Saint Thomas Aquinas was a great thinker who developed the intellectual heart of the Roman Catholic Church, and whose contributions to theology and philosophy often rank him alongside Western intellectuals such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Plato.
St. Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225 AD in the castle of Roccasecca, Aquino. This was then part of the Kingdom of Sicily but is now in present-day Lazio, Italy. From the age of five, St. Thomas Aquinas was enrolled in the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino as an oblate, a person who is offered as a potential monk. His uncle, Sinibald, was the abbot, which means Sinibald was the head of the monastery, and it would have been expected that St. Thomas Aquinas would one day become abbot. However, in 1239, military conflict between Emperor Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX began to interrupt monastic life, and St. Thomas Aquinas enrolled in the University of Naples to complete his studies. In this University, he was introduced to the works of Aristotle, which had an immense impact on St. Thomas’ theological writings. He was a key figure in Scholasticism, a medieval movement that sought to reconcile faith and reason with an emphasis on rigor and Aristotelian logic. His own doctrinal contributions are often described as “Thomism,” and he was considered to be a Dominican friar.
St. Thomas Aquinas’ patronage is impressive and extensive. He is the patron saint of students, philosophers, publishers, booksellers, academics, theologians, apologists, universities, and schools. St. Thomas Aquinas is also the patron saint of several “comuni” (essentially townships) in Italy, including his birthplace of Aquino, as well as Belcastro and Falena. He also has significant patronage in the Philippines, especially as the patron saint of the two towns of Santo Tomas and Mangaldan, and the University of Santo Tomas. His name is said to mean “twin” or “leader.” Here are 11 fascinating facts about St. Thomas Aquinas.
#1 Saint Thomas Aquinas Died in Fossanova Abbey, Italy in 1274 AD
St. Thomas Aquinas died when trying to reach the second Council of Lyon by donkey on March 7, 1274 AD.
St. Thomas Aquinas returned to Italy from Paris in 1272. He had been asked by the Dominican monks to set up his own university, and he chose Naples for its location. Pope Gregory X summoned him to attend the second Council of Lyons. The aim of this Council was to repair the split between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy which had caused the Great Schism in 1054. So in January 1274, St. Thomas Aquinas set out to travel to Lyon, France from Naples, Italy, by donkey.
On his journey, St. Thomas Aquinas suffered a head injury along the Appian Way, a road in south-east Italy. He became seriously ill and was taken to an Abbey on Monte Cassino to rest. After recovery, he set off again but was once more forced to stop in the Cistercian Fossanova Abbey after his sickness returned. He was nursed there for several days but accepted the reality that he would not recover. Before he died, in his last rites, he said “I have written and taught much about this very holy Body, and about the other sacraments in the faith of Christ, and about the Holy Roman Church, to whose correction I expose and submit everything I have written.”
#2 Saint Thomas Aquinas Was Canonized in 1323 AD
St. Thomas Aquinas was canonized 50 years after his death, on July 18, 1323, by Pope John XXII.
During his canonization process, the “devil’s advocate” (appointed to argue against the canonization of an individual) pointed out that St. Thomas Aquinas had not been associated with any miracles. A defending cardinal countered by saying “there are as many miracles (in his life) as articles (in his Summa).” This is a testament to his written theological and philosophical contributions to the Catholic Church. It indicates that his works achieve a level of divine revelation equivalent to miracles themselves.
#3 Saint Thomas Aquinas Is Venerated as One of the Church’s Greatest Theologians
During the Counter-Reformation, also called the Catholic Reformation or the Catholic Revival, St. Thomas Aquinas’ theological work Summa Theologiae was placed beside the Bible and the Decretals at the Council of Trent. The Council met between 1545 and 1563 so that the Church could discuss and clarify theological points and accusations made during the Protestant Reformation.
In 1567, Pope Pius V made St. Thomas Aquinas a Doctor of the Church. This is a religious title given to saints who have made significant contributions to Catholic theology or doctrine in their lifetime. St. Thomas Aquinas shared this honor with the Four Latin Fathers: Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, and Saint Gregory.
In 1879, Pope Leo XII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris. Within it, he directed all clergy to use St. Thomas Aquinas as a basis for their theological positions and teachings.
#4 Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Symbol and Iconography Is of a Great Intellectual
Much of the symbolism which surrounds St. Thomas Aquinas focuses on his legacy as a great intellectual and is often a book, a dove by his ear, the sun, and an ox.
Depictions often show him holding a book, or actively teaching.
He is also presented with a dove by his ear, signifying that his writings were written with divine guidance. He is also featured with the sun, representing the light he shed on difficult theological issues. As crucial to his iconography is the ox because of a story from his youth when he was studying with the Dominican Order. There his nickname was “Dumb Ox” because he was quiet and slow-moving. Upon hearing this, St. Albert the Great (who he was studying under) declared: “You call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.”
#5 Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Feast Day Celebration Is on January 28th
His feast day is on January 28. When St. Thomas Aquinas was canonized, his initial feast day was declared in the General Roman Calendar to be March 7th, the date of his death. However, in 1969, the liturgical calendar was reorganized by Pope Paul VI. St. Thomas Aquinas’ March 7th feast day fell within Lent, and as such, his feast day was moved to January 28th. This marks the date his remains were translated (meaning “removed”) to the Church of the Jacobins, Toulouse, France.
#6 Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Remains Are in France and Italy
His remains are currently the Convent of the Jacobins in Toulouse, France, except for a rib bone in Aquino, Italy, and an arm bone in Naples, Italy.
The remains of St. Thomas Aquinas were moved several times. They were first moved to their current resting place, the Convent of the Jacobins, in 1369, but were moved in 1789 to avoid the tumult and hostility of the French Revolution. In 1974, the remains were returned to the Convent of the Jacobins to commemorate the 700th anniversary of St. Thomas Aquinas’ death.
A small rib bone of St. Thomas Aquinas has been in the Cathedral of Aquino, in Aquino, Italy, since 1963. This relic is carried in a procession on March 7th to celebrate his feast day.
A bone from his left arm is in the Church of Saint Dominic the Greater in Naples, Italy. St. Thomas Aquinas lived in this priory from 1272-1274. A crucifix that reputedly spoke to him as he prayed in 1273 is also kept with his arm bone.
#7 The Location of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Major Shrines are in the Vatican, Rome, and ???
The Pontifical Academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas was established in the Vatican, Rome in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII. Its aim is to promote and research Thomism. In 1895, Pope Leo XIII approved a statue of St. Thomas Aquinas which is located under the entrance portico, which stands by a statue of St. Albert the Great.
The reliquary (which is a container of holy relics) of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Convent of the Jacobins is also impressive. This is a popular site of pilgrimage for those seeking to venerate St. Thomas Aquinas and provides a powerful atmosphere that inspires an intensely religious experience.
#8 Saint Thomas Aquinas Was Kidnapped and Imprisoned by His Own Family
At 19, St. Thomas Aquinas decided he would join the newly founded Dominican Order. This displeased his family, who had hoped he would follow the Benedictine Order and secure social influence by becoming an abbot. The Dominicans tried to keep St. Thomas Aquinas from the influence of his family and arranged for him to move to Rome, and onto Paris to study at the prestigious University of Paris. Theodora, his mother, instructed her other sons to grab St. Thomas Aquinas while he drank at a stream, and then imprisoned him for over a year in his family’s castle of Monte San Giovanni Campano.
During this time, his family tried to change his mind. Legend says that they even hired a prostitute to test his celibacy, but St. Thomas Aquinas’ resolve stayed strong. By 1244, Theodora realized her attempts were futile and arranged for St. Thomas Aquinas to “escape” so her family could maintain their dignity and not be known to have freed him.
#9 Saint Thomas Aquinas Believed God’s Existence Could Be Proved in Five Ways
St. Thomas Aquinas’ argument for God could be found in five distinct ways.
1. The first of these focuses on physics and argues that all movements must have been set off by an action that comes before it. Yet, this cannot go back infinitely, and St. Thomas Aquinas insists there must have been a first action which set all other actions off but was not the result of previous action itself. The “Unmovable Mover,” St. Thomas Aquinas argues, must be God.
2. The second argument is for God as the “First Cause,” and is similar. Rather than focusing on the fact that everything that moves has to have been set in motion, it instead argues that everything that is created must have been created too. This also cannot go back infinitely and thereby points to God, who was not created by another.
3. The third argument is similar to the first two. It argues that everything that exists must have been set to exist, but also for a period did not exist. This chain can go back infinitely, there must always have been something that existed before another and caused another to exist. At its root, God is the “Necessary Being,” which brought everything else into existence for the first time, and allowed a pattern to develop which results in the existence of everything we see today.
4. The fourth argument is based on human imperfection and is an almost Platonic (from the Athenian philosopher Plato) idea. Humans are naturally flawed, and the world is imperfect in appearance and virtue. A form of perfection must exist which embodies everything that people should strive for. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that this form must be God.
5. The fifth is a cosmological argument. It notes that the world is highly complex and intricate. It refuses to accept that this is all from chance, and argues that God must exist as a “Grand Designer.”
#10 Saint Thomas Aquinas Developed “Natural Law” for Christianity
St. Thomas Aquinas addressed a very difficult theological issue. He had trouble with the idea that someone could only achieve salvation and live ethically through exposure to Christianity. In this situation, access to heaven was too heavily based on circumstance and the chance that the person would have been exposed to the Bible and its teachings.
St Thomas’ solution came in developing “Natural Law.” He argued that God-given reason meant that an individual could tell by his conscience whether his actions were right or wrong, and that by following this, one could still achieve salvation, and that this guidance set a Natural Law. Natural Law is based on an objective view of “good” and “evil” and does not account for warped individual consciences which may complicate determining wider human morality.
#11 Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Deliberately Stopped Writing His Most Famous Work
About three months before his death, St. Thomas Aquinas decided to stop writing his last and most famous theological work, Summa Theologiae. On December 6, 1273, after celebrating a Mass, he decided to leave this work uncompleted. His reasoning, when asked, was that “I cannot go on…All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”
St. Thomas Aquinas’ skillful mixture of faith and logic provides a crucial resource for Christians everywhere. His writing goes beyond having faith and provides an alternative view of religion and belief in God.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.