The Catholic University of America

Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Wisdom 7.7-10, 15-16; Psalm 37; Matthew 5.13-19
Rev. Dr. Kurt Pritzl, O.P.
Dean, School of Philosophy, The Catholic University of America
Crypt Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Jan. 28, 2010

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Dear Friends,

This one salutation extends to the two communities which are gathered here together for the celebration of the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas and that with my family have mattered the most to me—the community of The Catholic University of America, my academic home for thirty years this spring, and my community at the Dominican House of Studies. I am grateful to Father David O’Connell, president of the university, for inviting me to preach at our patronal feast day Mass.

Civilization is a real, if precarious thing, and it has its achievements. There are times when we share in them and have some sense of what has been achieved. The symphony orchestra is one achievement of civilization (I will never forget hearing for the first time a performance of Brahms’ violin concerto with Isaac Stern as soloist). The university is another achievement of civilization.

I am not contending that the university is always, mostly, or perhaps ever, very symphonic, that is, a thing of harmony and something beautiful to behold. The university, as its own achievement of civilization, includes debate, discord, disagreement, frustration at boggled attempts at discovery or at proving something or at finding the right words, failures of imagination and creativity, and so on. All these things mark the enterprise, carried on by universities when they are true to their mission,  of discovering and preserving truth, of advancing science and learning, and of providing the intellectual means for improving human life.

We who are members of a university community know the routine and the frustration of university life, especially after being around for a while (there is the undergraduate on the five-year plan or the professor of antediluvian service). There is great satisfaction in daily life at a university, but from time to time, there are the glimpses and the glimmers of the fact that a university is, indeed, civilization’s doing.

One way in which this has happened to me has been those occasions of encountering truly and extraordinarily learned people. This has happened to me as an undergraduate student, as a graduate student, and as a professor here. I have had the privilege of studying with a few of this kind, and even the blessing of friendship with one or two. Wallace Stevens in a poem called “To an Old Philosopher in Rome” (lines 16-19) speaks of “The human end in the spirit’s greatest reach,/ The extreme of the known in the presence of the extreme/ Of the unknown.” This is the person of the profound learning of important things of which I speak. These people of great and extraordinary learning—undoubtedly extremely gifted as individuals—are, nonetheless, creatures of the university, which is the context and crucible for their attainments. Another fact about them, is that they are rare, the many good and even great professors that fill universities, this one in particular, notwithstanding.

But if the presence at a university, as at no other place, of the extraordinarily and profoundly learned people with whom we study and learn, is one mark of its role in whatever it is that civilization is, it is not the only one.  Another mark is that these encounters for us are not limited to those alive today. We have books and texts and artifacts from the great thinkers and artists who have preceded us, including those of unparalleled genius and insight. It is a primary mission of the university—as a place where civilization has a chance—to share and interpret these books and texts and artifacts with each generation.

By any measure the thought of Thomas Aquinas, preserved for us in his writings, belongs to intellectual genius of the highest order. No one with an unprejudiced eye can read at length in Thomas’ works and not see this, whether one agrees with his conclusions or not. We give our undergraduate students here a taste of Aquinas, hoping the flavor of it suggests to them why those who have devoted their lives to studying his thought fear for lack of time. And so Thomas Aquinas, like others of profound genius, lives on at a university, at our university.

These observations, however, only approach what we as a university acknowledge and celebrate today as we keep the feast of Thomas Aquinas at this Mass. Yes--Thomas Aquinas is one of the few thinkers whose intellectual genius is of perennial importance—we can hold a symposium for that. He is something more, something more profound, more worthy, more essential to all that matters. He is a saint.

Thomas Aquinas, in all gentleness and humility, responded fully to the grace of God.  He knew and lived what the Book of Wisdom says: “For [God] is the guide of Wisdom and the director of the wise. For both we and our words are in his hand, as well as all prudence and knowledge of crafts.” And whatever Thomas learned was gained as a gift by the prayer and pleading for “prudence” and “the spirit of wisdom” that is preferable to scepter and throne, riches, health and good looks, just as our passage from the Book of Wisdom tells us.

Jesus teaches that all his faithful, listening disciples are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” in imitation of their Lord, who is the salt and the light. Many unlettered followers of the Lord, rather than university professors, have been genuine salt and light in this world of ours. Thomas Aquinas, as an unfailing disciple, is salt and light in this same way, and especially for us in the university.  As Saint Thomas Aquinas we know him not just through his writings. We have him as a friend and patron, someone we can count to be with us and guide us, through the communion of saints, where the separations of earthly life and eternal life are transcended.

And so we as a university community celebrate Saint Thomas Aquinas today. We praise and thank God for his sanctity, a sanctity that saturates his learning. We ask Saint Thomas to intercede for us, that we may become disciples, just as he was, so that we might become students, just as he was, whatever and however we seek the truth in our various studies and fields of inquiry.

A university may not be an achievement of civilization as a symphony orchestra is, but then again, maybe it can be. Saint Thomas Aquinas’ thought champions the unity and integration of all truth and shows the way to harmonize the array of learning and to harmonize faith and reason. Saint Thomas Aquinas’ life in its holiness shows us that love, real love, divine, unconditional love, actually happens in human lives. God grant that it happen in our lives, even in our lives here together in this university, for as long as we are granted to stay here.