caserta, the church sacristan, overheard a conversation. Thomas was anxiously asking whether what he had written on the mysteries of the Christian faith was correct. And the Crucified One answered him: “You have spoken well of me, Thomas. What is your reward to be?”. And the answer Thomas gave him was what we too, friends and disciples of Jesus, always want to tell him: “Nothing but Yourself, Lord!” (ibid., p. 320).
St Thomas not only based the doctrine of analogy on exquisitely philosophical argumentation but also on the fact that with the Revelation God himself spoke to us and therefore authorized us to speak of him. I consider it important to recall this doctrine. In fact, it helps us get the better of certain objections of contemporary atheism which denies that religious language is provided with an objective meaning and instead maintains that it has solely a subjective or merely emotional value. This objection derives from the fact that positivist thought is convinced that man does not know being but solely the functions of reality that can be experienced. With St Thomas and with the great philosophical tradition we are convinced that, in reality, man does not only know the functions, the object of the natural sciences, but also knows something of being itself for example, he knows the person, the You of the other, and not only the physical and biological aspect of his being.
In the light of this teaching of St Thomas theology says that however limited it may be, religious language is endowed with sense because we touch being like an arrow aimed at the reality it signifies. This fundamental agreement between human reason and Christian faith is recognized in another basic principle of Aquinas’ thought. Divine Grace does not annihilate but presupposes and perfects human nature. The latter, in fact, even after sin, is not completely corrupt but wounded and weakened. Grace, lavished upon us by God and communicated through the Mystery of the Incarnate Word, is an absolutely free gift with which nature is healed, strengthened and assisted in pursuing the innate desire for happiness in the heart of every man and of every woman. All the faculties of the human being are purified, transformed and uplifted by divine Grace.
In commenting on the article of the Creed on the Incarnation of the divine Word St Thomas makes a few reflections. He says that the Christian faith is strengthened in considering the mystery of the Incarnation; hope is strengthened at the thought that the Son of God came among us, as one of us, to communicate his own divinity to human beings; charity is revived because there is no more obvious sign of God’s love for us than the sight of the Creator of the universe making himself a creature, one of us. Finally, in contemplating the mystery of God’s Incarnation, we feel kindled within us our desire to reach Christ in glory. Using a simple and effective comparison, St Thomas remarks: “If the brother of a king were to be far away, he would certainly long to live beside him. Well, Christ is a brother to us; we must therefore long for his company and become of one heart with him” (Opuscoli teologico-spirituali, Rome 1976, p. 64).
In presenting the prayer of the Our Father, St Thomas shows that it is perfect in itself, since it has all five of the characteristics that a well-made prayer must possess: trusting, calm abandonment; a fitting content because, St Thomas observes, “it is quite difficult to know exactly what it is appropriate and inappropriate to ask for, since choosing among our wishes puts us in difficulty” (ibid., p. 120); and then an appropriate order of requests, the fervour of love and the sincerity of humility.
Whoever wishes to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross and desire what he desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue.