Saint Thomas Aquinas was born in the year 1224 in Rocca Sicca, Italy in the hereditary castle of the counts of Aquino in the Neapolitan province. While he was residing in the womb, a holy man brought a prophecy to the unborn child’s mother, Theodora, Countess Aquino: “Rejoice, O lady, for thou art to have a son whom thou shalt call Thomas…Such will be his learning and holiness that his equal will not be found throughout the world”.
The prophecy was fulfilled and the world can rejoice. In 1319, at the hearing for the canonization of Thomas Aquinas, the archbishop of Naples testified that “Our Savior had sent, as doctor of truth to illuminate the world and the universal Church, first the apostle Paul, then Augustine, and finally in these days Friar Thomas, whom…no one would succeed till the end of the world.”
Aquinas was canonized in 1324, fifty years after his death, Pope John XXII pronouncing him a saint of the Catholic Church. In 1568, Aquinas was named a Doctor of the Church. In 1879, Pope Leo XIII declared that his theology is a definitive exposition of Catholic doctrine and that the clergy should take the teachings of Aquinas as the basis of their theological positions.
The combination of great learning and holiness is rare. The man of great learning is often proud; the man of holiness is not always learned. The distinguished student of Aquinas, Etienne Gilson, attests that Aquinas possessed two virtues to a high degree that were seldom found in the same person: modesty and audacity. His modesty allowed him to see the truth of things without allowing his ego to get in the way. His audacity allowed him to hold on to the truth he saw, with tenacity.
The distinguished physicist, Werner Heisenberg, a voracious reader himself, has stated that among the many writers he studied, Thomas Aquinas was the most open-minded. Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is a compendium of virtually all the knowledge that was available in his time. This virtue, however, was combined with his uncompromising fidelity to the truth of things. Just as the hand is designed to open and close in order to grasp something, and the mouth to open and close in order to eat, Aquinas’ mind was open to truth which he firmly apprehended.
Aquinas wrote with simplicity and profundity. The following sentence describes the heart of his epistemology and expresses his objectivity with sparkling clarity: “The human intellect is measured by things so that man’s thought is not true on its own account but is called true in virtue of its conformity with things”. Aquinas was not interested in conforming to trends or fashions. He was innocent of any need for praise. The truth was always his guiding light no matter how much it may have been at odds with the times.
Contemporary philosopher, Peter Kreeft, has stated that Thomas Aquinas is the greatest of all philosophers because he is a beacon of “truth, common sense, practicality, clarity, profundity, orthodoxy, and modernity”. The last word in this encomium refers to the fact that Aquinas is eternally up-to-date. Yet his philosophy was never separate from his humanity. “The greatest kindness,” he wrote, “one can render to any man consists in leading him to truth”.
Finally, his holiness and humanity are clearly evident in one of his many prayers: “Grant me O Lord, my God, a mind to know you, a heart to seek you, wisdom to find you, conduct pleasing to you, faithful perseverance in waiting for you, and a hope of finally embracing you.”