A Model of Devotion, a Model for the Priesthood

We have already seen the breadth of the Universal Doctor’s intellect, his profound humility, and his devotion to prayer. All of these virtues combine into what Pope Pius XI, and many other popes, consider to be one of the greatest theologians of all time.

In his 1923 encyclical Studiorum Ducem, Pope Pius XI offers St. Thomas Aquinas as the model theologian, especially for priests and seminarians. Aquinas embraced his call to the priesthood to the fullest. He put his knowledge and gifts into practice as a Dominican Friar and ordered his life toward living out his vocation.

Perhaps most lauded by Pius XI is Aquinas’ devotion to Sacred Scripture.

Everything he wrote was securely based upon Holy Scripture and that was the foundation upon which he built.” —Pope Pius XI, Studiorum Ducem.

As a devout saint, Aquinas studied Scripture as a way to come to God. As a devout priest, he kept others from error by defending the authority and historicity of the Bible, explaining the literal and spiritual senses, and writing detailed commentaries on the Gospels.

Aquinas acts as a guide for priests and seminarians as much today as he did a century ago. His works are again being held up for study and are being made more widely available by scholars like those at the Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, in partnership with us at the St. Paul Center.

Why Pope Pius XI Pointed to Aquinas as the Model for Seminarians

2. Such a combination of doctrine and piety, of erudition and virtue, of truth and charity, is to be found in an eminent degree in the angelic Doctor and it is not without reason that he has been given the sun for a device; for he both brings the light of learning into the minds of men and fires their hearts and wills with the virtues. God, the Source of all sanctity and wisdom would, therefore, seem to have desired to show in the case of Thomas how each of these qualities assists the other, how the practice of the virtues disposes to the contemplation of truth, and the profound consideration of truth in turn gives luster and perfection to the virtues. For the man of pure and upright life, whose passions are controlled by virtue, is delivered as it were of a heavy burden and can much more easily raise his mind to heavenly things and penetrate more profoundly into the secrets of God, according to the maxim of Thomas himself: “Life comes before learning: for life leads to the knowledge of truth” (Comment. in Matth., v); and if such a man devotes himself to the investigation of the supernatural, he will find a powerful incentive in such a pursuit to lead a perfect life; for the learning of such sublime things, the beauty of which is a ravishing ecstasy, so far from being a solitary or sterile occupation, must be said to be on the contrary most practical.

Thomas possessed all the moral virtues to a very high degree and so closely bound together that, as he himself insists should be the case, they formed one whole in charity “which informs the acts of all the virtues” (II-II, xxiii, 8; I-II, Ixv). If, however, we seek to discover the peculiar and specific characteristics of his sanctity, there occurs to Us in the first place that virtue which gives Thomas a certain likeness to the angelic natures, and that is chastity; he preserved it unsullied in a crisis of the most pressing danger and was therefore considered worthy to be surrounded by the angels with a mystic girdle.

This perfect regard for purity was accompanied at the same time by an equal aversion for fleeting possessions and a contempt for honors; it is recorded that his firmness of purpose overcame the obstinate persistence of relatives who strove their utmost to induce him to accept a lucrative situation in the world and that later, when the Supreme Pontiff would have offered him a mitre, his prayers were successful in securing that such a dread burden should not be laid upon him. The most distinctive feature, however, of the sanctity of Thomas is what St. Paul describes as the “word of wisdom” (I Cor. xii, 8) and that combination of the two forms of wisdom, the acquired and the infused, as they are termed, with which nothing accords so well as humility, devotion to prayer 12. In dealing orally or in writing with divine things, he provides theologians with a striking example of the intimate connection which should exist between the spiritual and the intellectual life. For just as a man cannot really be said to know some distant country, if his acquaintance is confined merely to a description of it, however accurate, but must have dwelt in it for some time; so nobody can attain to an intimate knowledge of God by mere scientific investigation, unless he also dwells in the most intimate association with God. The aim of the whole theology of St. Thomas is to bring us into close living intimacy with God. For even as in his childhood at Monte Cassino he unceasingly put the question: “What is God?”; so all the books he wrote concerning the creation of the world, the nature of man, laws, the virtues, and the sacraments, are all concerned with God, the Author of eternal salvation.

14. He not only instructs us by his example how to pursue such a diversity of studies, but also teaches us firm and enduring principles of each single science. For, in the first place, who has provided a better explanation than he of the nature and character of philosophy, its various divisions and the relative importance of each? Consider how clearly he demonstrates the congruence and harmony between all the various sections which go to make up the body as it were of this science. “It is the function of the wise man,” he declares, “to put things in order, because wisdom is primarily the perfection of reason and it is the characteristic of reason to know order; for although the sensitive faculties know some things absolutely, only the intellect or reason can know the relation one thing bears to another. The sciences, therefore, vary according to the various forms of order which reason perceives to be peculiar to each. The order which the consideration of reason establishes in its own peculiar activity pertains to rational philosophy or logic, whose function is to consider the order of the parts of speech in their mutual relations and in relation to the conclusions which may be drawn from them. It is for natural philosophy or physics to consider the order in things which human reason considers but does not itself institute, so that under natural philosophy we include also metaphysics. But the order of voluntary acts is for the consideration of moral philosophy which is divided into three sections: the first considers the activities of the individual man in relation to their end and is called ‘monastics’; the second considers the activities of the family group or community and is called economics; the third considers the activities of the State and is called politics” (Ethics, I, I). Thomas dealt thoroughly with all these several divisions of philosophy, each according to its appropriate method, and, beginning with things nearest to our human reason, rose step by step to things more remote until he stood in the end on “the topmost peak of all things” (Contra Gentes, II, lvi; IV, i).

26. But inasmuch as St. Thomas has been duly proclaimed patron of all Catholic schools because he marvelously combined both forms of wisdom, the rational and the divinely inspired, because he had recourse to prayer and fasting to solve the most difficult problems, because he used the image of Christ crucified in place of all books, let him be a model also for seminarians, so that they may learn how to pursue their studies to the best advantage and with the greatest profit to themselves. Members of religious communities should look upon the life of St. Thomas as upon a mirror; he refused even the highest dignities offered to him in order to live in the practice of the most perfect obedience and to die in the sanctity of his profession. Let all the Faithful of Christ take the Angelic Doctor as a model of devotion to the august Queen of Heaven, for it was his custom often to repeat the “Hail Mary” and to inscribe the sweet Name upon his pages, and let them ask the Doctor of the Eucharist himself to inspire them with love for the divine Sacrament. Priests above all will be zealous in so doing, as is only proper.

From Pope Pius XI’s 1923 encyclical Studiorum Ducem.