September 9, 2017

St. Thomas of Villanova, Bishop, "Father of the Poor"

St. Thomas of Villanova

(In 2017, this feast is superseded by the Sunday liturgy.)

September 10th, is traditionally the feast of Saint Thomas of Villanova (1488-1555), the 16th century Spanish Augustinian friar, theologian and bishop. Given his habits and proclivities, some thought him "eccentric," despite his brilliance and the universal praise of his students and colleagues. Thomas’ intellectual legacy is marked by his insistence that learning be inspired by the desire for God. From his parents, he inherited a special love for the poor and deep compassion.

Thomas García was born the son of a miller in Fuenllana, a village near Villanova in Spain. From a young age, he exhibited a great proclivity for personal piety and scholarship. His mother’s example of charity toward the poor inspired in him a lifelong mission to aid the needy. He studied at the University of Alcalá where he received his master’s degree in 1509, and a doctorate shortly thereafter. In 1512, he became a professor of philosophy at the University of Alcalá where his lectures were lauded enthusiastically for their clarity and conviction. His reputation grew.

In 1516, Thomas was offered the chair of philosophy at the prestigious University of Salamanca, where the Augustinians founded a monastery in 1377. He declined the chair and instead entered the Augustinian Order in that city. Ordained to the priesthood in 1520, Thomas was soon asked to assume administrative positions in the Order. He served as prior of the Augustinian houses in Salamanca, Burgos, and Valladolid, and was elected provincial of Andalusia and Castile. As provincial, he sent the first Augustinian missionaries to the New World where they labored to evangelize what is now present day Mexico and, from there, the Philippines.

When he became an Augustinian friar, he continued to teach but was renowned for his embrace of personal poverty and love of the poor. Throughout his life, he wore the same habit he had received in the novitiate, mending it himself year after year. The poor flocked to his door in droves and he never refused them, even when others said he was being taken advantage of. He took in orphans and was merciful with sinners. All of this resulted in criticism from his contemporaries, including members of his own Order, but Thomas was unceasing in his efforts.

Thomas' numerous gifts, especially his intelligence, powerful oratory, skills as a mediator and administrator, and his sensitivity to the needs of others, brought him to the attention of Emperor Charles V, who against the friar’s will appointed him court chaplain and then archbishop of Valencia in 1544. Thomas exercised the office as a zealous shepherd of souls and a great friend of the destitute.

In Thomas’ writings we find a rich synthesis of the thought of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, especially his emphasis on the innate desire for God in all peoples, the image of God in the human person, the power of grace, and a theology of love. He died peacefully at age 77, his last words being, "Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit." St. Thomas of Villanova once observed "If you want God to hear your prayers, hear the voice of the poor. If you wish God to anticipate your wants, provide those of the needy without waiting for them to ask you. Especially anticipate the needs of those who are ashamed to beg..."

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