The Catholic University of America

Mass of St. Thomas Aquinas
Rev. Thomas Petri, O.P. (S.T.D. 2010), Vice President and Academic Dean, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, Dominican House of Studies
Great Upper Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Jan. 28, 2014


Why We Honor St. Thomas Aquinas

I know that for many it may seem strange that The Catholic University of America cancels some classes on this day and rearranges others so that faculty and students can participate in this Mass honoring St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Dominican Friar, a member of the Order of Preachers. It may seem strange that the National Catholic Educational Association chose this Mass to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of National Catholic Schools’ Week.

For years, the Catholic University of America has invited the Dominican Friars from our House of Studies across the street to participate in this Mass in a special way. We are, after all, the religious brothers of St. Thomas Aquinas. We Dominican Friars know why St. Thomas well. And we know why he is so important to us and to the Church. But we often have to admit, often begrudgingly, that it is not manifestly clear to everyone why he is the patron of schools, the patron of universities, of teachers and of students.

It is not self-evident to many that this friar who died some 740 years ago is worthy of the attention he is receiving today in this beautiful basilica. As a student he was shy and bashful, and rarely spoke up in class. He was the sort student that others would either mock or pity. We know of one student who attempted to help him with his logic homework but who himself came to a problem he couldn’t solve. Thomas politely and with a great deal of embarrassment then suggested to his good Samaritan tutor the way in which the problem could be worked.

Fortunately, he had one of those unique teachers in St. Albert the Great who saw in him real talent, real genius, real gifts from God—a teacher, who knew that this student, for all his bashfulness and humility, would teach one day so that whole world would hear. Thank God for St. Albert the Great. Each of us has had a teacher like that in our lives, who saw something in us nobody else did, and we are so grateful for them. Today, few who know St. Thomas’s life and his accomplishments would doubt that he was indeed a great teacher and preacher. He was a man who didn’t simply spout facts and doctrines. This would not make him either a great teacher or a great preacher. Rather, he was a man who helped his students to grow in understanding and to grow in wisdom.

He had the enviable ability to hear arguments and disputes especially from his students that he knew were contrary to what he had just taught him, contrary to the truth, and to help his students make those arguments better. He could listen to them and help them understand their own thoughts and position, help them to see the ramifications of the things they were saying. Then he would slowly lead them on to the truth. He was supremely confident in the power of truth because he believed, he knew, that there is such a thing as truth and we’re all looking for it no matter what we believe and what we study. Seeking truth was the guiding principle of his life. When he found it, wherever he found it, he wanted to share it with his students, and with the world. He was a great teacher and very prolific his entire life.

Just as an example. Toward the end of his life during a three-year stint at the University of Paris he wrote the central and largest part of his massive work the Summa theologiae, a couple thousand questions, all answered thoroughly, thousands and thousands of words, page after page. But not only that, in those three years: He wrote a commentaries on virtually every work of Aristotle, Commentaries on the Book of Job, Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of John, and most of St. Paul’s letters in the New Testament. He wrote an entire treatise on evil in the world and one on the virtue… among other things. In three years, before there were word processors, or typewriters, or even a printing press. I’d challenge any my colleagues to surpass that publishing record.

Indeed it was a superhuman feat, no doubt evidence of graced charism this doctor had.

As his reputation grew and his teaching circulated, he found himself in trouble with certain church authorities. He was a radical liberal for his day: a Christian dialoguing with Muslims and unbelievers, and engaging the work of the Greek pagan philosopher Aristotle to do so (Christians had until that point often relied on Plato). After he died at the age 49, and some of his teachings were condemned (wrongly it later turned out), he had no student and no disciple who could rise to defend him, who could hold even a candle to the intellectual caliber of this great doctor of learning. It was finally, once again, his teacher, now the elderly St. Albert the Great in the last years of life, who rallied to the defense of his greatest student. And it was his Dominican brothers who won the day for the truth of the saint’s teaching.

When he was finally canonized almost fifty years after his death, he became, many have noted, the first saint to be canonized not because he was a martyr, or because he made some great gesture of evangelical zeal, or because he had been bishop (a position he was offered by declined), or because was some great monk (another lifestyle he declined to the consternation of his family who imprisoned him for a year for it). Rather, he was the first to be canonized because he was a great, an inspired teacher and preacher.

Knowledge and Learning

You might think that would be enough, that we gather here to honor the great teacher and theologian saint, to ask for his intercession, because he was so accomplished, so prolific, so wonderful a teacher and a thinker. That this is why he is the patron saint of this university, of schools, teachers, and students. But you’d be wrong.

It’s not because of St. Thomas’s accomplishments, many though they are, that the Church canonized him, declared him the Common Doctor (teacher) of the Church, and even today prizes his thought, his theology, above all others. He, who at the end of his life, saw all of his writings as just straw compared to the beautiful immensity of God would revolt at such a suggestion. No, St. Thomas should hold a special place in every educator’s heart, in every student’s heart because of what he believed about learning, about the pursuit of knowledge and truth regardless of field or discipline.

You see, St. Thomas insisted that we become what we know. We are configured to the things we study. A person who studies biology becomes a biologist in some way, even if only slightly when you’re in freshman biology. The person who loves to study biology, however, sees her love for it grow as her knowledge grows, and she becomes a biologist not only in name but also in character. Biology pleases her. We are creatures marked by a desire to know, too learn—not just in the classroom but also in the chapel, at home, on the street, through things we read and see on television and the internet.

We’re always soaking up knowledge. We always are growing, knowing more and more. Some of it helps us become better persons, some of it can be degrading, and some of it seemingly useless. But we’re always learning. From how to drive a car, how to fix a car, how cellular mitochondria works, to the beauty of poetry written in iambic pentameter, to pursuing the higher philosophical truths about the world and life, to studying God’s own self-revelation to us. We’re made to know. And St. Thomas would dismiss with prejudice any idea that we learn simply because it’s useful. He would be saddened to see anyone rest with studying only the most practical and pragmatic of disciplines—learning simply to get to the degree, simply to get the job, the house, the car (all good things mind you).

Learning Brings Us to Truth and Truth is a Person

St. Thomas would argue that knowledge and its pursuit is for its own sake leads us closer to truth. And Truth is real; it can be found. It calls to us wanting to be known. And truth more than just quantity and measurement; it’s more than feeling and opinion; it’s more than even beauty. We’re made to look for it, to seek it always, restlessly devouring knowledge on our way.

St. Thomas understood that this is for one single reason: God is truth. Truth, it turns out, is a person, a Divine Person. And we were made for Him, to seek Him. He wants to be found so much so that he reveals himself in the wonder of his creation, in the beauty of his creatures, in the accomplishments of reason and in the best this world has to offer.

It’s precisely because this Person, this Truth, came to us in Jesus Christ that St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic tradition with him can boldly accept the true conclusions and the good insights of all the sciences and disciplines that make up any great university. It’s precisely because God has touched our world as man, experienced our life, was born, grew, learned, suffered, and died like one of us that studying even the smallest grub worm can now be an avenue to discerning the greater truths of life and of the world. It turns out that studying the grub worm can bring us closer to its Creator, to our Creator.

St. Thomas was certainly not the first to articulate this truth, and he’s definitely not the last, but he taught it and preached it in the very way he lived. He was looking to know truth, because he was looking to know God. And he found avenues to God in the writings of pagan Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.

But where he was most at home, where he truly felt close to God, was in his prayer and reading the Sacred Scripture. His work is permeated with profound familiarity with the Sacred Words of the Bible. It’s a familiarity that comes not from pure academic study of a text but from a deep abiding friendship with Christ that can only flourish if a person is spending time with the Lord in prayer, in his presence, and with his Word.

And that’s why this saint, who was in many ways an intellectual giant—his teaching and principles endure to this day—was also known for being an incredibly humble man. Knowledge may be power, but the more St. Thomas knew about the world and about God, the more he knew about himself, and about our sinful human condition, the more he grew in humility. He was a never a man who would beat up his opponents in debate simply to demonstrate his prowess. He never used his knowledge for personal gain.

On the contrary, he embodied what is often said of our Holy Father St. Dominic: he was always talking about God or to God.

Humility as the Path to Holiness

This is what St. Thomas came to know in his life and passes on to us today. We hear it in the Gospel: God desires to give whatever we ask that our joy may be full. God wants to be known, wants to be loved, and to love. In the end, all of our learning, all of our pursuits must yield to this pearl of wisdom: we need only to ask. Be humble and ask God for our happiness and for our joy. Ask him for our success. Ask him to bring us closer.

If our learning and study swells up our pride such that we feel no need in asking, we can be sure it has all been for naught and we’ll never be truly happy, truly joyful. The more a person of learning excels, the more he should know of his insufficiency, his poverty before the great truths of the universe, the great Truth who is God.

Humility, St. Thomas Aquinas once said, is what renders us capable of God because it prepares the way toward wisdom.1 It is a most necessary virtue to bring us closer to the Lord because without it we attempt life on our own, at best, and at worst try to reach him without his help, which is both frustrating and impossible.

Only humility asks God: bring me closer. And the Good News is: he will do it.

In St. Thomas’s view, humility gives us free untrammeled access to God’s spiritual and divine goods precisely because we need only have the humility to ask for that which God so wants to give.2

In the end, that’s the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas. That’s why he is the patron saint of education. By God’s grace, it’s this wisdom that every student will come to know, that every great teacher hopes to impart, and that every saint lives. Through the intercession of St. Thomas Aquinas may our studies bring us closer to God by bringing us deeper humility so that we might receive the abundant joy God has always wanted to give.


1See Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Matthew, Chapter 5, lecture 1; Proverbs 11:12.
2See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 161, a. 5, corpus and reply to objection 4.