Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ten Fun Facts About St Thomas Aquinas

For the feast of this great saint and doctor of the Church

1. He was born and grew up in a castle.

Thomas was from a well-to-do family in Roccasecca, Italy. He had three brothers and five sisters.

2. He had a lifelong fear of storms.

That’s probably because when he was a toddler, his infant sister was killed by lightning when they were both taking a nap in the same room. Later in life, Thomas always carried a relic of St. Agnes and prayed to her for protection during storms.

3. When he was a boy he was sent to study at the famous monastery of Monte Cassino.

He stayed there through his teens and probably became a Benedictine oblate. While there Thomas got to know the spiritual writings of St John Cassian, which he treasured throughout his life.

4. He ran away from home to follow his Dominican vocation.

While his family wouldn’t have objected to him staying at Monte Cassino in view of becoming the abbot, they just couldn’t understand why Thomas would want to become a Dominican. For them it was a step down in the world, since the Dominicans were itinerant preachers and went around begging.

5. He was stubborn.

When his family found out he had joined the Dominicans, a band of soldiers led by his brother Rinaldo captured Thomas and brought him back home. He spent about a year under a sort of house arrest while his family tried to persuade him to give up his dream. He did not.

6. He was called the “dumb ox.”

This is often misunderstood. It didn’t mean that the other students thought he was unintelligent. They called him that because he was very quiet and didn’t talk much.

It was so bad it’s called in Latin the littera inintelligibilis. So if any of your teachers ever criticized your handwriting, take heart, you’re just like Aquinas!

8. He could dictate to two or three secretaries at once.

His handwriting didn’t matter because he usually dictated to secretaries. Although it may seem incredible, it’s well-documented that Thomas could dictate to a few at one time. He could think a lot faster than they could write.

9. He never criticized people; he only critiqued ideas.

The closest he ever came to criticizing someone in his writings was when he called an opinion of a certain David of Dinant stultissimus, which loosely translated means, “wow, what a stupid idea!” But it was the idea he was criticizing, not David.

10. He was extremely humble and submitted all his work to the judgment of the Church.

At the point of death, he said, “I have taught and written much . . . according to my faith in Jesus Christ and the holy Roman Church, to whose judgment I submit all my teaching.”

Amen!  Saint Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Passion and Christ the King

The Gospel for this Sunday, the feast of Christ the King, is taken from John's Passion narrative: Jesus before Pontius Pilate.  Jesus' kingdom is not of this world; he is not a king in political terms. "The Passion is conceived in the fourth Gospel as a kind of epiphany of Christ the King." *

 Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, John does not talk about the kingdom of God--until the Passion narrative. Then, he presents Jesus and his kingdom for what it really is: "The kingdom is to be the earthly continuation and representation of Jesus after he has gone," (Ibid.)  that is, the kingdom on earth is the Church.

The Pierced Heart of Christ

The second reading from Revelation says: "Look, he is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all peoples on earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen!" (Rev 1:7).

In reading this we can't help but think of that other scene in John's Gospel, when after Jesus died "one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and blood and water came out" (Jn 19:34).

The prophet Zechariah had written, "I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of mercy and supplication, so that when they look on him whom they have thrust through, they will mourn for him as over a firstborn. . .  "On that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to purify from sin and uncleanness." (Zech 12:10, 13:1).

This fountain is the blood and water that poured out from the heart of Christ the King as he hung on the cross. The blood and water is the fountain of sacramental life in the Church, representing all the sacraments but Baptism and the Eucharist in particular.

The kingdom that Christ came to establish, the Church, freely offers this new life of grace to all who desire it. The only condition is faith and repentance, to believe and to begin through grace to walk in the newness of life.

Since after his death and resurrection the mission of Christ on earth was accomplished, he left us the Church as the place wherein we receive his life of grace.  This kingdom would be holy, despite the flaws and sins of its members. It would be a united kingdom, symbolized at Calvary by the seamless garment of Christ which in 19:23 ff, John emphasizes could not be torn apart. The biblical background here is found in 1 Kings 11:29-31. The prophet Ahijah took the garment Jeroboam was wearing and tore it into twelve pieces, symbolizing the division of his kingdom, in contrast.

The fountain of blood and water that flowed from Christ's heart is at the center of the divine mercy devotion that Jesus gave to us through St Faustina. He promised her that through that image he would grant many graces to the world. The Year of Mercy is going to start in a couple weeks. Today's feast of Christ the King can help us to reflect on his great love and mercy, and to prepare for the coming time of mercy when surely the floodgates of heaven's graces will be open for us, if we are willing to ask for them.

*Andre Feuillet, Johannine Studies (New York: Alba House, 1964, p. 21).

Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Incarnate Word, q. 1, a. 2 (first of two posts)

Question 1: The fittingness of the Incarnation
Article 2:     Was the Incarnation necessary to restore the human race from sin?

Quick answer: It depends on how you understand "necessary" (Thomas always distinguishes)

Why?      Thomas says that a thing can be called necessary in two ways. The first is when it is absolutely essential, otherwise the goal can't be reached. In this sense, the Incarnation was not absolutely necessary because God could have devised other ways to save us.

Yet something can be necessary even when it is not absolutely required, but makes it easier to reach a goal. He gives the example of using a horse on a journey. (Thomas traveled a lot through Europe, mostly on foot. We can imagine he probably often wished he had a horse!)
The Incarnation is necessary in this second way. It helps us in two ways: first by making it easier for us to attain good, and second by making it easier for us to avoid evil. In this post I'll only speak about the first way, since this is a longer article than usual.

Thomas gives five reasons why the Incarnation helps us to attain good more easily. He quotes Augustine for each of them, which shows how much he looked to Augustine in formulating his own thought.

1) Our faith is more certain because we have it on the authority of God himself speaking to us in Jesus Christ. "In order that we might journey more trustfully toward the truth, the Truth itself, the Son of God, having assumed human nature,  established and founded faith."

2) Our hope is more certain because it is greatly strengthened, as Augustine says, "Nothing was so necessary for raising our hope as to show us how deeply God loved us. And what could afford us a stronger proof of this than that the Son of God should become a partner with us of human  nature?"

3) Our love is increased because of the Incarnation since as Augustine says, "What greater cause is there of the Lord's coming than to show God's love for us?" And he  adds: "If we have been slow to love, at least let us hasten to love in return."

4) Jesus gave us a model for right living: "God was made man, that He Who might be seen by us, and Whom we might follow, might be shown to us."

5)  Through the humanity of Christ we are enabled to participate in God's own life through grace: "God became a human being, that human beings might become God."

That last quotation from Augustine was a favorite one of the Fathers of the Church, and goes back as far as Irenaeus (d. 202).

Spiritual takeaway:  Each of the five reasons and the quotes from Augustine would make a fruitful meditation. I can't add anything to that!

Saturday, November 07, 2015

The Incarnate Word Q. 1, a. 1 (part three)

In blogging through the Summa, I'm going to start with the third part because:

1) it's about Jesus Christ and the sacraments, so it deals with material we're more familiar with
2) it's less heavily philosophical than the first part. To start at the beginning could lead to discouragement rather quickly!
3) while all of the Summa is profitable for spiritual growth, the third part is especially fruitful in that regard.

Question 1: The fittingness of the Incarnation
Article 1:     Was it fitting for God to become incarnate?

Quick answer:  Yes

Why?   Thomas says that God's very nature is goodness. As Dionysius shows, goodness implies self-communication. So because of God's goodness, he has communicated himself to us in such a way that the second Person of the Trinity became a man. Thus, the Incarnation was completely fitting. God communicates himself out of sheer goodness, not driven by any necessity.

Thomas' sources: Note that in this article, Thomas quotes three of his most important theological sources.

1) St John of Damascus, who is very influential on Thomas' Christology. John lived in the 8th century (died in 749), the last of the Greek Fathers and known especially for his work On the Orthodox Faith.

2) St Augustine, who was also a huge influence on Thomas

3) Dionysius the Areopagite, also known as Pseudo-Dionysius. He wrote on the angelic hierarchy and on God, especially in The Divine Names. Because in the Middle Ages he was incorrectly thought to be the Dionysius converted by Paul at Athens, his work  became very authoritative. He actually lived in the 6th century and was an unknown author who probably lived in Syria.

Thomas also quotes Scripture often. In fact, he equates theology with the study of the sacred page, the Bible, in the very first question of the whole Summa.

Spiritual takeaway:
In his theology of the body, St John Paul II took up the principle that goodness communicates itself.  He used it in explaining one of his key ideas: that as human beings we find happiness and fulfillment in making a gift of ourselves to others in love. This "freedom of the gift" was at work in the Incarnation. The more closely we are configured to Christ, the more we will live this and find happiness.

Blogging through the Summa: brief overview

Today I'm starting a new endeavor, to blog through the Summa. I know it's a daunting task, and I don't know how far I'll get. But at least I can start and see how it goes.
This post is a brief overview of the structure of the Summa (that is, the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas). Thomas wrote it as a textbook for beginners in theology -- yes, beginners!--to present the teachings of the Catholic faith in an organized way.

It has three parts, the second of which is subdivided into two parts:

Part I treats of the nature of theology, God, the Trinity, creation, the angels, human beings, and the world order

Part II
        First Part (I-II): treats of general principles of the moral life, starting with happiness. He looks at human acts, principles of morality, the emotions, virtues, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, sin, law, the Old Law and the Gospel of Grace.

       Second Part (II-II): treats of the virtues in great detail. Thomas focuses on virtue, not on sin. He mentions sin when it comes up in relation to the various virtues. He has a very positive approach.

Part III
        This part is on Jesus Christ, the Incarnation, his passion, death, and resurrection, and four of the sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Holy Eucharist, and Penance.  Thomas died before the could complete the Summa. After his death, other Dominicans put together the Supplement, completing the material Thomas had intended to write about. They used other writings he had done earlier in his career, mostly from his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Thomas had commented on these when he was a "bachelor of the Sentences"  at the University of Paris from 1252-1256, before he became a Master of theology.

Each part of the Summa is divided into questions, which have several articles. My plan is to do one blog post for each of the articles.

How to read the Summa: Each article begins with a question, followed by several objections. Then there is a sed contra, which is usually the response Thomas will give (but sometimes the sed contra contains another objection.) Then Thomas gives his response and full explanation, followed by his replies to each objection.
I've found the easiest way is to read the question, then the sed contra so you know what Thomas is saying, then his fuller response. Then I go back to the objections and try to figure out how to answer them before reading Thomas' own response.

I'll link to the online version here.
St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us! Pray for the wisdom we need to understand more deeply the things of God.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Saints John de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues and companions

Saint John de Brébeuf (1593-1649), Isaac Jogues (1607-1646), and Companions

Feast: October 19 (United States), September 26 (Canada)

Patrons: missionaries, evangelizers, United States, Canada

This group of six Jesuit priests (John de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues, Noel Chabanel, Anthony Daniel, Charles Garnier, Gabriel Lalemant) and two lay assistants (René Goupil and Jean de la Lande) were zealous missionary martyrs in Canada and upstate New York. The Jesuit Relations record in great detail their work and sufferings as they evangelized the native peoples. Isaac Jogues was captured, tortured, and held as a prisoner in the Mohawk village of Ossernenon for over a year. With help from the Dutch he escaped and returned to France. But in his zeal he asked to be sent back to the missions, not fearing martyrdom.
John de Brébeuf was outstanding for his courage, missionary zeal, and efforts to understand the native peoples. He learned the Huron language and adapted himself to their culture, living among the people. He and Gabriel Lalemant were martyred together after extreme torture on March 16, 1649. Brébeuf had reached such a high point in his spiritual life that he desired martyrdom as a way of giving the ultimate witness to Jesus Christ. The martyrs’ shrines at Midland, Ontario, and Auriesville, New York, recall their dedication and heroism.


For me, the most moving part of the Auriesville shrine is the ravine. There a grief-stricken Isaac Jogues, praying the psalms for the dead, sought in vain for the body of René Goupil. Rustic signposts along a silent, tree-shrouded path near a brook lead the pilgrim through that sorrowful journey. He relates, “Finally on the fourth trip I found René's head and some half gnawed bones. These I buried. Reverently did I kiss them as the bones of a martyr of Jesus Christ . . . ”


Holy martyrs, we stand in awe of your courage in the face of extreme suffering. Your love for Jesus moved you to sacrifice everything for his sake. Pray for us that we may have courage to profess our faith even in the midst of an unbelieving world.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Abortion Can Always Be Forgiven

After the pope's statement about forgiving abortion, some media reports have made it sound like the Catholic Church doesn't forgive abortion. People are asking,  “Why can abortion only be forgiven during the Year of Mercy?”

Here’s a few facts to help clear up the confusion:

1. Abortion can always be forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In fact, the Church makes every effort to encourage people involved in it to find healing and forgiveness. A wonderful example is Project Rachel. It is not the case that abortions will only be forgiven in the Year of Mercy.They can and are forgiven at any time when a person repents and confesses this.

2. Abortion is a sin. Because it is a grave matter and the Church hopes to discourage people from them, canon law says that procuring an abortion also incurs the penalty of automatic excommunication.

3. Forgiving the sin is one thing, and remitting the penalty of excommunication is another. Usually the penalty can only be remitted by the bishop. However, in the United States the bishops have given to all priests the faculty to not only forgive the sin when it is confessed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but also to remit the penalty. This is to encourage people to have easier access to forgiveness and healing.

4. Bishops in other countries, however, may have decided to handle it differently. So in brief, the pope is saying that any priest all over the world will be able not only to forgive the sin in confession but also to remit the penalty. While the pope didn’t mention the penalty in his statement, presumably that’s what he meant. Most likely an official text will be issued to clarify the canonical aspects. Pope Francis said:

For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it. May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.
5. Also, the automatic penalty of excommunication for abortion doesn’t apply if:

a) the person did not know about it (that would probably exclude about 99% of all Catholic women who have had abortions from incurring the penalty)

b) the person was under the age of 17

c) the person acted out of force or fear

d) the person had an imperfect use of reason

(See this for more info on canonical penalties)

Bottom line: when you see headlines about what the pope said, realize that the journalist writing the story probably knows very little about the Catholic faith and is not getting it right. The best thing is to go directly to the source (Vatican website) and read what the pope actually said.

Finally,  God is so merciful. Jesus said, "No one who comes to me will I ever reject." (Jn 6) His heart is overflowing with love and mercy, that heart pierced on the cross from which blood and water flowed out, the source of sacramental life in the Church.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What does the Holy Spirit have to do with the Assumption of Mary?

The other day I was reading Romans and this line jumped out: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Rom 8:11).
Paul is underlining that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit. Since Jesus' resurrection is the source of the future resurrection of our bodies, we too will be raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit (at the end of time when Christ comes again in glory.)

But the Church teaches that God anticipated this for Mary. Right after she died, she was taken up into heaven, both body and soul. This is what we celebrate on the Assumption.

Based on Romans, we can say that the Holy Spirit was active in this. And we know from other texts in the New Testament that Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit. When the angel Gabriel asked her consent to become the Mother of God, he said, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you." (Lk 1:35)  Years later, Mary was present at Pentecost and received the Holy Spirit in an even fuller measure: "They were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, along with Mary, the mother of Jesus" (Acts 1:14).

Mary had a special relationship with the Holy Spirit. She was full of grace, and one effect of grace is the indwelling of the Spirit. So it was extremely fitting that at the close of her earthly life, the Spirit who dwelt in her with such fullness would take her body to heaven as well. Mary received the first fruits of the resurrection of Jesus.
Why is this important to note? Because it shows that the dogma of the Assumption, which Pope Pius XII proclaimed in the Marian year of 1950, has a Scriptural basis. More on that later.