Province of St. Albert the Great, USA

St. Albert the Great, Lector Biblicus — Teacher of the Word

It is a qualified blessing that we Dominicans have two so unique and titanic patron saints to our intellectual mission as Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great. I say “qualified” because it is difficult to find ways to imitate such gifted scholars and devoted saints. Aquinas’ Summa offered the Church a coherent view of reality from the prospectus of divine revelation. Albert left a vast encyclopedia of writings on nature in which he digested the works of the great Greek savant, Aristotle, and, adding many of his own observations, demonstrated to the Christian West a progressive attitude toward natural science. Both doctors, endowed with photographic memories and penetrating intellects, devoured the theological and philosophical bounty of the past, incorporated new discoveries, and left as their legacies models of openness to serve the Church of God and mankind.

Albert was a German from Lauingen on the upper Danube, 60 miles northeast of Munich, who entered the Dominicans as a college student at Padua in 1223, only two years after the death of Dominic. He submerges into his cloistered life of religious formation with his brothers at Cologne, and surfaces as a priest in successive assignments as community lector in the convents of Hildesheim (1233), Freiberg, Regensburg and Strasbourg [1]. His star begins to shine in 1245 when he attains the apex degree of Master of Theology at Paris. There he takes under his tutelage the young Neapolitan friar prodigy, Thomas Aquinas. The Order commissions him as regent master in Cologne to establish the new general studium. In 1254 he is elected provincial of the province of Teutonia — imagine a territory, from Netherlands to Switzerland, and from Bavaria to Estonia. In 1260, in spite of the opposition from the Master General Humbert of Romans, he accedes to a papal call to become the bishop of Regensburg (Ratisbon). Two years later, his task of reform accomplished, he steps down from his diocese and rejoins, as best he can, the brotherhood. Pope Urban IV calls on him in 1263 to lead the preaching in Germany of a new crusade. Soon, however, after the death of the pope, the project withers. Once more he served as lector in the convents in Strasbourg and Pomerania. His senior years were spent at Würzburg, where his younger brother was prior, and at Cologne where he died in 1280.

As a young priest, as community lector, he expounded the Bible for his brothers. To qualify as a master at Paris he had to have lectured on the Scriptures and then on the theological textbook of the time, the Sentences of Peter Lombard. After his university career, next came his Dominican administrative obligations as general studium organizer and prior provincial, and then his papal mandates as theological adviser, bishop reformer, and crusade preacher. These charges were always on the center of his plate.

Albert’s “Greatness” was celebrated because he undertook — he tells us it was at the insistence of his brothers — the immense task of reprocessing the newly translated philosophical legacy of Aristotle. What is remarkable is that he did this “on the side.” At no time was he ever commissioned to teach philosophy. It was only after 1250 at the studium in Cologne that he took up the philosophy project. He never lectured publicly on Aristotle’s natural philosophy. Later, it was while he was provincial that he used his spare time to write on minerals and weather and logic. While preaching up the crusade, the historians tell us, he wrote his commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle! Most of the commentaries on Aristotle were written in his spare time.

Here is the thought I would like to leave you. While no one else of his generation could have accomplished for philosophy what he in his genius did, his true love and spiritual life-source lay in what he, and his fellow friar-scholars, much preferred to do, and that is to mine the riches and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture. Albert begins his life of Dominican service by those years he served as a lector biblicus, a community scripture teacher and preacher, cultivating in his brothers a deeper knowledge and understanding of the written Word of God. Every friar needs to taste the sweetness of the springs of revelation, needs to have a comfortable familiarity with the written Word of God. This is how Albert began his teaching career, and this is how, after all his commissions were accomplished, in his retirement, after 1264 — and after finishing the commentaries on Aristotle — he eagerly returns to his first love, the scriptures. To this time his biographers date his completed commentaries on Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, on Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, the minor prophets, and Job.

What can we all take from the example of Albert? Certainly there is the love of nature, which his contemporary, St. Francis, had voiced in his canticle “Laudato si,” and what led in our times to his being considered the patron saint of natural scientists. But even more importantly, and more imitable for us is his love of Sacred Scripture. The constant quest to find understanding, insight and inspiration in the Word of God is something that defines Albert’s Dominican vocation of service, and is something which we all can aspire to, from the novice to retiree. Access to the mystical dimension of prayer life is through the gifts of the Spirit energizing our understanding of scripture. Albert models for us that Dominican predilection for the Holy Word.

This year, our liturgical celebration of the feast of St. Albert on Sunday, November 15, is suppressed, and we are presented with readings at Mass for the 33rd Ordinary Sunday. The first reading selection is from Proverbs 31, the poem in praise of the Valiant Woman. In 2013, our New Priory Press published an English translation by Benedict Ashely and Dominic Holtz of a work most likely written by St. Albert: The Valiant Woman — De muliere forti — A Medieval Commentary on Proverbs 31:10-31 Especially Useful for Preachers. The medievals did not have all the linguistic and historical tools available to us to grasp the literal and temporal meaning of the scriptures, but with love and devotion they did their best, and applied their logical tools, definition and especially division, and an astounding familiarity with all of scriptures [2], to find understanding and practical applications for a preacher to share. The quest was for the spiritual meaning, the meaning by which God moves our hearts in every generation to find ways of giving Him glory. For your consideration I have posted online a sample of Albert’s commentary on the first verse: “Who shall find a valiant woman…” May this translation help us experience a sample of the love of scripture which marked our “Great” patron. Here is the link to an online excerpt.

A readable biography of Albert by Sr. Mary Albert Hughes is also featured on our Domcentral website.

Happy Feast day to all you, my brothers and sisters.

Albert Judy, O.P
St. Pius V Priory
Oct. 31, 2020


[1] Weisheipl, Athanasius, OP, “The Life and Works of St. Albert the Great,” Albertus Magnus and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays 1980, edited by James Weisheipl, OP, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, p. 30. Available in Google Books.

[2] As production editor I had to generate the scripture index of citations for The Valiant Woman, and the list totaled 1,450 distinct references.