Homily for the Feast of St Thomas Aquinas

28 Jan 2022

Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary and St Peter Chanel, Rome, 28 January 2022

While having a bath, baby Tommy refused to part with a piece of parchment with the words ‘Ave Maria’ on it, and instead put it in his mouth and swallowed it. Today we’d worry that this was the beginning of a life-long struggle with obesity, but in those days people thought it meant he’d be a theologian! And so he was: arguably the greatest ever known. In his canonisation process the witnesses had little to report concerning extraordinary penances, sensational miracles or heroic deeds. They could only repeat (unanimously) that Thomas Aquinas was a pure, humble man, with a passion for contemplation and teaching.

Thomas was undoubtedly greatly gifted with that wisdom described in our first reading (Wis 7:7-10,15-16). He knew that to be alive and explicit, faith requires more than warm inner feelings, smug certainties or benevolent activism: faith needs right things to believe in and right reasons to believe them. Faith should answer to the human search for meaning, purpose, God. It should fuel a studious and docile effort to understand more about God, the cosmos, the human person, the good life.

Thomas was a kind of intellectual gourmand. Not just the Scriptures, the Fathers or the Philosophers; not just knowledge of the visible world or of the spiritual; not just dogma or ethics, rational philosophy or affective mysticism. Thomas sought and devoured them all in contemplation.

He was gifted with natural intelligence and spiritual gifts for that task. Unlike those who think something has to be observable, measurable and controllable to be real or interesting, and who dismiss the search for deeper meaning and higher purpose as wishful thinking, Thomas argued that because of its sources and subject matter, theology is the most certain—as well as the most exciting, inclusive and rewarding—science of all.

If the study of faith and morals were Aquinas’ favourite food, passing them on in preaching and teaching were his favourite exercise—indeed his only form of exercise. Though always fair to opposing views, he never allowed fashion or ‘woke’ to stop him passing on what he had discovered: in the words of our first reading, he could not conceal Wisdom’s riches. In the end his Summa Theologiae was the greatest theological synthesis ever achieved and has been our textbook ever since. It lay on the altar with the Bible through the Council of Trent. He was recommended as a guide in umpteen papal encyclicals and by Vatican Council II.

But enthusiasm for contemplating and teaching the faith is not enough: Christ says today that great teachers must also be humble (Mt 23:8-12). And St Thomas was humble: not with that nineteenth century counterfeit that was self-reduction, self-denial, self-hatred; nor with that twentieth century antithesis that is self-reliance, self-importance and self-will. No, humility enables us to know ourselves for what we are, and in relation to God and others. It requires us to esteem God’s gifts to us and the Giver, so we have a true sense of proportion. It then moderates and directs our aspirations, so we extend ourselves appropriately.

So even as he wrote the greatest theological works in history, Thomas kept returning to the Scriptures, Tradition, great thinkers, to prayer and contemplation, to his brother friars and sister books for new inspiration. Docile to truth wherever he found it and respectful of other people’s ideas, he couched his findings in commonsense, simple language, avoiding intellectual snobbery and remaining open to leaning more and revising his opinions.

After two million words but before it was complete, Thomas abruptly stopped writing his Summa. One day after celebrating Mass he declared that he regarded all he had written was mere straw compared to the mystery of God he had glimpsed. He fell mute before the incomprehensibility and ineffability of God. He became again ‘the dumb ox’ that he was nicknamed in his student days, like the ox at Bethlehem, a silent witness to the Incarnation. But this was no ‘mid-life crisis’. Thomas had always insisted that in this life we will never get to the bottom of created things, let alone of persons, and certainly of God: not because we can’t know anything about them or anything for sure, but because reality is so knowable it’s inexhaustible, so rich it’s unfathomable. God and creation excite and exceed our understanding, so that while some answers are better than others, there will always be new questions. And so when Thomas died shortly after, the unfinished symphony that was his Summa was the greatest testimony of a wise and humble theologian: precisely because it was handed on to us unfinished, with pages still to be written by us, a theological baton for us to relay in our turn.