The Fioretti of St Thomas, from sworn testimonies at the canonisation enquiry – Part I: His Life21-min read (inc. footnotes)

St Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas, Universal Doctor – Fr Edward Leen CSSP
The Holy Wrath of St Thomas Aquinas – G.K. Chesterton
On the Five Qualities of Prayer – St Thomas Aquinas
True Law – According to the Teaching of St Thomas Aquinas
What is Thomism? The Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses

The Fioretti of St Thomas:
Part I: His Life
Part II: His Death
Part III: The Miracles after his Death


INTRODUCTION

This three-part series is a summary and re-ordering of the testimonies given in St Thomas’s 1319 canonisation enquiry, 45 years after his death.[1]

These are not just pious stories written by imaginative hagiographers: they are sworn testimonies recounted under oath by respectable men, both from the clergy and the laity. We see amongst the laymen, civil officers such as a judge, a chancellor and notaries. Many of the witnesses were actually eyewitnesses to what they recount. Fr Kenelm Foster OP – who reproduces the enquiry in his book The Life of St Thomas Aquinas – Biographical Documents – also states that “the witnesses were interrogated separately and privately.”[2]

All of the pictures in this series are taken from Othonis Vaeni’s Vita D. Thomae Aquinatis, which is available also for UK readers and at Internet Archive thanks to “M. M. Dan”.

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Image: Francesco Brea, Wiki Commons.

The most informative witness was Lord Bartholomew of Capua, Chancellor and Protonotary of Sicily. How did he come to know so much about St Thomas and his life? He testifies that he came to the University of Naples as a young man, and became acquainted with the Dominicans there. He especially knew John of Caiazzo, “a man of some eminence and a good scholar, who had known brother Thomas very well and been his pupil both at Paris and in the kingdom of Sicily.” He also lists several other Dominicans from whom he had learnt these details, including John of San Giuliano, who “was commonly supposed to have received brother Thomas into the Order.”

I have selected the most interesting stories and reordered the material in a largely chronological way. The full enquiry – which we will make available shortly, but can also be found in Foster’s Life of St Thomas and on the Bellarmine Forums – contains many other details, which I have omitted for brevity. However, those omitted repetitions and other lists of witnesses show how compelling and serious these testimonies are.

PART I: ST THOMAS’S LIFE

EARLY LIFE

The birth and greatness of St Thomas is prophesied to his mother by a hermit

The prophecy of his birth

The witness gave an account of what he had been told by the Lady Catherine, a niece of brother Thomas and mother of Lord Roger of Morra, while staying at Marsico with the count of that place. He had gone there in the course of his enquiry about the miracles which God had worked through Thomas, undertaken at the order of the provincial of Sicily – the information, once collected, having then to be submitted to the pope.

Lady Catherine, an old and devout lady, told the witness – in the presence of a judge and a notary and sworn witnesses – that she had heard from Thomas’s mother, Lady Theodora, how one day a hermit came to the castle of Roccasecca and said to her:

“Rejoice, my lady, for the child you bear is a son whom you will call Thomas; and you and your husband will have a mind to make him a monk of Monte Cassino, but God has disposed otherwise, for he shall be a Preaching Friar, with no equal in his day for learning and sanctity.”

And in fact (Lady Catherine went on) the boy was brought up at Monte Cassino, and then went to Naples, where he joined the Dominicans. And, his mother wishing to see him, he was pursued by his brothers to the priory of Santa Sabina at Rome; and later captured by them (who were serving under the Emperor Frederick) and sent back to his mother, still wearing the religious habit.

And he was kept a prisoner until his brothers returned, meanwhile resisting every attempt to deprive him of the habit. And in prison he studied much and taught his sisters. And at last his parents and brothers, overcome by his constancy, gave him back to the Order; whereupon he was sent to study at Cologne.

William of Tocco, old Dominican Priest and Prior of Benevento, given Saturday 4 August 1319

An early incident of St Thomas as a baby

The paper with “Ave Maria, Gratia Plena”

Asked about miracles, [Lord Peter Caracciolo] answered that once when he was staying with Lord Thomas Dentiti at Naples, the latter’s grandmother, Lady Constance Fanisari, and some other ladies fell to talking about the ways of various religious; and Lady Constance mentioned brother Thomas; and praising his holiness, she described how she had once seen his mother holding him – then but a child – in her arms.

The little boy, she said, was clothed in the usual way, and his mother started to take off his clothes in order to wash him. And just then the child stretched out his hand and picked up a piece of paper from the floor, and clutched it tightly. And when his mother tried to take it away he cried, but when she let him keep it he was quiet. And wishing to see what was written on the paper, his mother found these words, “Ave Maria, gratia plena”, etc. But she gave him his bath still clutching the paper; there was no other way to keep him quiet.

Asked who were present when Lady Constance told this story, the witness said that he was there himself, and several other ladies whose names he cannot remember. It was about eight years ago, at the time when Pope Clement V was holding the Council of Vienne.

Lord Peter Caracciolo of Naples, given under oath 11 August 1319.

Imprisoned by his family who do not want him to be a mendicant friar, St Thomas drives out a temptress with a burning brand, is girded by angels and remains chaste for the rest of his life

Imprisoned in the castle

[William of Tocco, an old Dominican Priest] said that, returning from the Curia in late December of the previous year, he passed through Anagni, where he met brother Robert of Sezze, a well-known Dominican theologian and preacher.

This Robert told the witness what his uncle (a certain brother Stephen, a worthy religious) had told him concerning Thomas’s imprisonment in the castle of Montesangiovanni, when his brothers abducted him from the Order and tried, unsuccessfully, to make him discard his religious habit and, with it, all his good intentions…

Driving out the temptress

[He told him] of how his brothers sent a pretty girl to his room to allure him to sin; and of how Thomas, seeing her and feeling the first effect of her presence in himself, snatched a log from the fire and indignantly drove her out, and then, with the tip of the log, marked a cross on the wall in a corner of the room; and then prayed long and with tears to God that no carnal impulse might ever corrupt his mind or body.

Girded by two angels

And so praying, Thomas fell asleep; and in sleep he saw two angels come to him… And they bound his loins, saying: “In the name of God we bind you with a chastity that will resist every temptation.” And he cried out with the pain of that binding, and so woke up; but to no one would he disclose the cause of that cry; until later he revealed it, with many other things, to his socius [Reginald] for the love he bore him.

William of Tocco, old Dominican Priest and Prior of Benevento, given Saturday 4 August 1319

St Thomas’s life in prison convinces his father to let him join the Dominicans

From John of Caiazzo and John of San Giuliano, as well as from common report, [Lord Bartholomew] learned that the father of brother Thomas, who was a powerful nobleman, sent his son as a child to Monte Cassino with a view to his eventually becoming abbot of that monastery.

Well, Thomas grew up an example to all, and then, at the University of Naples, where he took the Arts course, he surpassed all his companions in study. And, his judgement maturing very quickly, he entered the Order of Preachers while still a boy in years. The Friars, fearing Thomas’s father, took measures to get the youth out of the kingdom and safely on the road to one of their centres of study; but his father’s influence caused him to be captured and imprisoned in one of the family castles, where he was kept closely guarded for more than a year.

His father tried to make him put on the habit of a monk or a layman’s dress, but in vain… Meanwhile Thomas had begged and obtained from his brothers, when his imprisonment began, a Bible and a breviary. The Bible he then studied so deeply that he understood most of it by the time of his release. This happened when his father at last understood that nothing could shake the lad’s constancy; so he yielded to the prayers of his wife and set his son free… And that constancy and purity of young Thomas in prison, brother John of San Giuliano never tired of praising, according to the witness.

Lord Bartholomew of Capua, Chancellor and Protonotary of Sicily, given under oath 8 August 1319

DAILY LIFE

St Thomas and his routines

Gentle manner

First then, concerning the life of Thomas, the witness said that ever since he was a schoolboy he had always heard [St Thomas] spoken of as a man of holy life, and that many held him to have been a virgin from his mother’s womb; and that every day he said Mass before anyone else, and that since his ordination it had been his custom, after his own Mass and before completely unvesting himself, to hear another Mass through – the other priest being already vested before his own Mass was ended. This Thomas always did before starting the day’s work.

Moreover, apart from the interruptions required by nature, he never wasted any time in idleness or worldly occupations but was always either reading, writing, dictating, praying, or preaching.

Peter Grasso of Naples, a knight and functionary on the king around sixty years old, given under oath at the start of the enquiry, 1319

Witness of his manner of living

[Octavian of Babuco, priest and monk of Fossanova where St Thomas died] averred that the said Thomas was a man of pure and holy life, chaste, temperate in food and drink, diligent in prayer, fasting and study; that in prayer he shed tears; that he was most charitable, compassionate and humble, full of devout wisdom in his dealings with God and man. Asked how he knew all this, the witness said that he had known brother Thomas and spoken with him and done him services from time to time, and seen him say Mass and shed tears at the communion. Asked how long he had known Thomas before his death, he answered “about four and a half years”.

Asked where he had seen and conversed with him and done him services, the witness said it was in the castle of Maenza, whither Thomas often came to visit a kinswoman of his, and also at Fossanova. Asked if he was sure that Thomas had persevered in holiness to the end, the witness answered that he was. Asked how he knew, he replied as before. Asked how long it was since Thomas’s death, he said, “about forty-six years”.

He added that he had seen Thomas arrive at Fossanova from the castle of Maenza (where he had been taken ill) and stop in front of the choir in the abbey-church where he [prophesied his imminent death, saying] “Haec requies mea…” [See below for more.] The witness was present at the time and heard the words spoken.

Asked who else was present, he said that besides himself there was brother Peter of Montesangiovanni, who was still alive, and many other monks of the same monastery whose names he could not remember.

Octavian of Babuco, priest and monk of Fossanova, given under oath 25 July 1319

More on St Thomas’s manner of life

[Lord Bartholomew] declared that it was commonly believed by those who had known Thomas, and especially by the Dominicans already named (men of considerable authority), that the Holy Spirit dwelt in him. For the expression on his face was always so lively, sweet, and gentle; he was so entirely detached from the world; always studying, lecturing, or writing for the good of his fellow Christians.

From brother John of Caiazzo we know that Thomas was always the first to rise in the night for prayer; and when he heard the others coming to pray, he would at once retire to his cell. The witness himself often saw Thomas – and he saw him as often as possible – and he seemed always recollected and untrammelled by this world. Common report said he was a virgin clean and pure. No one ever heard him say an idle word.

In scholastic disputations – so often the occasion for intemperate flights of language – Thomas was always gentle and humble, never windy-worded or pretentious. Even at meal-times his recollection continued; dishes would be placed before him and taken away without his noticing; and when the brethren tried to get him into the garden for recreation, he would draw back swiftly and retire to his cell alone with his thoughts.

[Having said his own Mass, and heard a second, St Thomas] at once began his teaching. This done, he would set himself to write or dictate to his secretaries until the time for dinner. After dinner he went to his cell and attended to spiritual things until the siesta; after which he resumed his writing. And so the whole of his life was directed towards God. It was the common view […] that he had wasted scarcely a moment of his time.

Lord Bartholomew of Capua, Chancellor and Protonotary of Sicily, given under oath 8 August 1319

ACADEMIC CAREER

St Thomas writes the Summa Contra Gentiles on scraps of paper

The witness [Anthony of Brescia] added the following statement made to him by brother Nicholas of Marsillac, counsellor and chaplain to the king of Cyprus, a learned and holy man who had been a pupil of Thomas in Paris. This Nicholas said:

“Brother Anthony, I was with brother Thomas at Paris, and I declare before God that I have never known such a lover of purity and poverty. For instance, he wrote the Contra Gentiles on scraps of paper, though he certainly could have had good writing paper if he had asked for it; but it was like him to pay no heed to trifles.”

Anthony of Brescia, Dominican priest and student at Naples Priory, given under oath 4 August 1319

St Thomas said he would rather have a rare book than all of Paris

He also refused the bishopric of Naples

Once Thomas was returning to Paris from St. Denis with a number of brethren, and when the city came into view they sat down to rest a while. And one of the company, turning to Thomas, said:

“Father, what a fine city Paris is!”

“Very fine,” answered Thomas.

“I wish it were all yours,” said the other; to which Thomas replied,

“Why, what would I do with it?”

“You would sell it to the king of France, and with the money you would build houses for Friar Preachers.”

“Well,” said Thomas, “I would rather have Chrysostom on Matthew.”

This story, the witness said, he had from – among others – brother Nicholas Malasorte of Naples, who had been an adviser to the French king and a particular friend and pupil of his own; he told it when he came on a mission from the same king of France to King Charles II of noble memory; saying that it was well known in Paris.

Lord Bartholomew of Capua, Chancellor and Protonotary of Sicily, given under oath 8 August 1319

(Incidentally – that special rare text that St Thomas valued higher than all of Paris is now easily available. See here for UK readers and on New Advent)

The gentleness and courtesy of St Thomas in speech

Asked first about the life of brother Thomas, the witness said he was a very good man, both in himself and in his dealings with others, whom he desired to be even as he was. Humble and patient, he was never heard to use haughty or aggressive speech against anyone. He was a great contemplative, continually busy with prayer, study, or writing… absorbed in the thought of God. At meal-times he was content with whatever was put before him – if indeed he noticed it at all.

Asked how he knew these things, the witness said that he had lived in the same community with Thomas for a year as one of his students. He had also heard the like from many fellow Dominicans, especially from Reginald of Priverno and Benedict of Montesangiovanni.

Peter of San Felice, Dominican, given under oath 31 July 1319

St Thomas’s manner of disputation with a pompous man

[Lord Bartholomew] said he had been told by several Friar Preachers, whose word could be relied on, that at Paris once when Thomas was conducting a disputation at which the Franciscan John Pecham (later archbishop of Canterbury) was present, the latter attacked Thomas in a pompous and over-bearing way, whereas Thomas remained unalterably humble, gentle, and courteous. Such was always his way in disputations, however sharply and shrewdly contested they might be.

Lord Bartholomew of Capua, Chancellor and Protonotary of Sicily, given under oath 8 August 1319

The manner of St Thomas’s preaching

[The Judge] said that he had known brother Thomas for five years and more, meeting him in the refectory and in his cell; besides having heard him preach from time to time over a period often years, including the whole of one Lent when he preached on the text Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. He preached with his eyes shut and his mind in heaven.

Lord John di Blasio, judge of Naples in the service of the Queen of Sicily, given under oath 6 August 1319

St Thomas’s gentle discussion with two Roman Jews on Christmas Eve, and their subsequent conversion

[Lord Bartholomew] went on to say that when he was a guest of the Friar Preachers at Anagni, the prior, Nicholas of Sezze, told him of the Christmas that brother Thomas kept with Lord Richard of worthy memory, cardinal deacon of Sant’ Angelo, at Molara. This cardinal was very fond of Thomas and knew him well.

Now when Thomas arrived at Molara, as the cardinal’s guest for that Christmas, he found two Roman Jews there, also invited for the feast – a father and his son, rich men and both learned in the Hebrew tongue.

And the cardinal said to Thomas, in the presence of the Jews: “Brother Thomas, say some of your good and holy words to these hardened Jews”; and Thomas replied that he would gladly say what he could, if they cared to listen.

Thomas and the two Jews then withdrew to a chapel in the castle, where they remained a long time arguing and discussing; and Thomas answered all their questions. Finally, when the Jews seemed to be quite satisfied with his explanations, Thomas said:

“Go and think over these points, and tomorrow let us meet here again, and you will tell me frankly if you still have any doubts.”

Well, the next day – which was Christmas Eve – the Jews and Thomas met again in the same place, and Thomas spoke to them for a while. And then the voices of all three were heard singing together, Te Deum laudamus. On hearing which the cardinal, who had the gout and could not walk, got himself carried to the chapel with his chaplains and servants; and all of them, Thomas, the Jews, the cardinal, and his company, continued together singing the Te Deum to the end.

Then the Jews were baptised. And to celebrate the occasion the cardinal sent invitations to Rome, to many noble friends of his, that they should come to Molara in festal array to rejoice together over this sudden conversion.

The Jews, for their part, told the cardinal that as soon as they had entered the chapel with Thomas, and heard him begin to speak, they felt entirely changed, so that only with difficulty could they find any objections to his arguments.

Lord Bartholomew of Capua, Chancellor and Protonotary of Sicily, given under oath 8 August 1319

PRAYER AND STUDY

How St Thomas prayed when he had intellectual difficulties

[Lord Bartholomew] said, too – what many Dominicans had told him – that Thomas’s socius Reginald, lecturing after his master’s death, had called God to witness that when Thomas met with intellectual difficulties he used to go to the altar and stay there a while weeping and sobbing, and then return to his cell and his writing.

Lord Bartholomew of Capua, Chancellor and Protonotary of Sicily, given under oath 8 August 1319

Supernatural inspiration from St Dominic for his inaugural address as a master of theology

Preaching as Doctor

[Lord Peter Carracciolo of Naples] added that while he was a student at Paris it was the custom in the priory there to read aloud, at fixed times, paragraphs from a book called Vitae Fratrum.

And from that reading he learned, among other things, that when Thomas was told to prepare himself to receive the degree of Master in Theology, he wondered what text he should take for his inaugural address; and that while he was in his cell wondering, a venerable figure, white-haired and in the Dominican habit, appeared to him and said: “Why are you perplexed? Take this: Rigans montes de superioribus suis, de fructu operum tuorum satiabitur terra.” And Thomas agreed that this was a good text.

The witness added that the Dominicans at Paris commonly said that the venerable figure was St. Dominic.

Lord Peter Caracciolo of Naples, given under oath 11 August 1319.

More supernatural aids for St Thomas’s work

[William of Tocco, an old Dominican Priest], said on the authority of Reginald of Priverno, that Thomas’s knowledge was not acquired by natural intelligence, but by the influence of the Holy Spirit; all his writing began with prayer, and in all his difficulties he had recourse to prayer, with many tears; after which he never failed to find his mind cleared and his doubts resolved. This the witness had heard himself from brother Reginald, who had declared the same publicly in the Schools, saying (and he wept as he said it) that Thomas had forbidden him to tell anyone of this during his lifetime.

For example, there was the occasion (of which the witness had heard from Francis de Amore of Alatri, vicar of the bishop of Nola, who had it from Reginald of Priverno) when Thomas was commenting on Isaiah, and, coming to a passage which baffled him, he prayed hard and fasted many days, begging God to show him what the text meant.

Taught by Sts Peter and Paul

And after some days Reginald heard Thomas speaking one night in his room with someone. Then the voices ceased, and at once Thomas called to his socius [Reginald] to light a candle and fetch the commentary on Isaiah and write to his dictation. So Reginald wrote for a while, until that hard text was explained; and then Thomas said, “Son, go and rest now.” But Reginald got down on his knees and begged with tears to be told who that was with whom Thomas had been speaking.

Then Thomas, himself weeping, revealed that God in His mercy had sent the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul to teach him.

But he added: “In God’s name, I command you never to disclose this as long as I live.”

Asked for his authority for all he had said so far, the witness said that he had seen and known Thomas; they had been together at Naples at various times. He had also spoken with many religious and laymen who had personally known him, and in particular with brother Reginald, the socius, and with Lord Bartholomew of Capua.

William of Tocco, old Dominican Priest and Prior of Benevento, given Saturday 4 August 1319

Conclusion: arguments for the supernatural aid given to St Thomas

With regard to the supernatural inspiration of Thomas’s writings, [Lord Bartholomew] himself is convinced (so far as he can judge) that the opinion given above is true; and this for several reasons:

“In the first place, it does not seem possible for a man using merely human powers to have written so many great works (see the list below) in so short a time; considering that Thomas died (according to the usual view) in his forty-eighth year and was always scrupulous in his recitation of the divine office and in reading and prayer.

“Secondly, because while many of the writings of great saints and doctors have been attacked and demolished after their death, those of Thomas, though certainly attacked since his death by many critics, including some eminent ones, have, in fact, notwithstanding such attempts to discredit them, lost none of their authority with the passage of time; on the contrary, their influence has continued to spread more and more, even reaching (so the witness has been told) as far as barbarous nations. And everywhere they are winning enthusiastic adherents.

“Thirdly, these writings can be read with ease and profit by everyone, according to his mental capacity. Hence we find even laymen and people of modest intelligence desiring to possess copies of them.”

Lord Bartholomew of Capua, Chancellor and Protonotary of Sicily, given under oath 8 August 1319

ST THOMAS: PRAY FOR US!

St Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas, Universal Doctor – Fr Edward Leen CSSP
The Holy Wrath of St Thomas Aquinas – G.K. Chesterton
On the Five Qualities of Prayer – St Thomas Aquinas
True Law – According to the Teaching of St Thomas Aquinas
What is Thomism? The Twenty-Four Thomistic Theses

The Fioretti of St Thomas:
Part I: His Life
Part II: His Death
Part III: The Miracles after his Death

SELECTED TEXTS FROM ST THOMAS AQUINAS

Summa Theologica Trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (5 vols.) Ave Maria Press, Hardback (and UK readers) and Paperback (and UK readers). Also online at New Advent and iPieta.

Summa Theologiae, Aquinas Institute (8 vols.) Latin-English, based on the English Fathers’ translation, without the Supplementum parts. (And for UK readers) Supplementum I-68 (and UK readers) Supplementum 69-99 (and UK readers)

St Thomas Aquinas – Summa Contra Gentiles. Aquinas Institute in 2 vols: Vol. I (Books I-II) and Vol. 2 (Books III-IV) and for UK readers here and here. Budget single-volume from Aeterna Press (and for UK readers) and online at iPieta or Aquinas.cc

Aquinas – Opuscula I, from the Aquinas Institute (UK readers), containing the following:

St Thomas Aquinas – Catena Aurea (and for UK readers). 4 vols, line-by-line commentary on the four Gospels from the Fathers of the Church, assembled by St Thomas Aquinas and translated by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Published by Baronius Press.

Tradivox VI: Aquinas, Pecham, and Pagula (UK readers), including St Thomas Aquinas’s Catechetical Instructions. An arrangement of other Opuscula in catechetical form. (ca. 1260)

St Thomas Aquinas’s scriptural commentaries are being published by the Aquinas Institute in English and Latin. Here are some of the options below – they are online here, and it is possible to buy single volumes of the commentaries below:

Anger – The Doctrine of the Mystical Body According to the Principles of St Thomas Aquinas (and for UK readers). Internet Archive. Draws together several texts for which there is a bit of a lacuna in the Summa itself.

Glenn – A Tour of the Summa. A compressed one-volume account of the Summa. (UK readers)

Pegues – Catechism of the Summa Theologica for the use of the Faithful (and for UK readers)

G.K. Chesterton – St Thomas Aquinas. Classic biography. (UK link)

Foster – The Life of St Thomas Aquinas – Biographical Documents (UK readers). Online at Internet Archive.

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[1] This can be found in Kenelm Foster OP, The Life of St Thomas Aquinas – Biographical Documents, Longmans, Green and Co, London 1959, pp 82-119. UK readers click here, and available online at https://archive.org/details/lifeofsaintthoma0000fost/

[2] Foster 119 n.2

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