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Santa Sabina and the Aventine

Santa Sabina, Interior

Santa Sabina is the 5th century basilica on the Aventine hill, just south and across the Tiber from the Vatican, that has served as the home of the General Curia (read, worldwide headquarters) for the Order of Preachers since not long after they were founded by St. Dominic in the early 13th century. In the midst of finals, one of my Dominican classmates, Benedict, offered to lead a small group of us through the basilica and adjacent buildings.

A half dozen of us gathered in the very rooms of the founder for mass, both of which were thankfully de-baroquified some years ago. This was another of those inspiring, unscripted days offered by life in Rome, when you can walk in the footsteps of saints and get a taste of the diachronic communion of the Church.

We wandered the hall where Thomas Aquinas slept, studied, and eventually composed at least part of the Summa and other works. The dining room remains the same one that fed the Great Ox. An incredible view of the city and St. Peter’s awaits on the north side. The basilica itself features some unique mosaics and even a stone that pious legend holds was thrown by Satan himself to distract Dominic from prayer. (Another, slightly more recent legend holds that if you touch the stone and it feels cold, you are in a state of mortal sin and must be confessed by a Dominican immediately. Conveniently, the stone is as black as obsidian and kept indoors year round.) Pius V was another resident of the convent, and is often the pope credited for “creating” the tradition of white as the papal color, by refusing to shed his Dominican habit for the then-normal scarlet after election. Whether accurate or not, it is true that Pius V should be well known for publishing the Roman Missal that was the norm for the celebration of the Eucharist throughout the Western church for four centuries – now known most commonly as the Tridentine Rite.

In the neighborhood we also stopped by the basilica of Sant’Alessio and the most famous keyhole in the world, at the headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. There, standing in Italian soil, you can gaze through a garden belonging to the SMOM and see a perfectly framed view of the dome of St. Peter’s – three countries in one keyhole. Across the piazza sits the Anselmo, the Benedictine pontifical university that is the traditional center of liturgical education in the Church (outside of Notre Dame, of course!).

View through the keyhole at the Sovereign Military Order of Malta

St. Thomas Aquinas

Seal of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome

Today is the feast of San Tommaso d’Aquino, patron of my current university,  of academics and theologians everywhere. Unfortunately, as I was trying to beat a cold, I was unable to get to the celebration of our Patronal Feast at the Angelicum this morning, with Archbishop Agustin DiNoia, OP, but a friar friend has put some photos up on the university blog, so check them out!

I have never claimed to be a Thomist per se, for as one of my first university philosophy professors said, “If you are going to be a Thomist, you have to be a damn good one.” I am fascinated by the Angelic Doctor, but I see him as one (important) contributor to the Catholic, Christian theological tradition, rather than devoting all of my studies to him and his works, which is what it would take to be a “damn good” Thomist.

Truth be told, though, even that would not be enough – I am not convinced Thomas would approve of such narrowed focus! He was, after all, the Great Synthesizer, and did not hesitate to use a variety of Christian sources, as well as Jewish, Muslim and pagan ones.

When I was an undergraduate, I had a friend who was studying medieval philosophy, almost exclusively with the late Ralph McInerny – who is a Thomist. He and I would have many long debates some of which revolved around the maxim of the Papal Theologian: “Never mix philosophy and theology, because philosophy always wins!” My friend felt that, as a medieval philosophy with a particular focus, he was therefore an adept theologian. As a theologian with a much broader view of Tradition, I often had to remind him that this was not the case! No matter how profound and how great the tradition, no one theologian encompasses the whole of Catholic theology, much less the attendant pastoral, liturgical, historical and other issues that interact with theology in the lived experience of the Church.

I have always had a great affinity for Thomas, first as a theologian, and in more recent years as a patron for “new” vocations, such as lay ecclesial ministry.

As a theologian and student, his peers dubbed him the “Dumb Ox” – dumb as in mute – to which Albertus Magnus supposedly retorted, “That ‘dumb ox’ will one day fill the world with his bellowing!” Thomas was no quick wit. He would not have made it as official Catholic commentator on Fox News or CNN. He was big, slow to move and slow to speak, and as with any good introvert, would fix you with a stare in response to unexpected questions that probably left less astute contemporaries wondering if he really was all that bright. He is an inspiration to any systemitizing introvert who has been caught in the spotlight by “think out loud” extravert peers!

As a candidate for patron of “new” vocations, consider his story:

According to his father, the Count of Aquino, Thomas was going to be groomed as the Abbot of Montecassino, an old, established, and wealthy Benedictine Abbey not too far from Rome. This was the normal sort of ecclesial vocation of his era – monastic life. It was how you served the church successfully. It was expected. It was “just the way things were done”. You want to serve the church? Fine, join the monastery.

But he would have none of it. At 19 he ran off to join some newfangled wannabes who were kind of like monks, but not really monks – and I doubt the real monastics would have been too happy if you called these mendicant friars “monks”! They had only been around for 40 years. They did not spend their time at the monastery but wandered around the countryside preaching, teaching, and doing God-only-knows what else that was properly the ministry of monks and diocesan clergy.

This was not right!! How dare they? So, his family did the only respectable thing to do – they arranged for him to be rescued from this cult, threw him in a locked room and commenced a serious deprogramming effort.

A year later, he remained committed to his vocation. He was called to serve the church, clearly, just not in the way that his parents and grandparents generations took for granted. It looked a little different. The charism was a little different. New terminology had to be used to explain it. There were bishops who did not support it. People worried about the confusion of identity of traditional monastic life – of monks and nuns – with this itinerant innovation of mendicant life – these friars. Even a few years later, after being ordained in this “new order”, he spent time writing defense of the vocation he was living. Some critics argued that real ministers would be spending their time in prayer and sacramental service, not defending and defining a “new” vocation!

The parallels to the present age, to lay ecclesial ministry and even to the restoration of a real diaconate, are overwhelming! (Though, I admit I am not aware of any pastoral associate being kidnapped by family to consider the diocesan presbyterate or religious life instead.) We are 50 years into the present form of lay ecclesial ministry in the U.S., and it never ceases to amaze me how much suspicion, ignorance, misunderstanding and outright vitriol is out there. I completely understand this minister’s plea, “Don’t dis lay ecclesial ministry!”

St. Thomas Aquinas, patron of “new” vocations, pray for us!

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