One of the disappointments that I feel over the reform of the Roman calendar is the loss of some of the saints from whom we could learn so much. I’m not griping about old versus new. Like the Holy Father has done when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, I’m just lamenting the losses. I’m thinking today of St. Thomas Villanova, a Spaniard, which, as we know, is a good thing.
St. Thomas was born in 1488 in Fuentellana in Castile. His full name is Thomas Villanueva de los Infantes, which was the town in which he brought up. The basic facts of his life include profession as an Augustinian in 1516. Quickly he was promoted to teach theology to his brothers. By 1533 he was the provincial and shortly after given the Archbishopric of Granada and sent to Toledo. In 1544 he was transferred to Valencia, where he remained as a good and holy Archbishop until his death in 1555.
Those meager dates, however, do not tell the story of the man and the love of Christ that drove him.
One of the lovely little facts about St. Thomas was that he had a terrible memory. Despite his capacity to comprehend and teach on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas Villanova was rather the absent-minded professor.
As an Archbishop, he was not prone to using his office to scold or castigate. Who among us has not desired that our respective bishops just come down once and for all on someone and excommunicate them? St. Thomas was very cautious to punish in order to convert. When someone tried to press him to make a firm decision to punish, he is said to have responded about that someone:
He is without doubt a good man, but one of those fervent ones mentioned by St. Paul as having zeal without knowledge….Let [the good man] enquire whether St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom used anathemas and excommunication to stop the drunkenness and blasphemy which were so common among the people under their care. No; for they were too wise and prudent. They did not think it right to exchange a little good for a great evil by inconsiderately using their authority and so exciting the aversion of those whose good will they wanted to gain in order to influence them for good.
St. Thomas was very concerned for the poor, to the point that he would not dress himself according to this office. His curial officials were rather embarrassed by him, and only after much argument and pleading did they get him to discard the hat which he had owned since his days as a novice and wear the silk mitre. This extended of course to the physical care of the poor, who would come to the doors of the Archbishop’s residence in droves. They would get food. They would get medical care. There was not one poor, young lady about to be married, so reports Fr. Alban Butler, who was not helped in some way with monetary charity.
Though he did not attend the Council of Trent, St. Thomas did send his thoughts to the Council on certain matters. One of them is reported to have been that just as much time at the Council ought to be spent reforming the Church as is spent denouncing Luther’s heresy. Another, which was not followed, involved his two opinions on the relationship between the bishop and his see. St. Thomas thought that a bishop should be chosen from amongst the priests of the diocese as much as is possible, particularly in rural areas. He also believed that a bishop should never be allowed to transfer.
You see St. Thomas believed that a bishop was wed to his diocese. Splitting them apart is an injustice. This speaks very clearly to the kind of spirituality that St. Thomas had, one which took his being an alter Christus very seriously. He was married to the Church, to a Church. Let him, he argued, live and die with her.
The choicest stories about St. Thomas Villanova relate to his love for Christ Jesus. Once, when preaching, he raised a crucifix and yelled to the body of Christians before him to look upon the cross, presumably to make some point about it. He only managed to yell, “Christians! Look here – ” before his sentence stopped, for St. Thomas was caught up instantaneously in the beauty of the cross and could not continue. On another occasion, when in the midst of a ceremony for a novice who was receiving his habit, St. Thomas simply dropped into ecstasy in contemplation of the grand meaning of it all. He was speechless, in deep communion with Our Lord for 15 minutes before he realized where he was. He, in his astounding humility could only say:
Brethren, I beg your pardon. I have a weak heart and I feel ashamed of being so often overcome on these occasions. I will try to repair my faults.
Allow me to end this your introduction to St. Thomas Villanova with these words from the saint who will probably be forgotten by many on this day. Take in these words, and thank the sweet Lord that he gave us St. Thomas Villanova and all the saints, so that we might gain from their example and likewise live in glory in praise of the Master:
Wonderful beneficence! God promises us Heaven for the recompense of His love. Is not His love itself the greatest reward, the most desirable, the most lovely, and the most sweet blessing? Yet a further recompense, and so immense a recompense, waits upon it. Wonderful goodness! Thou givest thy love, and for this thy love thou bestowest on us Paradise.
St. Thomas Villanova, pray for us.