St. Thomas of Villanova, Father of the Poor
Today, September 22, is the feast of St. Thomas of Villanova, a 16th century Spanish Augustinian monk and archbishop who lived a life of poverty and penance in order to provide for the spiritual and material needs of his people.
Thomas García (1486-1555), the son of a miller who was born in Fuentellana, Castile, Spain. He studied theology at the University of Alcalá, where he later became a professor of philosophy. In 1516, Thomas was offered the chair of philosophy at the prestigious University of Salamanca, where the Augustinians had founded a monastery in 1377. However, he declined the chair and instead entered the Augustinian Order in that city.
Ordained to the priesthood in 1520, Thomas served as prior of the Augustinian houses in Salamanca, Burgos, and Valladolid, and was later elected provincial of Andalusia and Castile. As provincial, he sent the first Augustinian missionaries to the New World where they helped evangelize what is now modern Mexico and, from there, the Philippines.
Thomas’ many gifts, especially his scholarship, powerful, uncompromising oratory, skills as a mediator and administrator, and his sensitivity to the feelings and needs of others, brought him to the attention of Emperor Charles V, who appointed him court chaplain and then archbishop of Valencia in 1544.
Thomas flourished in Spain at a time when the European peoples of the fifteenth and sixteenth century were confronted by challenges to their world views of the natural world, ecclesiastical authority, and the moral dilemmas concerning the nature of African slaves and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. As priest and archbishop, Thomas insisted that the material resources of the Church should be shared with those in the greatest need. His life was characterized by the love of learning, peacemaking, and as a reformer of the Church.
Thomas’ intellectual legacy is reflected in his constant demand that all learning must be inspired by the desire for God. He celebrated learning as an activity that ought to make a difference in the community and in the world. He emphasized that justice and love are the guiding rules of virtue and learning. In Thomas’ writings we find a rich synthesis of the thought of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, especially his emphasis on the innate desire for God in all peoples, the image of God in the human person, the power of grace, and a theology of love.
Thomas found himself in an ecclesiastical world that was filled with turmoil and struggles for power. His scathing attacks on his fellow bishops earned him the title of reformer, but he was motivated by a genuine desire that Church leadership personify the teachings of the Beatitudes. In words that are very contemporary, Thomas challenged all within the Church to serve the least powerful, and to discover love and wisdom in the service of others.
Thomas was known as “father of the poor.” He established social programs on behalf of the poor, including boarding schools and high schools for poor young men. For girls he provided dowries enabling them to be married with dignity. For the hungry, he created a soup kitchen in the bishop’s palace, and for the homeless he provided a place to sleep. In an Advent sermon, he said: “Rejoice, then, you poor people; shout for joy, you needy ones; because even if the world holds you in contempt you are highly valued by your Lord God and the angels.” His love of the poor extended to all creation.
In August of 1555, Thomas became ill with angina pectoris. As he lay dying, Thomas insisted that all his money be distributed to the poor. At the conclusion of Holy Mass in his room, shortly after receiving Jesus in the Eucharist, his last words were “In manus tuas, Domine…” (“Into Your hands, O Lord [I commend my spirit]”).
Thomas was canonized by Pope Alexander VII on November 1, 1658.
Prayer of St. Thomas of Villanova
I will love you, Lord, in every way and without setting limits to my love. You set no limits to what you have done for me; you have not measured out your gifts. I will not measure out my love. I will love you, Lord, with all my strength, with all my powers, as much as I am able.