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Aquinas and Albertus: The Patron of Students Shows the Power of a Teacher

St. Thomas Aquinas is the patron saint of students, and that means that it is practically impossible to overstate the greatness of St. Albert the Great, Albertus Magnus.

St. Albert is frequently mentioned by Dante, who adopted the saint’s doctrine of free will as his own, then placed both Albert and Aquinas among the great lovers of wisdom in his Paradisio. That’s appropriate. The Divine Comedy is Dante’s masterpiece, and St. Albert the Great’s masterpiece is undoubtedly his student, St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Teacher

Albert lived a long life, from some time before 1200 to 1280. The date of his birth in Germany is uncertain though he was said to be over 80 when he died. His contributions to Western intellectual life were immense. He was introduced to Aristotle’s writings in his youth at the University of Padua and entered the Dominicans in 1223. He was a star scholar at revered places of learning in Regensburg, Paris and Cologne.

Albert was a scientist, philosopher, theologian, spiritual writer, and diplomat. When he was briefly also a bishop —from 1260 to 1263 — Albert became known as “Boots the Bishop” because, in obedience to his Dominican vow of poverty, he chose to walk rather than travel by horse on his parish visits. Pope Urban IV reassigned him to assist in discussions regarding the eighth crusade.

He wrote 38 volumes on a remarkable number of subjects. He wrote about friendship, love, logic, theology, justice, law, geography and astronomy. His empirical approach to science, based on observation and experiment, in the fields of zoology and botany, would have struck us as surprisingly modern. He even had an impact on music: His fascinated by the mathematical proportions inherent in music, which he examined through plainchant. He regarded silence as an integral part of music.

His most lasting contribution, however, was to education.

Albert was the first to comment on virtually all of the writings of Aristotle, introducing generations to the Greek philosopher. The most famous among them was St. Thomas Aquinas, who was to write the Summa Theologica, the most comprehensive assimilation of Aristotle’s thought into Christian theology.

A wild legend says that Albertus Magnus was an alchemist who, on his deathbed, bequeathed a mythical “Philosopher’s Stone” to St. Thomas. The story is silly and clearly untrue —Thomas died years before Albert — but it points to something true.

Albert was known as “the last man to know everything there was to know,” and what’s certain is that he did pass his prodigious learning to his most famous student.

St. Thomas Aquinas’s work was called “miraculous” by Pope John XXII, who said, “By the use of his works a man could profit more in one year than if he studies the doctrine of others for his whole life.”

Albert and he Alma Mater

Thomas first studied under Albertus Magnus in Paris. When Albert was moved to a teaching post in Cologne, Aquinas followed him, refusing a post at Monte Cassino offered to him by Pope Innocent IV, preferring to stay with his teacher.

Fellow students considered Thomas dull and slow, and called him “the dumb ox.” But St. Albert famously turned their ridicule around. “You call him the dumb ox,” Albert quipped, “but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.”

After Aquinas’ death, St. Albert defended his protégé when the Vatican questioned the orthodoxy of his works.

“Alma Mater,” the Latin phrase for “nourishing mother,” is an ancient homage to higher education where the nurturing of a young mind is recognized as an act of formation analogous to a loving mother’s care. According to Pope Benedict XVI, Albert defined theology as “‘emotional knowledge,’ which points out to human beings their vocation to eternal joy, a joy that flows from full adherence to the truth.”

That Thomas Aquinas the student found a parental figure in his great teacher was particularly significant because his own family had turned against him. Thomas was born in 1225 and began studies with the Benedictines at Monte Cassino only five years later.

His Catholic education led him to a vocation to the priesthood, and by the age of 20 he was studying at the University of Paris. He met Albertus Magnus and studied under him at Cologne three years later, becoming magister studentium (master of students).

Shaping the Church

The trajectory St. Thomas’s education put him on changed the Church. The careful scholarship of Aquinas shaped the Council of Trent, with several passages from his works becoming — almost verbatim — defined dogmas of the Church. That came only after years when the Church was initially suspicious of his work, because of an early misunderstanding, and carefully investigated it.

Many saints are in debt to St. Thomas Aquinas’s Eucharistic piety. You can hear echoes of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Panis Angelicus (Bread of Heaven) in devotional works of many saints:

 The Bread of Angels is made
the Bread of man today:
the Living Bread from heaven
with figures dost away:
O wondrous gift indeed!
the poor and lowly may
upon their Lord and Master feed.

St. Thomas Aquinas in that hymn a teacher of Catholic down the ages about the main lesson he learned in life: God, and he alone, is all that matters.

The story goes that on December 6, 1273, three months before his death, St. Thomas Aquinas had a supernatural experience after Mass — a prolonged state of ecstasy. No one knows what he saw or heard, but he stopped working after that. It is said that his secretary, Reginald of Piperno, begged him to return to work, and he replied, “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.”

In one version of the story, Thomas was praying before an icon of the crucified Christ, and the Lord said to him, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?” Thomas answered, “Nothing but you, Lord.”

That’s the ultimate gift a great teacher gave the greatest student.

Image: Lawrence Op, Flickr
St. Albert the Great teaches Thomas;
Krakow Dominican convent.


Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.