Summary: I think Thomas of Villanova is a saint for our times. He possessed what some have called "an intelligent notion of charity," getting at the problem of poverty at its root.

Thursday of 10th Week in Course 2018


The stories preserved in the first book of Kings about the prophet Elijah are some of the most gripping tales in all literature. The Church has been reading these narratives most of this month, and they are most appropriate, because they focus on a three-year drought brought on by the apostasy of King Ahab, his wife Jezebel and most of the people of Israel. The physical drought paralleled their spiritual aridity and denial, a denial of the kingship of the Lord that brought on a terrible judgement, famine, starvation, weakness and death. Yesterday we heard about the failure of the better part of a thousand prophets of Baal and Asherah to bring down fire on a sacrifice, and the stunning success of the true God validating the message of Elijah. The lectionary omits the detail that Elijah and his followers then massacred all the false prophets.

Today we hear that after the people of Israel finally turned their backs on false worship to follow the Lord, the drought ended with a huge thunderstorm. It was a judgement in the other direction. The people’s return to faithful following of God’s law didn’t last very long, but God rewarded the sincere intention to repent and live a loyal lifestyle. In His teaching, Jesus told his disciples–that’s us–even following the Law of Moses just as strictly as the Pharisees did is not enough. The overarching principle of Christ’s law is that we must love–love God above all things and His children, our neighbors, as Christ loved us. Our love must be sacrificial and constant, even in the face of consistent adversity.

One of the reasons that the Protestant revolution was a phenomenon of northern Europe is that in Spain, especially, the Lutheran revolt was actively resisted by the Inquisition. Now the Inquisition has gotten a bad rap from Protestants for centuries, but it was effective where it was supported by the Church and local rulers. Spain also had recently been formed from the union of Aragon and Castile, and it celebrated its Catholic identity. The beauty of the liturgy was strong, learning was widespread, and there were effective Catholic leaders, civil and religious.

Let’s consider Thomas of Villanova, the Augustinian after whom Villanova University is named. His family was wealthy, but despite that “as a young boy he often went about naked because he had given his clothing to the poor.” “At the age of sixteen years, Thomas entered the University of Alcalá de Henares to study Arts and Theology. He became a professor there, teaching arts, logic, and philosophy, despite a continuing absentmindedness and poor memory. In 1516, he decided to join the Augustinian friars in Salamanca and in 1518 was ordained a priest.”

Thomas was a great preacher in Salamanca. He said: “The chief requirement is a heart that is fully determined to serve God, one that is ready to break with whatever impedes it.… bearing in mind what our Lord, Jesus Christ says in the Gospel: ‘They who put their hand to the plow and look back are not fit for the kingdom of God’ (Lk 9:62).” And “because this goes contrary to the world and its devotees, we must be ready to break with the [earthly city] and pay no heed to it’”

Like Elijah, Thomas was a prophet. In 1544, despite many refusals, he was ordained Archbishop of Valencia when his superior put him under obedience to take the office. “His scathing attacks on his fellow bishops earned him the title of reformer. Some of his sermons attacked the cruelty of bullfighting. He also had a great devotion to the Virgin Mary, whose heart he compared to the burning bush of Moses that is never consumed.”

“He was well known for his great personal austerity (he sold the straw mattress on which he slept in order to give money to the poor) and wore the same habit that he had received in the novitiate, mending it himself. Thomas was known as ‘father of the poor.’ . . .He possessed, however, an intelligent notion of charity, so that while he was very charitable, he sought to obtain definitive and structural solutions to the problem of poverty; for example, giving work to the poor, thereby making his charity bear fruit. ‘Charity is not just giving, rather removing the need of those who receive charity and liberating them from it when possible,’ he wrote.

So I think Thomas of Villanova is a saint for our times. St. Thomas, pray for us so that the Gospel of Christ may triumph over the culture of ignorance and death.

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