The Legacy of St Thomas Aquinas

The Legacy of St Thomas Aquinas

Legacy is a beautiful thing. A person lives through the legacy s/he leaves behind. St Thomas Aquinas is one of these people in history who left his legacy. In fact, his legacy remains till this very day.

William Shakespeare is reportedly to have said: No legacy is so rich as honesty. Yes! William Shakespeare got it right on Aquinas because what we shall be mentioning is the direct fruit of the Angelic Doctor’s honesty. A great legacy Thomas left us is his Summa Theologica. This great magnum opus of this brilliant theologian, educator, poet and philosopher who taught in Paris, Naples, Rome and Cologne to study, teach and write, amply shows his love for God in and through learning. Deeply embedded in this Summa Theologica are five arguments which prove God’s existence.

But, Thomas Aquinas left more than just a compendium of the principal teachings of the Catholic Church. He gave us a mental framework as well as a healthy existential attitude thanks to which we can live and flourish humanly and spiritually. Thomas helped us understand and behave in a way that we cater, first and foremost, for the common God. After all, we are all one! He wrote: The common good is a good that is one in number and is able to be shared by many without being diminished.

Secondly, Thomas is helping us become aware of the principle of totality, namely that all decisions in medical ethics must prioritize the good of the entire person. In practice, this means that the human family is one whole family and that each individual is spiritual, physical, emotional and mental totality. By this Thomas is advocating a holistic care which caters for the good of the whole person.

Third, Aquinas is also encouraging us to keep incessantly seeking truth. As he himself reminds us, Jesus says that He came into the world to ‘testify to the truth. But we are to seek the truth not independently of God but in and through God. Hence, it is solely under the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we come to understand, know and be changed by the truth. St Pope John Paul II in his encyclical on the relationship between faith and reason, of September 14, 1998, says the following:

Another of the great insights of Saint Thomas was his perception of the role of the Holy Spirit in the process by which knowledge matures into wisdom. From the first pages of his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas was keen to show the primacy of the wisdom which is the gift of the Holy Spirit and which opens the way to a knowledge of divine realities. His theology allows us to understand what is distinctive of wisdom in its close link with faith and knowledge of the divine. This wisdom comes to know by way of connaturality; it presupposes faith and eventually formulates its right judgment on the basis of the truth of faith itself: “The wisdom named among the gifts of the Holy Spirit is distinct from the wisdom found among the intellectual virtues. This second wisdom is acquired through study, but the first ‘comes from on high’, as Saint James puts it. This also distinguishes it from faith, since faith accepts divine truth as it is. But the gift of wisdom enables judgment according to divine truth” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 45, 1 ad 2) (no.44).

Obviously, constantly seeking the truth implies for you and me a deep and engaging listening, immense compassion and a selfless openness from our part to the stirrings of the Spirit. 

Another legacy Thomas left us is that of prayer. Before he committed himself to study Aquinas would pray God to let a ray of your light penetrate the darkness of my understanding. In his writing what emerges clear is his great loving devotion for the Eucharist. For instance he said: In the life of the body, after a man is born and becomes strong, he requires food so that his life may be preserved and sustained; so also in the life of the spirit, after being fortified, he requires spiritual food, which is Christ’s body. In another place Thomas writes: O unspeakable efficacy of this sacrament, which sets the affections ablaze with the fire of charity, and sprinkles our home’s lintel, on either doorpost, with the blood of the immaculate Lamb! What wholesome journey-provision have we in this food for our precarious sojourning! With how much loving depth Thomas speaks to us about the Eucharist! It is no wonder that nowadays he is also often referred to as the Doctor Eucharisticus. As we have seen in these two pieces of writing, Thomas instructs us so well regarding the Eucharistic mystery. 

Finally, Thomas made us more at home with the fact that our mind and our soul are in harmony with each other. When they leave themselves be led by the Holy Spirit both faith and reason they take us together to God the Creator and Saviour. 

In his weekly catechesis, precisely the second one on St Thomas Aquinas, on 16 June 2010, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made this point so clear when he said: The relationship between philosophy and theology, between faith and reason, needed to be rethought. A “philosophy” existed that was complete and convincing in itself, a rationality that preceded the faith, followed by “theology”, a form of thinking with the faith and in the faith. The pressing question was this: are the world of rationality, philosophy conceived of without Christ, and the world of faith compatible? Or are they mutually exclusive? Elements that affirmed the incompatibility of these two worlds were not lacking, but St Thomas was firmly convinced of their compatibility indeed that philosophy worked out without the knowledge of Christ was awaiting, as it were, the light of Jesus to be complete. This was the great “surprise” of St Thomas that determined the path he took as a thinker. Showing this independence of philosophy and theology and, at the same time, their reciprocal relationality was the historic mission of the great teacher. And thus it can be understood that in the 19th century, when the incompatibility of modern reason and faith was strongly declared, Pope Leo XIII pointed to St Thomas as a guide in the dialogue between them. In his theological work, St Thomas supposes and concretizes this relationality. Faith consolidates, integrates and illumines the heritage of truth that human reason acquires. The trust with which St Thomas endows these two instruments of knowledge faith and reason may be traced back to the conviction that both stem from the one source of all truth, the divine Logos, which is active in both contexts, that of Creation and that of redemption.

St Thomas Aquinas’ impressive humility makes me love him and learn from his more and more. It is that one night night shortly after he had completed the treatise on the Eucharist, Aquinas was praying in his chapel and the crucifix on the wall told him: “Thomas my son, you have written well of me. What will you have as your reward?” Thomas’ humble and holy retort was precisely the perfect summary of his entire life and all his voluminous scholarly works. Non nisi te, Domine, that is, Only yourself, Lord. In another instance, Thomas was celebrating Mass. As he was given the grace of a mystical union with God he later affirmed that he could no longer continue his writing. When his brother friars begged him to tell them why, this great humble genius simply told them: “Compared with what has been revealed to me, all that I have written seems like so much straw.

The Doctor Angelicus’ humility makes you and me simply take up his works and read them meditatively. What  an extraordinary legacy St Thomas Aquinas left us.

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Written by
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap