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Pope Benedict XVI on Saint Thomas Aquinas – Part 3

On the Wednesday General Audience of the 23th of June 2010, Pope Benedict XVI continued and completed his exposition on Saint Thomas Aquinas O.P.

This week the Pope is talking about the The Summa Theologiae. Please find a translation of the text below:




Dear brothers and sisters,


Today I would like to complete, with a third part, my catechesis on St. Thomas Aquinas. Even after more than 700 years since his death, we can learn much from him. We were reminded of this also by my predecessor, Pope Paul VI, who, in an address given at Fossanova on Sept. 14, 1974, on the occasion of the seventh centenary of St. Thomas’ death, asked: “Master Thomas, what lessons can you give us?” And he answered thus: “Trust in the truth of Catholic religious thought, as he defended it, explained it, [and] opened it to the cognitive capacity of the human mind” (Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, XII [1974], pp. 833-834). And, on the same day, in Aquino, still referring to St. Thomas, he affirmed: “All of us, who are faithful children of the Church can and must, at least in some measure, be his disciples!” (Ibid., p. 836).


Hence, let us also put ourselves in the school of St. Thomas and of his masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae. It was never finished and yet it is a monumental work: It contains 512 questions and 2,669 articles. It is coherent reasoning, in which the application of human intelligence to the mysteries of the faith proceeds with clarity and depth, interlacing questions and answers, in which St. Thomas deepens the teaching that comes from sacred Scripture and from the Fathers of the Church, above all St. Augustine. In this reflection, in the encounter with true questions of his time, which are often also our questions, St. Thomas, also using the methods and thought of ancient philosophers, in particular of Aristotle, thus arrives at precise, lucid and pertinent formulations of the truth of the faith, where truth is a gift of faith, [where it] shines and becomes accessible to us, through our reflection. However, such effort of the human mind, Aquinas reminds us with his very life, is always illumined by prayer, by the light that comes from on high. Only one who lives with God and with the mysteries can also understand what they say.


In the Summa of theology, St. Thomas begins from the fact that there are three different modes of the being and essence of God: God exists in himself; he is the beginning and end of all things, and thus all creatures proceed from and depend on him, and God is present through his grace in the life and activity of the Christian, of the saints; finally, God is present in an altogether special way in the Person of Christ really united here with the man Jesus, and operating in the sacraments, which flow from his redemptive work.


Because of this, the structure of this monumental work (cf. Jean Pierre Torrell, La “Summa” di San Tommaso, Milan, 2003, pp. 29-75), research with a “theological look” at the fullness of God (cf. Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 1, a. 7), is articulated in three parts, and is illustrated by the Doctor Communis himself — St. Thomas — with these words: The main purpose of sacred doctrine is that of making God known, not only in himself, but also inasmuch as he is beginning and end of things, and especially of the reasoning creature. In the attempt to explain this doctrine, we will first treat of God; then of the movement of the creature toward God; and finally of Christ who, inasmuch as man, is for us the way to ascend to God” (Ibid., I. q. 2). It is a circle: God in himself, who comes out of himself and takes us by the hand, so that with Christ we return to God, we are united to God, and God will be all in all.


Hence, the first part of the Summa Theologiae studies God in himself, the mystery of the Trinity, and God’s creative activity. In this part we also find a profound reflection on the authentic reality of the human being inasmuch as he issued from the creative hands of God, fruit of his love. On one hand we are a created, dependent being — we do not come from ourselves; but, on the other, we have a true autonomy, so that we are not only something apparent — as some Platonic philosophers say — but a reality willed by God as such, and with value in itself.


In the second part St. Thomas considers man, driven by grace, in his aspiration to know and love God to be happy in time and in eternity. Firstly, the author presents the theological principles of moral action, studying how, in man’s free choice of carrying out good acts, reason, will and passions are integrated, to which is added the strength that the grace of God gives through the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as the help that is given also by the moral law. Hence the human being is a dynamic being that seeks himself, he seeks to become himself and, in this connection, seeks to do acts that build him up, make him truly man; and here the moral law, grace and one’s reason, the will and the passions come in. On this foundation St. Thomas delineates the physiognomy of the man who lives according to the Spirit and thus becomes an icon of God. Here Aquinas pauses to study the three theological virtues — faith, hope and charity — followed by the acute examination of more than 50 moral virtues, organized around the four cardinal virtues — prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. He then ends with a reflection on the different vocations in the Church.


In the third part of the Summa, St. Thomas studies the mystery of Christ — the way and the truth — by which we can return to union with God the Father. In this section he writes pages as yet unparalleled on the mystery of the incarnation and passion of Jesus, adding afterward a thorough treatise on the seven sacraments, since in them, the incarnate divine Word extends the benefits of the incarnation for our salvation, for our path of faith toward God and eternal life. He remains almost materially present with the realities of creation; he thus touches us in what is most intimate.


Speaking of the sacraments, St. Thomas pauses particularly on the mystery of the Eucharist, for which he had a very great devotion, to the point that, according to ancient biographers, he used to lean his head on the tabernacle, almost as if to hear the beating of the divine and human Heart of Jesus. In one of his works commenting on Scripture, St. Thomas helps us to understand the excellence of the sacrament of the Eucharist, when he writes: “The Eucharist being the sacrament of the passion of our Lord, is also an effect of this sacrament, it not being other than the application in us of the passion of the Lord” (In Ioannem, c.6, n. 963). Let us understand well why St. Thomas and other saints celebrated the Holy Mass shedding tears of compassion for the Lord, who offers himself in sacrifice for us, tears of joy and of gratitude.


Dear brothers and sisters, in the school of the saints, let us be enamored of this sacrament! Let us participate in the Holy Mass with recollection to obtain its spiritual fruits, let us nourish ourselves on the Body and Blood of the Lord, to be incessantly nourished by divine grace! Let us willingly and frequently converse, face to face, in the company of the Most Blessed Sacrament!


All that St. Thomas illustrated with scientific rigor in his major theological works, such as the Summa Theologiae and the Summa contra Gentiles, was also explained in his preaching, addressed to students and the faithful. In 1273, a year before his death, during the whole of Lent, he preached in the San Domenico Maggiore Church in Naples. The content of those sermons was collected and conserved: They are the booklets in which he explains the Symbol of the Apostles, interprets the prayer of the Our Father, illustrates the Decalogue and comments on the Hail Mary. The content of the preaching of the Angelic Doctor corresponds almost entirely to the structure of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In fact, in catechesis and in preaching, at a time like ours of renewed commitment to evangelization, these fundamental arguments must never be lacking: that is, what we believe, and here is the Symbol of the faith; what we pray, and here is the Our Father and the Hail Mary; and what we live as biblical revelation teaches us, and here is the law of love of God and of our neighbor and the Ten Commandments, as explanation of this mandate of love.


I would like to propose some simple, essential and convincing examples of the content of the teaching of St. Thomas. In his booklet on the Symbol of the Apostles he explains the value of faith. Through it, he says, the soul is united to God, and something like a shoot of eternal life is produced; life receives a sure orientation, and we overcome temptations easily. To those who object that faith is nonsense, because it makes one believe something that does not fall under the experience of the senses, St. Thomas gives a very articulated answer, and recalls that this is an inconsistent doubt, because human intelligence is limited and cannot know everything. Only in the case that we could know perfectly all visible and invisible things, would it then be genuine nonsense to accept truths purely on faith. However, it is impossible to live, St. Thomas observes, without trusting the experience of others, where personal knowledge does not reach. Hence it is reasonable to have faith in God who reveals himself and in the testimony of the Apostles: they were few, simple and poor, dismayed by the Crucifixion of their Teacher; and yet many wise, noble and rich persons were converted in a short time upon listening to their preaching. It is, in fact, a historically striking phenomenon, to which with difficulty one can give any other reasonable answer, other than that of the Apostles’ encounter with the Risen Lord.


Commenting on the article of the Symbol regarding the incarnation of the Divine Word, St. Thomas makes some considerations. He affirms that Christian faith, when it considers the mystery of the incarnation, is reinforced; hope rises more trustingly, with the thought that the Son of God came among us, as one of us, to communicate to men his own divinity; charity is revived, because there is no more evident sign of the love of God for us than seeing the Creator of the universe make himself a creature, one of us. Finally, considering the mystery of the incarnation of God, we feel our desire inflamed to reach Christ in glory. Using a simple and effective analogy, St. Thomas observes: “If the brother of a king was far away, he certainly would long to live next to him. Well, Christ is our brother: hence, we must desire his company, become one heart with him” (Opuscoli teologico-spirituali, Rome, 1976, p. 64).


Presenting the prayer of the Our Father, St. Thomas shows that it is perfect in itself, having all the five characteristics that a well made prayer should have: trusting and tranquil abandonment; appropriateness of content, because — St. Thomas observes — “it is quite difficult to know exactly what it is appropriate to ask and what not, from the moment that we are in difficulty in face of the choice of desires” (Ibid., p. 120); and then the appropriate order of requests; fervor of charity; and sincerity of humility.


St. Thomas was, as all the saints, a great devotee of Our Lady. He described her with a beautiful appellative: Triclinium totius Trinitatis, triclinium, that is, place where the Trinity finds its rest, because, due to the Incarnation, the three divine Persons dwell [in her] and experience delight and joy to live in her soul full of grace as in no other creature. Through her intercession we can obtain all help.


With a prayer, which traditionally is attributed to St. Thomas and that, in any case, reflects the elements of his profound Marian devotion, we also say: “O blessed and sweet Virgin Mary, Mother of God … I entrust my whole life to your merciful heart. … Obtain for me, oh my most sweet Lady, true charity, with which I will be able to love with all my heart your Most Holy Son and you, after him, above all things, and my neighbor in God and for God.”


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