Category Archives: theologian

The poor Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas was born into a family of the lower nobility. But his family had plans for him. Sent to school at Monte Cassino with the Benedictines, they probably hoped he would become an abbot and maybe even a bishop.

But God had other plans for Thomas.

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

At the University of Naples he ran across the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, a mendicant order that saw voluntary poverty as part of their way of living out their vocation.

Dominic, the founder of the order, had come to this position when he was trying to convert the Albigensians in southern France. Many of those who tried to convert them came with their finery and fancy wagons. Dominic saw that the Albigensian leaders lived simply and poorly. And so Dominic saw the value of poverty.

Thomas’s decision to join the Dominicans did not make his family happy – but after being imprisoned by his brothers for a year, they let him join the Dominicans.

Thomas proceeded to become one of the most learned scholars of his age. But in this he did not forget the value of poverty.

Thomas defended the voluntary poverty of the mendicant (begging) orders and in fact he wrote of the poverty of Christ:

Christ chose to have parents who were poor but perfect in virtue, lest anyone should glory in his noble lineage and the riches of his parents. He lived a life of poverty to teach others to spurn riches. He lived an ordinary life having no high position to recall others from an inordinate greed for honors. He endured labor, hunger, thirst and bodily scourging, lest those who are intent on bodily pleasures and delights draw back from the good of virtue because of the rigors of such a life.

The poor Christ was his inspiration.

How can we live as followers of the poor Christ in our daily lives?

The bellowing of the Dumb Ox

Students, even members of religious orders, can sometimes be rather caustic in their evaluations of their fellow students.

The Dominican friars who studied with St. Albert the Great in Cologne called Thomas Aquinas “The Dumb Ox,” for they saw this rather large man as very taciturn.

St. Albert, however, advised them that the lowing of this dumb ox would one day resound throughout the world.

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

For many years the work of St. Thomas was the norm for Catholic theology – though more in terms of scholastic treatises that ignored the dialectical nature of Thomas’ Summa Theologica, where he discusses the pros and contras of hundreds of questions about faith and practice.

Thomas at times has been dismissed as cold and dry, more interested in “truths” than in the life of faith.

I think this is mistaken. And this is not only because I took a grad school course on “The Perfection of the Universe according to Thomas Aquinas.”

One of the more interesting remarks about Thomas comes from G. K. Chesterton:

He [Thomas Aquinas] had from the first that full and final test of truly orthodox Catholicity: the impetuous, impatient, intolerable passion for the poor; and even that readiness to be rather a nuisance to the rich, out of a hunger to feed the hungry.

This quotation from Thomas’ Summa Theologica (Ia–2ae ii, 4) bears this out:

 Four general reasons can be brought forward to show that perfect happiness consists neither in riches, nor in fame, nor in power. Of which the first is that perfect happiness is not compatible with any evil. The second is that happiness is self-sufficient; once obtained, no other human prize is wanting, such as good health and wisdom. The third is that no harm results from happiness, whereas sometimes riches are kept to the hurt of the owner, and this may be also the case with the other goods we have mentioned. The fourth reason is this: true happiness wells from within, but the goods we have mentioned come from external causes and often from good luck.

Thomas has often been invoked as a defender of orthodoxy – of orthodox Catholic ideas; but this quote and others would indicate that he was a defender of an orthopraxy (right practice of the Christian faith) that includes a skepticism about riches, fame, and power.


The quote above is taken from a collection of quotes from Aquinas gathered by the late Father John Kavanaugh, SJ, in America,  here.



William Stringfellow was an Episcopalian theologian, lawyer, and friend of the Jesuit poet and peace activist Father Dan Berrigan. Stringfellow was influenced in part by the French Reformed Church theologian Jacques Ellul. He died on March 2, 1985.

Here is a description of holiness from The Politics of Spirituality:

…being holy, becoming and being a saint does not mean being perfect but being whole; it does not mean being exceptionally religious, or being religious at all, it means begin liberated from religiosity and religious pietism of any sort; it does not mean being morally better, it means being exemplary; it does not mean being godly, but rather being truly human; it does not mean being otherworldly, but it means being deeply implicated in the practical existence of this world without succumbing to this world or any aspect of this world, no matter how beguiling. Being holy means a radical self-knowledge; a sense of who one is a consciousness of one’s identity so thorough that it is no longer confused with the identities of others, of persons or of any creatures or of God or of any idols.



A Cuban priest philosopher

On February 25, 1853, Padre Feliz Varela died in Saint Augustine, Florida, at the age of sixty-five.

Padre Varela was born in Havana, Cuba, and became a priest there. His studies in philosophy led him to teach at San Carlos College.

He was so well esteemed that he was chosen as a delegate to the Spanish Cortes in Madrid in 1821. But he didn’t stay there long.

He proposed independence for Cuba and the abolition of slavery, both causes that did not please the Spanish Cortes. He had to flee in 1823 and wound up in New York  City.

In New York he ministered to the poor Irish immigrants but also founded a newspaper in Spanish that advocated Cuban independence. His efforts did not please the Spanish government and an assassin was hired.

Padre Varela earned a doctorate in theology and wrote on liberty and religion, including a two volume work Letters to Elpidio.

He was a priest ahead of his times – advocating liberty, calling for independence of his Latin American homeland, and being the first Hispanic theologian in the US.

He was buried in Florida but his remains were later moved to Habana, where they rest, venerated by people of all political and religious persuasions as a Cuban patriot.

I have not read his work but it might be good to see what was said about religion and liberty more than 160 years ago. One quote of Padre Varela is

I have always concluded that Christianity and liberty are inseparable.



Teilhard’s Mass on the World

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., Jesuit theologian, paleontologist, died on April 10, 1955, which was Easter Sunday that year.

During his life his philosophical and theological writings were banned from publication. But his thoughts which try to bring together faith and science have spoken to many of the beauty of the Creation made by God.

Once, in Chine, without bread and wine for Mass, he express his love for the Eucharist in a Mass on the World. It begins thus:

Since once again, Lord — though this time not in the forests of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia — I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world.

All creation, all the labors and sufferings of the peoples of the world are offered up with Jesus, who became flesh, who gives himself to us, Body and Blood,  in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

The greater gift

“An egg given during life for love of God is more profitable for eternity than a cathedral full of gold given after death.”
St. Albert the Great

November 15 is the feast of St. Albert the Great, who lived from 1206 to 1280. A Dominican friar, he was also a bishop, philosopher, and was declared a doctor of the church. He is especially known for his efforts to reconcile faith and science. He is buried at Cologne where he taught his fellow Dominicans, including St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dumb Ox, whom Albert prophesied would be heard throughout the world.

We sometimes think that theologians and philosophers as stodgy, heady, and not connected with the realities of daily life. But he saw the infinite value of love:

“That you weep one tear of love: that is more pleasing to God than that you weep tears of regret or self-pity, even if they would flow as abundantly as the waters of the Danube.”

May we learn to love as St. Albert did – and use our learning in love to bring others to Love!