Mass of St. Thomas Aquinas Homily
Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P., editor-in-chief of Magnificat
Great Upper Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Jan. 28, 2016
The reason I became a Dominican is because, while I was in high school, I read an historical novel about the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas by the author Louis De Wohl entitled The Quiet Light. It’s a great book—worth reading!
All the reasons that Thomas Aquinas had for wanting to join the Dominican Order were the very reasons that I myself had for wanting to become a Dominican.
There’s this great passage where the young Thomas d’Aquino makes the acquaintance of the Master General of the Order of Preachers, and is deeply impressed by him. Because the Master General says things like this:
There is nothing more active than contemplation. And here is the great command of our Order: Contemplat aliis tradere. We must not keep for ourselves the result of our work. We must pass it on to others, to our neighbor. The time is ripe and more than ripe. For the enemies of God have got hold of knowledge and have done what they would do: distorted it, twisted it so as to fit it in with their purpose. We shall answer them with the knowledge of the truth. No wonder they call us a nuisance—we are…to them. And we are more than that, please God.
When the young Thomas hears this, the novel goes on to say that he “took a deep breath” and then asked:
My Father…do you think I…I could be of use in your Order?
And the rest is history.
A few years later after reading that book, when I was in college, I had the chance to study some of the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
And one day, while I was preparing for a final exam — procrastinating, really — I was skimming through the Summa Theologiae… Saint Thomas’ masterpiece of theology.
There I came upon a very intriguing argument in the first part of the Summa — Question 20, which is about “Love in God.” Saint Thomas picks up on a subject that he had found in the works of Saint Augustine. And the question is this: Which Apostle did Jesus love more: Peter or John?
What would you say?
Saint Thomas begins his answer by saying that Peter is a symbol of the active life in the Church, and that Jesus loves Peter more since the active life really feels the pressures of the present life, and more eagerly desires to be freed from those pressures and go to God. However, John is a figure of the contemplative life, and it would seem that Jesus loves John more since God loves the contemplative life more since he preserves it longer than the active life — even after the life of the body ends.
But, from another angle, Jesus loved Peter more because Peter is said to have loved Jesus with a certain promptness and ardor. But on the other hand, Jesus loved John more, proved through certain signs of greater intimacy that Christ showed John on account of his youth and purity… like letting John lay his head on his breast at the Last Supper.
Jesus loved Peter more because of Peter’s gift of devotion. But he loved John more because of John’s gift of understanding.
Yet certainly Jesus loved Peter more because Peter had a greater love for Christ’s members; that is why Jesus commended his Church to Peter: You are rock, and on this rock I will build my Church. But Jesus clearly loved John more because John had a greater love for Christ’s person; that is why Jesus commended his own Mother to John: Behold your Mother.
So which Apostle did Jesus love more: Peter or John?
At this point, Saint Thomas Aquinas does something that I don’t think he does anywhere else in his writings. The man who was a master at making a definitive judgment about any quandary or conundrum you could set before him says this: “It seems presumptuous to pronounce on the matter.”
My baptismal name is Peter; my middle name is John. When I read that answer, I decided then and there that, if I became a Dominican, I would keep both of my given names as my religious name in Dominican life…
But why am I bringing all this up?
I see that with us at Mass today there are many young people. I have such a heart for young people of today. Because they suffer a lot … from loneliness … from a lack of meaning or purpose in their life. They suffer because they really want to belong, they really want to be loved, and they are not loved enough, especially at times — very sadly — by their own fathers. And this creates a terrible wound and can lead to self-destructive behavior.
And, as interesting as it is to ponder which Apostle Jesus loved more, the even more pressing, more urgent question is: Does Jesus love ME as much as he loves them? Is that love even a possibility for my life?
Saint Thomas Aquinas, if he were here among us, would have such tremendous empathy for the young. He himself was misunderstood as a young person; he was overweight and out of shape; he was taciturn and introverted; he was treated badly by his own family, who actually imprisoned him at one point; he was marginalized and bullied by his classmates—they called him the “dumb ox.”
And yet Thomas Aquinas had this amazing conviction about God’s love. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Saint Thomas wrote this:
At the present time we cannot know how great God’s love for us is: this is because the good things that God will give us exceed our longings and desires, and so cannot be found in our heart. Thus the believing world, that is, the saints, will now know by experience how much God loves us.
Not long ago an older friend who is very lavish with his affection sent me a greeting card. On the cover was a quotation I had never read before from F. Scott Fitzgerald. The quote goes:
You are the finest, loveliest, tenderest, and most beautiful person I have ever known, but even that is an understatement.
I’ll tell you, I was so moved by that card. Until I discovered it’s sold in a box of 25.
But even then, something about that card resonated very deeply in me. Because it was a little experience of how God loves us. It corresponded with my heart. It convinced me all the more that that is the kind of love that I am made for…that I am waiting for…that has been promised to me and is the meaning of my life.
And even though, as Saint Thomas says, the great things of God’s love exceed our longings and desires, the only way not to give up when the loneliness and misery of life afflict us is by remaining always faithful to our own desires.
Saint Thomas wrote:
The life of the human being consists in the affection which principally sustains a person and in which that person finds his greatest satisfaction.
What is the affection that principally sustains you and in which you find your greatest satisfaction?
The trouble is that when happiness doesn’t happen according to our plan, and we begin to feel the void, the abysmalness of life, we very often side step and compromise our desire in favor of something that ultimately cannot satisfy.
For example, in the Summa, Saint Thomas asks this question: “What are the things in which the human being’s happiness consists?” And in searching for an answer, he invokes the usual suspects: Does happiness consist in wealth? In fame or glory? In power? In pleasure? In any created good?
If we are honest with ourselves, we see that none of these things can suffice … none of these things can ever be enough. Because all of these things are finite. And there is one thing that your desire and my desire and the desire of every person in this basilica and in the world has in common: which is that our desire is infinite. Which means the only thing that can satisfy our infinite desire is the Infinite.
The American poet Christian Wiman — who rediscovered his Christian faith through an excruciating bout with cancer — wrote:
I did not know what love was until I encountered one that kept opening and opening and opening. And until I acknowledged that what that love was opening onto, and into, was God.
Toward the end of his life, Saint Thomas was praying in a chapel, and Jesus himself spoke to Thomas from a crucifix hanging on the wall. Jesus said: “You have written well of me, Thomas! What do you desire?” To which, Thomas replied, “Non nisi te, Domine.” Only you, Lord.
This is the other reason why I love Saint Thomas Aquinas so much. Yes, he is an incomparable philosopher and theologian—the Patron of Catholic Schools, including my own Alma Mater The Catholic University of America. But Saint Thomas is also an amazing poet whose Non nisi te, Domine made it possible for him to compose the most beautiful hymns to the Holy Eucharist the world has ever known.
Because Saint Thomas really “got” the meaning of the Eucharist. As he wrote:
Christ would not be so intimately united to us were we, in the Eucharist, to share only in his power: how much better that he should give us his very self, not merely his effects, for the perfect joining of head and members. What a proof of friendship, that he should feed us himself.
And, as Saint Thomas asked in commenting on the works of Aristotle, “Without friends, who would want to live? [In every situation and at whatever age] “friendship is what is most necessary to live.”
So you, who have been made a friend of Jesus Christ … you for whom every expression of God’s love for you is an understatement … you, you light of the world you, go out and be a friend to others. Live your life as a risk. Someone out there needs you. Someone close is on the verge of despair and maybe even of death. So come to Jesus, receive your Friend in Holy Communion, and then go out and do what he does: give to others your very self.