Thomas Aquinas’s Journey
After some years of studying and teaching the thought of Thomas Aquinas and learning to see him in his world, the dynamic thirteenth century, it occurred to me that central to his theology, ministry, and success was an event that occurred early in his life. This decisive moment in the teenage years of Aquinas was a good introduction to him for students and also for others.
Very frequently in the United States, young women and men take a journey, a journey after high school, a journey away from home, a journey to school or college, to a university. The destination may be close to home or far away. Regardless they enter a different world.
“Journey” can be an important dynamic. Journeys enable a life; journeys can be destiny. Thomas took a journey down from the hill-town of Roccasecca to the city of Naples, about sixty miles away. This journey unfolds his personality and his career. In it, Thomas was moving from the venerable past to the change-filled present of the high Middle Ages.
Thomas of Aquino was born between 1224 and 1226 at the castle of Roccasecca near his central region of Aquino. His birth came only five years or so after the death of Dominic, and a year or so before the passing of Francis of Assisi. Thomas was the youngest son of Landulph of Aquino, of German ancestry, and of his second wife, Theodora, a woman of a Naples family with Norman ancestors. Thomas had a number of sisters and brothers. One of his brothers fought under Emperor Frederick II on the fifth crusade. Another brother, Rinaldo, served as the emperor’s page. However, in 1245 when Frederic was deposed by Pope Innocent IV, he changed his allegiance. A year later he was involved in a failed attempt to assassinate the emperor and suffered execution.
In 1231 the boy Thomas was entrusted to the Benedictine monks of the abbey of Monte Cassino for education. When Frederick’s advancing armies approached in 1239, intent on occupying more of southern Italy, Thomas was sent home (he was about fifteen). Someone made the providential but innovative recommendation that he should pursue his studies at the recently founded university in Naples. It was begun by Frederick II in 1224 to rival the new academic center in Bologna. It would reflect the atmosphere of Frederick’s court at Palermo where Latin, Muslim, and Jewish scholars exchanged ideas and where Arab astronomy and Greek medicine met. At the University young people came together from European countries, communicating in a simple Latin, to learn old and new ideas in law, church law, medicine, and literature. Here Thomas the Hibernian lectured on the newly available texts of Aristotle.
Journey can be destiny. This journey moves from the rural monastery to the Dominican priory in the city. It takes the young Aquinas from theology seen as Platonic–Christian spiritual reading to theology as the free exploration of “the realities of faith” (in his later words). He left the library of Augustinian theological writings from past centuries to grasp theology as an open exploration of new forms stimulated by Aristotelian sciences.
The student also met in Naples a new direction in Western Christian life, a new kind of church community, “the friars,” the “brothers.” They joined liturgy and a simplicity of life to urban apostolates. They built their priories just inside or outside the walls of the expanding cities to minister to the increasingly educated and wealthy middle class from which they drew their recruits. At the age of nineteen, Thomas entered the Preaching Friars at their priory in Naples in 1242 or 1243.
Although he would later walk, ride, or journey by boat from France to Germany and from France to Italy, no journey would be as influential as those miles which led the teenager into his future in Naples. He never looked back. He withstood the disappointment of his mother, the rough authority of his brothers, and the promises of ecclesiastical positions. All that he embraced in Naples was new. This tells us something about Thomas’s personality. He liked new things—new ideas, new movements, new sources, and new books. He took risks. Even as a teenager he saw where the present was and where it was going, seeing something of what the future would be.
This journey led to others. The Dominicans at once sent him north to the University of Paris where he came under influence of the person that some see as the dominant thinker of the thirteenth century, Albert of Lauingen (a.k.a. Albert the Great). The older, well-known professor of Aristotelian perspectives recognizes Thomas’s ability and takes him to the Rhine where Albert founds a first university for Germans and Slavs. Superiors in his religious order and administrators in universities will send Thomas on trips to several professorships.
Perhaps somewhat worn out at forty-nine and suffering from a brain tumor Thomas, nonetheless, obeys Rome’s request that he attend the Second Ecumenical Council of Lyons in 1274. On the way, taking a side trip to see his family (to whom he remained close) he dies—not far from where this first journey began.
by Fr. Thomas O'Meara, OP
Photo of stained glass window of the Saint and Common Doctor of the Church in the Franciscan Monastery in Washington DC, courtesy of Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.