The Joy Filled Heart of a Thomist: Proclaiming the Gospel with Love, Life, and Learning
By Mother M. Assumpta Long, O.P.
Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist
Thomas Aquinas College
May 12, 2012
President Michael McLean, Dr. Brian Kelly and members of the faculty; Mr. Jim Wensley and members of the Board of Governors; Fr. Cornelius Buckley and priests; President Emeritus, Dr. Ronald McArthur; Founders, Dr. Jack Neumayr and Mr. Peter DeLuca; distinguished graduates, family and friends:
It is an extreme honor for me to have been invited to give the Commencement Address in such an important year for Thomas Aquinas College because, in some sense, the history of the College has been my history. I have visited and kept up with its wonderful growth from a few small trailers to your beautiful sprawling campus today. This is all due to the faith, vision, and hard work of those who love the Church and believe her mission would best be carried out by those equipped with the finest education a young Catholic could receive today.
“Let the Church boast of the graduates of this College as its martyrs of the 21st century. You will fearlessly profess truth, even unto death, to those who deny, ridicule or simply do not believe. You will do this in imitation of Jesus who took on the form of a slave and suffered death that all men might have life.”
This past January 28, the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, this college celebrated its 40th Anniversary. God is good! What a tremendous gift this school and the young people educated by it have been and continue to be to the Church. Yet I cannot help but think that after wandering in the desert for 40 years, the Israelites commenced their battle for the Promised Land. After 40 days of fasting, Jesus commenced his public life leading up to His “hour.” Today you, the graduates of 2012, enter the battlefield, commencing life in the world.
It is by the providence of God that you graduate in the wake of Pope Benedict’s call for the Year of Faith. To you the Church entrusts the Gospel as well as the challenge of making the Gospel lived and loved. The telos of these past four years of education was not so you could proudly clutch a diploma on a California summer’s day; it was so you could be Christ and bring Christ to the world.
You have spent these years encountering Truth. Of course the encounter with Truth is not only a relationship, but demands a response. Each one of you is invited by Christ to respond generously with his or her unique gifts. What will be the response of this graduating class?
You are blessed with the illustrious patron of St. Thomas Aquinas at this great institution. As you graduate, how can you continue to follow the example given to you in this Dominican Patron? Everyone knows St. Thomas for his Summa Theologica, but who really was St. Thomas? Who was the man whose heroic virtue made him great in the heart of Christ and the Church?
We first glimpse St. Thomas’ magnificent sanctity in his youth. He came from a wealthy family (one of the seven noblest families in all of Europe1) who believed in the importance of education. One cannot lead nations and influence cultures without a strong education. Hence, St. Thomas’ family sent him to the finest schools in Europe and planned a great future for their son.
“It is no longer a probability; if you are passionate about your vocation, you will be persecuted and placed in uncomfortable situations. The world will look at you with incredulity when you stand up for your beliefs. How will you respond? Will you be the Thomists of our generation, unwavering in your commitment to truth?”
Thomas wanted the good and worked diligently to make the most of the gifts he had been given. He studied hard. He worked hard. He put his whole self into his tasks. Yet at some point in his teenage years, Thomas felt the stirring of God deep in his heart. He realized that God had a plan for him, different from the plans of his own family. God wanted Thomas to consecrate his very life to Him, to follow Him as a Dominican Brother. Once Thomas realized God’s will, Thomas was passionate about his vocation: He put God before any desire for worldly greatness.
As you may know, Thomas suffered for this dedication. His family bitterly opposed him, even going so far as to lock him up in a castle tower for an entire year. The people who should have loved him the most, and proven their support in times of trial, forced Thomas into uncomfortable situations. Who can forget the sending of a prostitute into Aquinas’ room to change his mind?
The Encounter with Christ
Today you graduates might reflect on your parents’ sacrifice. What has and will come from it all? For Thomas the fruit was an unwavering commitment to truth. Thomas would not yield when it came to pursuing, promoting, and living the good. His life had been captured by the beauty of Christ and all else had to be properly ordered to this highest end.
We live in an age where commitment to truth is challenged. Simply consider the recent HHS mandate, a policy whereby those who follow their religious conviction will pay steep penalties. Look at the way our media mock those leaders who live out their beliefs, portraying them as prejudiced, hard-hearted, and unenlightened. Not only is our commitment to truth challenged, but truth itself is called into question. Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, writes:
There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should not regard the proposition as self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4.2
It is no longer a probability; if you are passionate about your vocation, you will be persecuted and placed in uncomfortable situations. The world will look at you with incredulity when you stand up for your beliefs. How will you respond? Will you be the Thomists of our generation, unwavering in your commitment to truth?
St. Thomas Aquinas was brilliant but he lived his knowledge in the utmost humility. He made a point to not only ponder the great ideas but to apply those ideas to the “real world.” One could say that Thomas lived more in reality than most of us do. After all, this is what it means to be a contemplative. In the words of Fr. Pierre Marie Emonet, O.P., “The contemplative is not one who discovers secrets no one knows, but one who is swept into ecstasy by what everyone knows.”3 Aquinas saw the beauty of life, and the beauty was translated into volumes of written commentary, into walking over 9,000 miles across Europe, into long hours of teaching, and into ordinary everyday conversations.
St. Thomas was not a hard-hearted individual, fleeing from the reality of life. He was a lover of life. We think of him as the author of the Summa Theologica, but let us not forget he also wrote the Summa Contra Gentiles. Thomas wanted to convert all men to Truth. He wanted to engage the world in a dialogue that would transform his culture. This desire led Thomas to take part in and to be aware of the issues of his day. Thomas didn’t seclude himself in his study; rather he was intensely involved in the most active elements of society, engaging the world in public debates and challenging the leaders of his day to standards of greatness. As he himself put it, “Knowledge of the faith does not pacify; rather it stirs up.”4
Aquinas was truly stirred up and he stirred up those whom he encountered. He challenged the world because of his passion for truth. He spoke calmly and fearlessly and was utterly devoid of any arrogant love for the limelight. During his process for canonization it was reported that even in heated disputes, he was always calm, humble, and never used large, affected words.5 Those of you who have witnessed or been part of a seminar know what heroic virtue lies behind that observation!
“Today, graduates, you are being sent out into a confused world. Do not be afraid to engage the secularism, the consumerism, the relativism of modernity. You have been surrounded by goodness, you’ve been immersed in beauty, and you have encountered truth.”
It is easy to rant and convey one’s opinion. It is easy to speak well when others are there to notice your achievement. But to believe wholeheartedly in something and yet resist the urge to impose the truth on others, to merely propose the truth and to let truth itself convince, that is a lifetime’s achievement. Aquinas’ activism was a way of life marked by respect for all men, even those in error. He influenced others by his words as well as his demeanor.
One of the most striking elements of Thomas’ demeanor was his continual focus on truth. He never argued for the sake of winning; he argued to make truth loved and to make the good lived more fully. Yves Congar observed, “In his Summa alone, [St. Thomas] wrote more than 3,000 articles, and in none of them, except here and there when he wished to retract some statement, does he speak of himself; there is not one of them that is not like a monstrance behind which the theologian hides in order to exhibit his God.”6 That is the humility which will overturn the wisdom of this world. That is the model of what it means to engage the secular society.
The message we bring to the world is not ourselves. Humanity’s hope is not a new program or governmental mandate. Only an encounter with Christ will bring about the change people long for. That is not to say we won’t establish organizations or charities — I hope the graduates of 2012 will found many such institutions — but our focus will be different. For the Christian charity is not a program but a Person to be loved. Fixing the economy is not about more money but about promoting human dignity. Establishing justice is not making a world of conformity where everyone is the same, but allowing each individual the freedom to flourish and reflect God. Such change only occurs with God at the center of our endeavors. The world is saved by Christ alone, and the Christian points the wayward world back to its maker. In imitation of God Who dwelt among us, the Christian lives in the world and lifts up its brokenness to the Healer of All.
The Power of Joy
Today, graduates, you are being sent out into a confused world. Do not be afraid to engage the secularism, the consumerism, the relativism of modernity. You have been surrounded by goodness, you’ve been immersed in beauty, and you have encountered truth. These are the tools with which a Thomist lives life to the full. These are the tools with which a Thomist betters the lives and longings of all around him.
This noble vocation is brought to fulfillment in both the extraordinary and the ordinary moments of life. Aquinas confronted error before great professors of his time as well as through the lived witness of his everyday actions. Aquinas didn’t merely preach truth; he reached out in truth and charity to others. He smiled at people and took the time to get to know those around him. During St. Thomas’ process for canonization it was reported as common opinion that everyone “believed the Holy Spirit was truly with him for he always had a happy countenance, sweet and affable…”
Never underestimate the power of joy. The world would like to portray you as somber, rigid fools. Shock the world with your life, your enthusiasm, your ready smile. There is no such thing as a somber, sour-faced Thomist. Everyone knows a Thomas Aquinas College graduate can think; do they know about your deep friendships, your active compassion, and your love for this world? Do they know of your love for the Blessed Virgin Mary? If they do not, how can you call yourself a Thomist?
Observing the crisis of our age and looking ahead to the upcoming “Year of Faith,” Pope Benedict XVI said that Catholics must study especially how to proclaim the Gospel to a world undergoing “faith fatigue.” He challenged us to learn how to move the hearts of men who seem to have had enough of Christianity.8 The Pope asked us to reflect on how faith, as a living force, could become a reality today.
Perhaps you read the address. Perhaps you caught how our Holy Father highlighted young people as an answer to the fatigue of modernity. You were the ones he called upon to awaken the worldly and to break through the “whatever” attitude of so many searching people. In so doing, Pope Benedict spoke of this era as the age of Eucharistic adoration and sacramental confession. Truly, then, this is the age of the Thomist, for the great loves of Aquinas’ life were the Blessed Sacrament and the saving power of the Cross. It was for this reason that St. Thomas risked everything he was.
Pope Benedict calls confession the “sacrament of joy rediscovered.”9 The Christian life is not easy, and at times we fall. It is in these moments that the Cross becomes our Exultet of the Easter Vigil. No man is abandoned to his sins or ought to be defined by his past mistakes. “The experience of sin, which is the refusal to follow God and an affront to His friendship, brings gloom into our hearts.”10 This is not the will of God for us. God wants us to be happy. On the Cross Christ reached out to save us. In the sacrament of confession, the same restoring grace is offered.
“Everyone knows a Thomas Aquinas College graduate can think; do they know about your deep friendships, your active compassion, and your love for this world? Do they know of your love for the Blessed Virgin Mary? If they do not, how can you call yourself a Thomist?”
Aquinas frequented the sacrament often. His words are simple: “In the life of the body a man is sometimes sick, and unless he takes medicine, he will die. Even so, in the spiritual life, a man is sick on account of sin. For that reason he needs medicine so that he may be restored to health; and this grace is bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance.” He further speaks of Confession as the sacrament of true friends, the means by which we reconcile ourselves with Christ after pushing Him away.11 When one is estranged from a friend, how great is the joy of forgiveness. Never forget the humility that values friendships. A true Thomist is often found outside the confessional because a true Thomist is always seeking happiness and genuine friendships. If you wish to be a follower of Aquinas, go often to where you will rediscover this joy.
One of the greatest minds the world has ever known — the saint whose name this school proudly bears — was above all a Eucharistic lover. To him we owe the beautiful liturgy of Corpus Christi and a clear articulation of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. To him we owe the example of a life of wisdom surrendered at the feet of Eternal Wisdom, an enormous intellect great enough to bow in adoration before his God. God knows the world needs thinkers and intellectuals. We need wisdom and knowledge. Yet, in the words of St. Catherine, “Upon knowledge follows love.”12 Love changes the actions and hearts of men.
As you graduate today, the world applauds your hard-earned knowledge with formal recognition. I beg you to go further. If you haven’t done so already, fall in love. Fall in love with Christ, with his church and with our faith. Live lives of passionate romance and heart-felt conviction. Now that you know the Truth, risk everything for the joy of following Him. Let the Church boast of the graduates of this College as its martyrs of the 21st century. You will fearlessly profess truth, even unto death, to those who deny, ridicule or simply do not believe. You will do this in imitation of Jesus who took on the form of a slave and suffered death that all men might have life. For God’s sake, for the sake of mankind, go out among the nations and spread the good news. The Word became flesh. May He be incarnate in you. Don’t be content to be mere intellectuals, mere scholars and teachers; be intellectuals bearing Christ into, oftentimes, an empty, hungry world. Be the joy-filled Thomists, the passionate lovers, the convicted thinkers of this age. Do this and you will become the saints for whom the world is waiting, loving, and living in Joy.
Thank you. May God bless you.
Posted: May 12, 2012
L. H. Petitot, O.P., The Life and Spirit of Thomas Aquinas
, translated by Cyprian Burke, O.P., (Chicago: The Priory Press, 1966), 55.
2 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 25.
3 Pierre-Marie Emonet, O.P., The Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Being, translated by Robert Barr (New York : The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999).
4 Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.
Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., St Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, The Person and His Work
, translated by Robert Royal, (The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C.: 1996), 281.
6 As quoted by Peter A. Kwasniewski, Notes from Golden Straw: St. Thomas and the Ecstatic Practice of Theology, “Nova et Vetera”, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2004), 76-77.
7 Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., St Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, The Person and His Work, translated by Robert Royal, (The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C.: 1996), 280.
8 Pope Benedict XVI, "State of the Church" speech, 2011
9 Pope Benedict, Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for the Twenty-Seventh World Youth Day 2012
11 See ST III, q. 84, ar. 3.
12 St. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, translated by Suzanne Noffke, (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 25.