It was at my first recollection weekend during my first year at the seminary that I had properly encountered St Thomas Aquinas.
We had travelled up to the Jesuit retreat centre in Anglesea for a weekend of prayer and reflection, and with the prospect of having no entertainment other than each other’s antics, one of my year mates decided to bring along a DVD copy of Word on Fire’s Catholicism.
With permission from our formator, some of us sat down to watch a couple of episodes while the others went off to other more possibly engaging prospects.
Years later, I find that I am still grateful for that recollection weekend. That evening introduced me to some significant theological players who would influence my formation moving forward. Word on Fire’s Catholicism introduced me to Robert Barron, who introduced me to St Thomas Aquinas, who would later introduce me to St Dominic and the wider Dominican family, especially Blessed Jordan of Saxony.
There I was sitting on the couch, overlooking the ocean, and my very long journey with St Thomas Aquinas was about to begin.
So much has been said about St Thomas Aquinas since his story is rather epic. It includes a mother who organised for him to be kidnapped and locked away in a tower, siblings who lined up prostitutes to try to tempt him from chastity (but ended up becoming religious themselves after several conversations) and angels girding Thomas with a cincture. Not to mention Thomas' radical philosophical studies on Aristotle in Paris—days filled with lectures from St Albert the Great and then dinners with kings—or his competition with Franciscan classmate St Bonaventure to write the beautiful poetic hymns for the newly established feast of Corpus Christi that we still sing to this day, a process I like to imagine as something of a medieval Latin rap-battle between two saints in front of the Pope on the topic of the Blessed Sacrament.
What we often miss when we focus on the mind of St Thomas is the heart that loved Christ and wanted to follow him.
Stories of St Thomas often present him as the theological genius that he rightfully is. The Summa Theologiae—that masterful and unfinished work—or the Summa Contra Gentiles, along with his many sermons and other writings, continue to inspire and engage the intellectual tradition of the faith. However, what we often miss when we focus on the mind of St Thomas is the heart that loved Christ and wanted to follow him. It is said that when he was struggling with an intellectual problem, he would rest his head on the tabernacle and pray. Good theology is often done on one’s knees, not just on one’s backside.
This heart can be seen in our Cathedral in the chapel of St Thomas, where the windows depict some of these stories, but there is one that has always particularly moved me.
The famous story goes that when St Thomas had written the section on the Blessed Sacrament of the Summa Theologiae—where he explained the presence of Jesus through transubstantiation—he brought it to Christ. A voice came from the crucifix, with Jesus saying, ‘You have written well of me Thomas. What would you have as a reward?’ To this, St Thomas responded, ‘Non nisi te, Domine.’ Nothing but you, Lord.
To this day, I remember being moved to tears when hearing that story because I was wrestling with what a vocation to the priesthood would mean, and trying to find a way to give expression to the ocean of words I wanted to say to those wondering why I was doing this. St Thomas had managed to do this with four (Latin) words: Non nisi te, Domine. They became the great answer through the centuries, said by different saints in different times and ways to the question Jesus asked the two followers of St John the Baptist who followed him: ‘What do you want?’
These words would continue to accompany me. I joined the Angelic Warfare Confraternity. I later borrowed St Thomas’ relics from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and his poetic hymns, which accompanied me throughout my studies at Corpus Christi, were part of my first Mass in my home parish.
Then, to my great surprise, I was asked by Archbishop Peter A Comensoli to undertake studies in Canon Law at the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas (UST) in Manila, Philippines.
St Thomas responded, ‘Non nisi te, Domine’. Nothing but you, Lord.
As I made my entrance through the famous Arch of the Centuries, with St Thomas enthroned above (with the four images from his life that reminded me of the windows of St Patrick’s Cathedral), I prayed that like St Thomas I would grow more and more to love the Lord with everything I am—all my heart, soul, mind and strength.
By providence, the years that I will spend at UST (2023–2025) also mark three important jubilees: 2023 marked the 700th anniversary of St Thomas' canonisation by Pope John XXII on 18 July 1323. This year, 2024, we will celebrate the 750th anniversary of his death on 7 March 1274. And next year will mark the 800th year of his birth in 1225.
Despite the jubilees, his feast day won’t be celebrated this year since 28 January falls on the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time, and the celebration of the resurrection takes priority over the feast days of saints. However, I think St Thomas would want it that way. He lived a life with the priority of Jesus Christ as the foundation of everything he did, and this led him on an adventure that continues to inspire others to do the same.
Melbourne Catholic29 April 2022