Today I would like to complete, with a third instalment, my Catecheses on St. Thomas Aquinas. Even more than 700 years after his death we can learn much from him. My Predecessor, Pope Paul VI, said […]: “all of us who are faithful sons and daughters of the Church can and must be his disciples, at least to some extent!”
Let us too, therefore, learn from the teaching of St. Thomas and from his masterpiece, the Summa Theologiæ.
A monumental work
It was left unfinished, yet it is a monumental work: it contains 512 questions and 2,669 articles. It consists of concentrated reasoning in which the human mind is applied to the mysteries of faith, with clarity and depth to the mysteries of Faith, alternating questions with answers in which St. Thomas deepens the teaching that comes from Sacred Scripture and from the Fathers of the Church, especially St. Augustine.
In this reflection, in meeting the true questions of his time, that are also often our own questions, St. Thomas, also by employing the method and thought of the ancient philosophers, and of Aristotle in particular, thus arrives at precise, lucid and pertinent formulations of the truths of Faith in which truth is a gift of faith, shines out and becomes accessible to us, for our reflection.
However, this effort of the human mind – Aquinas reminds us with his own life – is always illumined by prayer, by the light that comes from on high. Only those who live with God and with His mysteries can also understand what they say to us.
In the Summa of theology, St. Thomas starts from the fact that God has three different ways of being and existing: God exists in himself, He is the beginning and end of all things, which is why all creatures proceed from Him and depend on Him: then God is present through His Grace in the life and activity of the Christian, of the Saints; lastly, God is present in an altogether special way in the Person of Christ, here truly united to the man Jesus, and active in the Sacraments that derive from His work of redemption.
Therefore, the structure of this monumental work, a quest with “a theological vision” for the fullness of God, is divided into three parts and is illustrated by the Doctor Communis himself St. Thomas with these words: “Because the chief aim of sacred doctrine is to teach the knowledge of God, not only as He is in himself, but also as He is the beginning of things and their last end, and especially of rational creatures, as is clear from what has already been said, therefore, we shall treat: (1) Of God; (2) Of the rational creature’s advance towards God; (3) Of Christ, who as Man, is our way to God.” […]
Scientific rigour accessible to all
All that St. Thomas described with scientific rigour in his major theological works, such as, precisely, the Summa Theologiæ, and the Summa contra Gentiles, was also explained in his preaching, both to his students and to the faithful.
In 1273, a year before he died, he preached throughout Lent in the Church of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples. The content of those sermons was gathered and preserved: they are the Opuscoli in which he explains the Apostles’ Creed, interprets the Prayer of the Our Father, explains the Ten Commandments and comments on the Hail Mary.
The content of the Doctor Angelicus’ preaching corresponds with virtually the whole structure of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. […].
Essential content of his preaching in Naples
I would like to propose some simple, essential and convincing examples of the content of St. Thomas’ teaching. In his booklet on The Apostles’ Creed he explains the value of faith. Through it, he says, the soul is united to God and produces, as it were, a shoot of eternal life; life receives a reliable orientation and we overcome temptations with ease.
To those who object that faith is foolishness because it leads to belief in something that does not come within the experience of the senses, St. Thomas gives a very articulate answer and recalls that this is an inconsistent doubt, for human intelligence is limited and cannot know everything. Only if we were able to know all visible and invisible things perfectly would it be genuinely foolish to accept truths out of pure faith. Moreover, it is impossible to live, St. Thomas observes, without trusting in the experience of others, wherever one’s own knowledge falls short.
It is thus reasonable to believe in God, who reveals himself, and in the testimony of the Apostles: they were few, simple and poor, grief-stricken by the Crucifixion of their Teacher. Yet many wise, noble and rich people converted very soon after hearing their preaching. In fact this is a miraculous phenomenon of history, to which it is far from easy to give a convincing answer other than that of the Apostle’s encounter with the Risen Lord.
Become one heart with Christ
In commenting on the article of the Creed on the Incarnation of the divine Word St. Thomas makes a few reflections.
He says that the Christian Faith is strengthened in considering the mystery of the Incarnation; hope is strengthened at the thought that the Son of God came among us, as one of us, to communicate His own divinity to human beings; charity is revived because there is no more obvious sign of God’s love for us than the sight of the Creator of the universe making himself a creature, one of us.
Finally, in contemplating the mystery of God’s Incarnation, we feel kindled within us our desire to reach Christ in glory.
Using a simple and effective comparison, St. Thomas remarks: “If the brother of a king were to be far away, he would certainly long to live beside him. Well, Christ is a brother to us; we must therefore long for His company and become of one heart with Him.”
The perfect prayer and devotion to Our Lady
In presenting the prayer of the Our Father, St. Thomas shows that it is perfect in itself, since it has all five of the characteristics that a well-made prayer must possess: trusting, calm abandonment; a fitting content because, St. Thomas observes, “it is quite difficult to know exactly what it is appropriate and inappropriate to ask for, since choosing among our wishes puts us in difficulty”; and then an appropriate order of requests, the fervour of love and the sincerity of humility.
Like all the Saints, St. Thomas had a great devotion to Our Lady. He described her with a wonderful title: Triclinium totius Trinitatis; triclinium, that is, a place where the Trinity finds rest since, because of the Incarnation, in no creature as in Her do the three divine Persons dwell and feel delight and joy at dwelling in her soul full of grace. Through her intercession we may obtain every help. ◊
Excerpts from: BENEDICT XVI.
General Audience, 23/6/2010