Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Homily on St. Thomas Aquinas and the Importance of a Catholic Education

The image above is called the "Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas Over Averroes". It was painted by Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-1497) in 1471 and is on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Most scholars consider St. Thomas Aquinas to be the Catholic Church’s greatest philosopher and theologian. He was born in southern Italy near Aquino in 1225 to a wealthy and aristocratic family. His father was a count. His mother was a countess.

When he was five years old, his parents sent him to be trained by the Benedictine monks at Monte Cassino. As a young student St. Thomas was known for his prayer and hard work. He had a philosophical bent early on and would ask questions like “What is God?”. His teachers realized his superior intellect and realized that he needed better instruction than they could provide. So at the age of fourteen he was sent to the University of Naples. In only a matter of months he surpassed his professors at the university in knowledge and understanding. It was at Naples that he first began to sense that God was calling him to join the Dominicans.

When he was 17 he revealed his plans to join the Dominican order to his family. His family was strongly opposed to this idea. St. Thomas’s uncle had been the Abbot at the prestigious Monte Cassino Abbey. They hoped Thomas would follow in his footsteps. The Dominicans were a new order known for their itinerant preaching and begging. His family found this unacceptable. So as Thomas was on his way to join the Dominicans in Rome, his brothers kidnapped him and imprisoned him at Roccasecca Castle. At one point his family even sent in a prostitute to his cell to try to tempt him, but he drove her out with a burning torch. His family kept him imprisoned for fifteen months until the Pope finally intervened for him. He was released and joined the Dominicans in Naples.

During his captivity, Thomas’s sister brought him a copy of the Bible, Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Peter Lombard’s Sentences to study. The Dominicans were delighted to see his intellectual progress during this time. The Dominicans sent Thomas to study with St. Albert the Great in Cologne, Germany and then the University of Paris. St. Albert the Great was a man of great learning who was interested in practically everything including science, mathematics, geometry, medicine, botany, astronomy and, of course, theology and philosophy.

St. Thomas was physically big man, but also gentle and humble. Because he was so quiet his fellow students nicknamed him the “Dumb Ox”. But when he was called upon in class to give a defense of a very difficult thesis, St. Albert the Great predicted “We call this man a ‘Dumb Ox’, but his bellowing in doctrine will resound through the whole world.” St. Albert’s prediction has been fulfilled. The writings of St. Thomas Aquinas continue to be influential in the Church and the world today, over 700 years after his death.

St. Thomas was ordained as a priest at the age of twenty-five. He preached to large crowds all over Italy, France and Germany. People would travel for many miles to hear his brilliant explanations of Holy Scripture.

As he became more well-known there were more demands on his time. He remained faithful to prayer, preaching, teaching and an arduous travel schedule. All the while, he was writing his greatest work – the Summa Theologica – a systematic presentation of philosophical and theological truths. He was offered the Archbishopric of Naples, but he turned it down to continue preaching and teaching.

When arguing against an opponent, he always presented the best version of his opponent’s argument. Then he would proceed to show how the argument fails. Many people, in order to win arguments, will misstate an opponent’s argument in order to argue against a weaker position. This is called setting up a “straw man” or “straw horse”, but St. Thomas never did this. He treated his opponents and their arguments seriously and with intellectual honesty.

St. Thomas was best known for incorporating insights from Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, to explain the truths of Christianity. In his work On Being and Essence he explains that God is pure being, fully actualized. Everything else borrows existence from God and is in a state of becoming. In teaching how Jesus is present in his body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist, he used the word transubstantiation to explain how the underlying substance of the bread and wine were changed while the appearances and other properties remain the same.
St. Thomas is also famous for his five proofs for the existence of God. The arguments involve God as the Uncaused Cause or the Unmoved Mover. He is the only necessary being, whereas everything else has existence by analogy. He is the most perfect Being one could contemplate. As we see a design in nature, so there must be a designer. This designer is God.

St. Thomas argued that the truths that we can come to know through a rigorous application of human reason and the truths that can only be known by a special revelation from God flow from the same source, and therefore, when properly understood, complement rather than contradict one another.

He taught that human beings were not simply souls using bodies, but rather are embodied souls. Our bodies are not just something we use, they are us. It is not just our souls that will live forever, but like Christ our bodies will be raised on the last day.

St. Thomas didn’t get everything right. He reminds us that theologians put themselves at the service of the magisterium (or teaching authority) of the Church. The Magisterium includes the Pope and the bishops in union with him.

Aquinas did believe in delayed ensoulment based on a faulty understanding of biology in his time. But one common misconception about Aquinas is that he believed that the souls of males and females were infused at different times. The confusion arises from a commentary he made on Aristotle's History of Animals. He cites (In 3 Sent., 3, 5, 2 co et ad 3) which says that if an embryo is aborted the articulation of the male can be perceived at 40 days and the articulation of the female after ninety days.

Neither in Aristotle's original statement, nor in Aquinas' commentary is there any reference to the infusion of the soul. Aquinas does speak specifically about the infusion of the rational soul in over fifty passages. In none of these passages does he make a distinction between males and females. [1]

At the age of 48, St. Thomas was experiencing regular ecstasies and visions. Once after offering Mass at a Church in Naples, three of his Dominican brothers heard a powerful voice praise St. Thomas saying “You have written well of me, Thomas; What reward will you have?” St. Thomas replied “Nothing other than yourself, Lord.”

After this vision, St. Thomas could write no more. He said all he had written seemed to him as straw. It’s not that what he had said before was not true, but nothing he said or wrote compared with the beauty he had seen directly. It was like the difference between talking about love and being in love.

St. Thomas died while he was on his way to the Council of Lyons called for by Pope Gregory X. He was taken in along the route by Cistercian monks and died on March 7, 1274 at the age of 49. He was canonized by Pope John XXII in 1323, and proclaimed a doctor of the Church by Pope Pius V in 1567.

St. Thomas Aquinas is the patron saint of all Catholic universities and students. We celebrate his feast on January 28, the anniversary of when his body was transferred to a shrine in Toulouse.

There is so much we can learn from the life of St. Thomas Aquinas. We can learn from his courage and perseverance in pursuing his true calling in life. He was always patient when arguing against an opponent. He won many of them over to his position through his personality and great learning. He could have enjoyed a life of great wealth and privilege, but his tastes were simple and he lived his vow of poverty.

He had a great memory which he nurtured through study. Sometimes he would forget his surroundings when he absorbed in thought. But when he did speak, he expressed his thoughts calmly and systematically in a clear and simple manner. He valued his education as a way to learn about the God who he loved and the world he created. He taught others to love God too by passing on his learning to others.

St. Thomas was a genius, but more importantly he was wise. Wisdom comes from God. Not everyone who is smart is necessarily good or wise. St. Thomas was also strong and good. Some people believe that living a life of virtue makes you weak, but it’s the exact opposite. St. Thomas taught that virtue is a power to do good. Sin is the abuse of a power God has given us to do good that instead we use for evil. It’s sin that weakens and virtue that makes a person strong.

St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us of the importance and value of a good Catholic education. The knowledge and love of God should come first and then everything else flows from that. All of us are called to love God and serve him in different ways according to the unique gifts and talents he has given to each of us. A Catholic education should help us to be a well-rounded, knowledgeable, cultured person who loves God and loves their neighbor as himself.

A Catholic education is more than just job training. It seeks to develop the whole person, recognizing the human person as created in the image and likeness of God and destined to share everlasting happiness with Him in heaven.

Theology is the “Queen of all Sciences”, but a Catholic education should include not just the study of religion, but also of philosophy, science, mathematics, history, literature, music, art, poetry, theater, languages and participation in sports. A Catholic education should help form a person who loves God and their neighbor; a person who is always seeking to grow in knowledge, holiness and fidelity to the truth. It should instill a love for learning in the student and help them to understand that education is a lifelong process.

We ask St. Thomas Aquinas to help us to follow his example, to grow in wisdom and lead us to Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. (cf John 14, 6 )


Monday, January 05, 2009

St. John Neumann: An American Saint

St. John Neumann was born on March 28, 1811 in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. At age 20, he still wasn’t sure what to do with his life. His father wanted him to be a doctor, but he followed the advice of his mother who encouraged him to enter the seminary.

His bishop declined to ordain him when his studies were completed, because of a large number of priests who were ordained that year. Neumann decided to become a missionary to the United States after reading writings of the American Bishop Frederic Baraga about the missions there. Neumann was an excellent student. He especially excelled at languages. In addition to his native German and Bohemian languages, he learned Italian, Spanish, Greek, Latin, English and French. Later in life, he learned enough Gaelic in order to hear the confessions of Irish–American immigrants.

John Neumann arrived in New York on June 6, 1836 with one suit of clothes and a dollar in his pocket. He was ordained by Bishop John DuBois of New York at the age of 25. He was assigned to mission Churches around Niagra Falls, New York which he found both difficult and rewarding. He ministered to the German-speaking immigrants that had settled in the area. The area was a wilderness that included swamps, dense forests and few roads. Once he was so exhausted he collapsed in the woods. Indians recognized him as a “Black Robe” who had visited their people and carried him on a blanket to the safety of the nearest homestead.

He felt he needed the companionship of other priests for the sake of his own soul. He was lonely and suffered from health problems. So he joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, commonly known as the Redemptorists, in Pittsburgh. He quickly rose to the position of provincial superior and came to the attention of Archbishop Kenrick of Baltimore who suggested to Rome that Neumann be appointed as the Bishop of Philadelphia. Neumann feared this awesome responsibility and felt he was not the right choice for the cultured world of Philadelphia. He wrote a letter to the Vatican requesting that another man be chosen.

However, Pope Pius IX decided he was, by far, the best person for the job and declared him a Bishop in 1852. The poor people affectionately called him “Our Little Bishop” because of his short stature. He was five feet and two inches tall. Wealthy and influential Catholics looked down upon him. They didn’t like his mannerisms and his German accent. They wanted a person who could speak English well and make a good impression. They wrote to Rome to try to have him replaced, but the poor, especially the new immigrants loved him.

One Sunday a priest was embarrassed by him and scolded him for his shabby appearance. He asked him to change into a better coat. “What shall I do?” the bishop answered. “I do not have another.” He had just given his best coat to a beggar.

Among Bishop Neumann’s accomplishments were the administration of the largest diocese in the country and organization of a Catholic diocesan school system. He had many new schools and churches built in his diocese. He founded the diocesan school systems in America and originated the Forty Hours Devotion. Neumann also founded a new religious community, the Sisters of The Third Order of St. Francis of Philadelphia, and saved the Oblate Sisters of Providence from dissolution. Every year he visited each parish and mission. He also had to deal with the anti-Catholic Know Nothings who burned down Catholic schools and churches.

He published two catechisms and a Bible history in German. He wrote many articles for Catholic newspapers and magazines for the German immigrants.

Bishop Neumann died of a sudden stroke as was doing errands on January 5, 1860. On the day of his death he told Father Urban, the visiting Redemptorist Superior, that he had a strange feeling about today and then added "One must always be ready - Death comes when and where God wills it.”

His body is kept under the altar at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Philadelphia which has become a popular place for pilgrims to visit. He was beatified 1963 and canonized in 1977.

Among the miraculous cures attributed to St. John Neumann’s intercession were:

Eva Benassi, an eleven year old Italian girl, who was in danger of death due to acute diffused peritonitis was completely cured after her father applied a picture of St. John Neumann to her.

James Kent Lenahan, a nineteen year old boy suffered severe injuries when he was crushed between a car and a telephone pole in an automobile accident. He was in danger of death when His parents applied a portion of the cassock of Bishop Neumann to their apparently dying son. That night he began to make a full recovery.

Michael Flanigan, a young boy, was diagnosed with bone cancer, which was rapidly spreading to his lungs, and with several unsuccessful operations, was soon to be fully recovered with no cancer ever to be found again. Michael’s parents took him to St. Peter’s Church to pray for him a relic of St. John Neumann was applied to his cancer and the symptoms miraculously disappeared.

For more information on the life of St. John Neumann see:

John Nepomucene Neumann, Saint by By Reverend F.X. Murphy C.SS.R.

Bishop John Nepomucene Neumann: An American Saint by Br. John Neumann, M.I.C.M., Tert.