September 22, 2020: ST. THOMAS OF VILLANOVA
September 22, 2020: ST. THOMAS OF VILLANOVA, BISHOP AND CONFESSOR
[Archbishop of Valentia]
Thy name, as well as thy justice, shall remain for ever, O Thomas, because thou hast distributed and given to the poor; all the church of the saints shall declare thy alms. Teach us to show mercy to our brethren, so that, by thy prayers, we may obtain for ourselves the mercy of God.
Thou hast great power with the Queen of heaven, whose praises thou didst love to celebrate, and whose birthday on earth was thy birthday in heaven. Give us an ever increasing knowledge of her, and an ever growing love.
O God, by whose gift the blessed Bishop Thomas was eminently charitable towards the poor; we beseech thee, by his intercession, plentifully to pour forth the riches of thy mercy on all those, who call on thee. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
In 1517 a cruel blow fell upon the great Augustinian family; Luther, one of its members, raised the cry of revolt which was to be echoed for centuries by every passion. But the illustrious Order, which had unwittingly nurtured this child of evil, was none the less acceptable to God; and He deigned, before long, to demonstrate this, for the consolation of institutes whose very excellence exposes unworthy subjects to more dangerous falls. It was at the First Vespers of All Saints that Luther broached, at Wittenburg, his famous theses against indulgences and the authority of the Roman Pontiff; within a month, on November 25 of the same year, Thomas of Villanova pronounced his vows at Salamanca, and filled up the place left vacant by the heresiarch. Amid the storms of social disorder, and the noise of the world’s disturbances, the glory rendered by one saint to the ever-tranquil Trinity, outweighs all the insults and blasphemies of hell.
Let us bear all this in mind as we read the following lessons.
Thomas was born at Fuenllana, a town in the diocese of Toledo in Spain, in the year of our Lord one thousand four hundred and eighty eight. From his earliest youth, his excellent parents instilled into him piety and extraordinary charity to the poor. Of this virtue he gave, while still a child, many proofs, among the most remarkable of which was his more than once taking off his own garments to clothe the naked. As a youth, he was sent to Alcala to study humanities in the great college of St. Ildephonsus. He was recalled home by the death of his father; whereupon he devoted his whole fortune to the support of destitute virgins, and then returned to Alcala. Having completed his course of theology, he was promoted for his eminent learning to a chair in the University, and taught philosophy and theology with wonderful success. Meanwhile he besought God, with assiduous prayers, to teach him the science of the saints, and a virtuous rule of life and conduct. He was therefore divinely inspired to embrace the institute of the hermits of St. Augustine.
After his profession, he excelled in all virtues which should adorn a religious man: humility, patience, continency; but he was especially remarkable for ardent charity. In the midst of his many and varied labours, his unconquered spirit was ever intent on prayer and meditation of divine things. On account of his reputation for learning and holiness, he was commanded to undertake the duty of preaching, and, by the assistance of heavenly grace, he led countless souls from the mire of vice to the way of salvation. In the government of the brethren, to which he was next appointed, he so united prudence, equity, and sweetness, to zeal and severity, that in many places he restored or confirmed the ancient discipline of his Order.
When elected to the archbishopric of Granada, he rejected that high dignity with wonderful firmness and humility. But not long after, he was obliged by his superiors to undertake the government of the Church of Valentia, which he ruled for about eleven years as a most holy and vigilant pastor. He changed nothing of his former manner of life; but gave free scope to his insatiable charity, and distributed the rich revenues of his church among the needy, keeping not so much as a bed for himself. For the bed on which he was lying when called to heaven, was lent to him by the person to whom he had shortly before given it in alms. He fell asleep in our Lord on the sixth of the Ides of September, at the age of sixty-eight. God was pleased to bear witness to his servant's holiness by miracles both during life and after death. A barn which was almost empty, the corn having been distributed to the poor, was by his intercession suddenly filled; and a dead child was restored to life at his tomb. These and many other miracles having rendered his name illustrious, Pope Alexander VII enrolled him among the saints, and commanded his feast to be celebrated on the fourteenth of the Kalends of October.
Another account of St. Thomas of Villanova
St. Thomas, the glory of the church of Spain, in these later ages, was born at Fuenlana, in Castile, in 1488; but received his surname from Villanova de los Infantes, a town where he had his education, situate about two miles from the place of his birth. His parents, Alphonsus Thomas Garcias and Lucy Martinez, were also originally of Villanova. Their fortune was not affluent; but it contented all their wishes, and with their prudent frugality enabled them liberally to assist the poor. Instead of selling that corn which was not necessary for the subsistence of their family, they made bread of it, which they bestowed on the necessitous, and they usually observed the same rule with regard to their cattle, and the rest of the produce of their small estate. This charitable disposition was the most valuable part of their son's inheritance, and proved one of the most distinguished virtues in his character during the whole course of his life. When but seven years old he studied every day by various little contrivances to do whatever lay in his power in favour of poor persons, often depriving himself of part of his meals for this purpose, and gathering together what scraps he could find at home, or whatever else he could presume on his parents' consent to give; nor were they backward in approving his conduct on such occasions, or in giving what he asked them for the indigent. This virtue was accompanied in the saint with a practice of assiduous mortification, a modesty and sweetness which charmed every one, perfect love of purity which was never sullied, a predominant love of truth which abhorred the shadow of a lie, and a regular piety and devotion, which made him, even from his infancy, spend hours together on his knees in the church with extraordinary fervour. The first words which his parents taught him to pronounce were the name of Jesus and Mary; and during his whole life he had the most tender devotion to the mother of God. His excellent wit began to appear in the school at Villanova; and at the age of fifteen he was sent to the university of Alcala, which had been lately founded by Cardinal Ximenes, the great patron of learning, and the celebrated prime-minister under Ferdinand and Charles V.
After eleven years spent at Alcala, he commenced master of arts, and was made professor of philosophy in that city, being then twenty-six years old. His father had built him a house against his return home from his studies; but this the saint, with the leave of his mother, converted into a hospital. After he had taught two years at Alcala, he was invited, with the promise of an honourable stipend, to the same employment at Salamanca, a place famous for its ancient university, which had been founded there by Alphonsus IX, King of Leon, in 1200, and for the many great men who flourished in it. He taught moral philosophy two years at Salamanca, during which time he considered what religious retreat he should make choice of. After the most mature deliberation, in which he took a review of the rules of several orders, and considered the spirit of their respective founders, he determined to enter himself among the Hermits of St. Austin. He took the habit in a most rigorous and exemplary house of that institute at Salamanca, in 1518, about the time that Luther apostatized from the same order in Germany.
His behaviour in his novitiate was such as showed he had been long inured to austerities, to the renouncing his own will, and the exercises of holy contemplation. The simplicity of his behaviour in his whole conduct charmed his fellow religious, and made them admire how he seemed totally to forget that he had been professor in a famous university. Soon after the term of his novitiate was expired, he was promoted to priestly orders in 1620, and employed in preaching the word of God, and in administering the sacrament of penance. Of these functions he acquitted himself with such dignity and success, that he was surnamed the apostle of Spain. Neither did he interrupt these employments, or allow himself any relaxation in his monastic rules or austerities whilst he taught, with wonderful applause, a course of divinity in the public school of the Augustinians, at Salamanca. He was afterwards successively prior at Salamanca, Burgos, and Valladolid, was twice provincial of Andalusia, and once of Castile; and behaved himself in all these stations with a sweetness and zeal which equally edified and gained the hearts of all his religious brethren, so that he governed them rather by the example of his most holy life than by the authority of his charge. He fell into frequent raptures at his prayers, especially at mass; and though he endeavoured to hide such graces and favours, he was not able to do it; his face, after the holy sacrifice, shining like that of Moses, sometimes dazzled the eyes of those that beheld him.
Preaching once in the cathedral church at Burgos, and reproving with zeal the vices and ingratitude of sinners, he held in his hand a crucifix, and cried out from the bottom of his heart, with a broken voice, “O Christian, look here, O Christian–––” Saying this he was not able to go on, being ravished in an ecstacy. Preaching also at Valladolid on Maunduy Thursday, before the Emperor Charles V, and explaining the words of St. Peter to our Lord, at the washing of the feet, he repeated, “Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Thou Lord of all creatures! thou Creator of the angels! thou God of infinite majesty, washest my feet! The Sovereign Monarch those of a vile creature! the Master his servant's! the Innocent a sinner's feet!” Here falling into a rapture, he broke off his sermon, and remained for some time with his eyes lifted up to heaven, pouring forth abundance of tears. The emperor chose him for one of his preachers; afterwards made him one of his counsellors, received his advice as an oracle of heaven, and sometimes wrote to him when at a distance. For a proof how great the authority of our saint was with that prince, the authors of his life give the following instance. This emperor had signed an order for the execution of certain persons of quality condemned for treason; and neither the Archbishop of Toledo, nor his own son Philip, nor all the nobility of Spain, were able, by the warmest solicitations, to move him to mercy. At length our saint, at the request of Philip of Spain, went to him, and by discoursing some time with him, prevailed upon the angry monarch to grant what he asked. When the princes and nobles expressed their surprise here at, the emperor told them, that when the prior of the Austin Friars of Valladolid desired to obtain any thing of him, he rather commanded than asked it; so strongly did he incline him to what he pleased, by persuading him that it was the will of the Almighty. “He is a true servant of God,” said that prince, “and though he abides among mortals, he is worthy the honour due to those who enjoy the crown of immortality.”
Persons of all qualities and conditions consulted him. Nor is it to be expressed with what zeal, prudence, and charity he endeavoured to advance the glory of God among men, especially among those that were committed to his charge. He was most zealous to maintain regular discipline in his Order, and a great enemy to discourses of news among his brethren, or whatever else might dissipate their minds, or introduce the world into their hermitages. When he was provincial, he visited his convents with singular diligence, and was particularly careful about four things. The first was the worship of God, that the divine service should be performed with the utmost reverence and attention; that a moderate pause should be observed in the middle of each verse by those that sung in choir; and that all things belonging to the altar should be kept with great neatness and cleanness. The second thing which he recommended was assiduous reading of the holy scriptures, and pious books, with holy meditation, without which, he said, it is impossible for devotion to last long. Thirdly, he was very solicitous to settle all the religious in every convent in the most perfect concord and union, exhorting every one to the most sincere and tender fraternal charity. Fourthly, he procured that every one should be, employed according to his talents, and in those offices for which he was fittest.
Whilst the saint was performing the visitation of his convents, he was nominated by the Emperor Charles V to the archbishopric of Granada, and commanded to repair to Toledo. He obeyed; but undertook the journey with no other view than that of declining the dignity, in which, by his urgent importunities, he succeeded according to his wish. George of Austria, uncle to the emperor, resigning some time after the archbishopric of Valentia, to pass to the bishopric of Liege, the emperor, who was then in Flanders, thought of not venturing to offer him this see because he knew how grievous a mortification it would be to his humility. He therefore ordered his secretary to draw up a placit, or letter of recommendation or nomination, for him to sign in favour of a certain religious man of the Order of St. Jerom. Afterwards, finding that the secretary had put down the name of F. Thomas, of Villanova, he asked the reason. The secretary answered, that he thought he had heard his name, but would easily rectify the mistake. “By no means,” said the emperor; “this has happened by a particular providence of God. Let us, therefore, follow his will.” So he signed the placit for St. Thomas, and it was forthwith sent him to Valladolid, where he was prior. The saint wept bitterly upon receiving the news, and used all means possible to excuse himself.
Pope Paul II sent the bull for his consecration, and that ceremony was performed at Valladolid, by Cardinal John of Tavera, Archbishop of Toledo. The saint set out very early next morning for Valentia. His mother, who had converted his house into an hospital for the use of the poor and sick, and resolved to spend the rest of her days in their service, entreated him to take Villanova in his way, that she might have the satisfaction of seeing him before she died. But the holy bishop, having recommended that affair to God, according to his usual custom, went directly to his diocess, being persuaded that his present character obliged him to postpone all other considerations to that of hastening to the flock committed to his care. He travelled on foot, in his monastic habit, which was very old, with no other hat than one he had worn ever since his profession, accompanied by one religious man of his Order, and two servants. He took possession of his cathedral on the first day of the ensuing year, 1545; which he was prevailed upon to do with the usual ceremonies, amidst the rejoicings and acclamations of the people. But when he was led to the throne prepared for him in the church, he cast away the cushions and silk tapestry, fell upon his knees on the bare floor, embraced the foot of the cross, and adored our Lord, pouring forth a torrent of tears; and before he rose up he humbly kissed the ground. The chapter, in consideration of his poverty, made him a present of four thousand ducats towards furnishing his house, which he accepted of in an humble and civil manner, and thanked them for their kindness; but he immediately sent the money to the great hospital, with an order to lay it out in repairing the house, and for the use of the poor patients.
It is often said, that “honours change manners;” but our saint kept, not only the same perfect humility of heart, but, as much as possible, the same exterior marks of a sovereign contempt of himself and all worldly vanity. He went almost as meanly apparelled as before; and even kept for some years the very habit which he brought from his monastery, which he sometimes mended himself, as he had been wont to do in his convent. One of his canons surprising him one day in the fact, said, he wondered he would so meanly employ his time, which a tailor would save him for a trifle. The servant of God said, that he was still a religious man, and that that trifle would feed some poor man; but he desired him to tell nobody of what he saw him doing. Ordinarily, he wore only old clothes, insomuch, that his canons and domestics were ashamed of him, himself alone not blushing. When he was pressed by them to put himself into a dress and equipage suitable to his dignity, his answer was, that he had made a vow of poverty; and that his authority did not depend upon his dress or appearance, but was to be supported by his zeal and vigilance. With much ado his canons gained so far upon him that he cast away his woollen hat, and wore one of silk. Upon which he used afterwards sometimes to show his hat, and merrily say, “Behold my episcopal dignity; my masters, the canons, judged it necessary that I should wear this silk hat, that I might be numbered among the archbishops.” The frugality of his table was not less extraordinary, and he continued to observe the fasts and abstinence prescribed by his rule; nor would he ever suffer any expensive fish to be bought for his table; saying, the superfluous price would feast some poor person; and that he was not master, but only dispenser of the goods of the church. In Advent and Lent, upon Wednesdays and Fridays, and on vigils, he contented himself with a little bread and water, fasting till night.
He discharged all the duties of a good pastor, and visited the churches of his diocess, preaching everywhere, both in the towns and villages, with such zeal and affection, that the words which came from his mouth seemed so many flashes of lightning, or claps of thunder. His sermons were followed with a wonderful change of the manners and lives of men, in all places he visited, so that one might say he was a new apostle or prophet raised by God to reform that people. Having ended his visitation, he assembled a provincial council, where, with the advice of his fellow-bishops, he made holy ordinances to cut off the abuses he had taken notice of in his visitation, especially to establish a perfect reformation of his clergy. To effect that of his own chapter it cost him much difficulty and time; though he at last gained his point. On all emergencies, like another Moses, he had recourse to the tabernacle to learn the will of God: he often spent nights and days in his oratory to beg light from above. By his assiduity in prayer he obtained so excellent a gift of counsel and prudence, that when he had passed sentence, or given his opinion, in any matter of importance, the lawyers were wont to say, there was no room for any further doubt. When any affair of great consequence was to be dispatched, or any notorious sinner or public malefactor appeared deaf to all exhortations, the holy pastor spent whole nights in prayer, and to render his prayers more efficacious, he accompanied them with tears and with some extraordinary austerities and alms. Thus he obtained of God several wonderful conversions of obstinate sinners and malefactors, especially of two wicked priests. One of these he had conjured, in the most tender and vehement expressions, to remember how dear a price his soul cost our Redeemer, and finding him not sufficiently softened, he threw himself down before a crucifix, and pouring out a deluge of tears, uncovered his back, and tore his body with a discipline, so that his garments were all stained with his blood, which charity moved the other to begin to weep for himself, and to cast himself at his feet, beseeching him to forbear exercising that cruelty against himself, saying, “It is I that have sinned, and that deserve all punishment,” &c.
St. Thomas was most bountiful and tender towards all his servants. His bishopric was worth eighteen thousand ducats per annum; two thousand of which were paid to Prince George of Austria, as a pension reserved to him upon his resignation: twelve thousand the saint gave to the poor, not reserving one penny for the following year, and he allowed himself only four thousand to defray all the expenses of his family, repairs of his palace, &c. There came to his door every day about five hundred poor people, and each of them received an alms, which was ordinarily bread and pottage, with a cup of wine and a piece of money. He took all poor orphans under his particular care; and for the space of eleven years that he was archbishop, not one poor maid was married who was not helped by his charity. He brought up all the foundling infants in his diocess with the tenderness of a careful mother; often visited them all, and gave extraordinary recompenses to those nurses that were particularly tender and diligent. To his porters, to make them more diligent in finding children that were exposed by their parents, he gave a crown for every foundling they brought him. When, in 1550, a pirate had plundered a town in his diocess, near the sea-coast, the archbishop immediately sent four thousand ducats, and cloth worth as much more, to furnish the inhabitants with necessaries, and to ransom the captives.
Nor was he only the support of the poor himself, but he engaged the great lords, and all that were rich, to make their grandeur appear, not by pomp and vanities, but by becoming the fathers and protectors of their vassals, and by their profuse liberality to the necessitous. He exhorted them to be richer in mercy and charity, than they were in earthly possessions. “Answer me, O sinner,” he would say, “what can you purchase with your money better, or more necessary, than the redemption of your sins?” At other times he would say, “If you desire that God should hear your prayers, hear the voice of the poor. If you desire that God should prevent your wants, prevent those of the indigent, without waiting for them to importune you; especially anticipate the necessities of those who are ashamed to beg; to make these ask an alms is to make them to buy it.” His charity towards his neighbour, and all his other virtues, received their perfection from the most ardent love of God which burnt in his pure breast, and which he expressed both by works and by the most tender words and sweet sighs. “Thou commaudest me, O Lord,” said he sometimes, in imitation of St. Austin, “to love thee in all things, and above all things; and thou commandest me this very strictly, under pain of being for ever deprived of the vision of thy beautiful and amiable face, which the angels desire continually to behold. And what! is it possible, O my God, that I should be so ungrateful and so base as to stand in need of such a precept? After having been created by Thee to thine own image, and redeemed with the infinite price of the blood of thy dear Son: after having received so many and so great favours, do I stand in need of a command to love thee! Ah! My God, thou confoundest me by this precept. But, O infinitely sweet and delicious command! O light burden! I return Thee immortal thanks, O my God, for having obliged me by so holy and so desirable a law, to love Thee. What could be so agreeable and pleasant, so just and so glorious as to love Thee? Is it possible that any creature capable of knowing Thee, should not love Thee? If I were forbid to love Thee, this ought to seem impossible and intolerable to me.”
St. Thomas not being able, through the weakness of his health, to assist in person at the council of Trent, deputed thither the Bishop of Huësca in his place. Most of the Spanish bishops that went, repaired first to Valentia to receive his advice. The saint lived in perpetual fear and apprehension under the grievous obligations of the episcopal charge, and used to say, that, “he was never so much afraid lest he should be blotted out of the number of the predestinated, as since he had been enrolled in the list of bishops.” He had often employed his interest at Rome and at the court of Spain for leave to resign his dignity. God was pleased at length to hear his prayer, by calling him to himself. The blessed man having been forewarned by a vision that he should die on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, was taken ill of a quinsy, attended with a violent fever, on the 29th of August. He began his immediate preparation for his passage by a general confession of his very least faults, which he made with many tears, as if he had been the greatest of all sinners. Then he received the viaticum; on which occasion, by a most pathetic exhortation which he made, he moved all that were present to weep bitterly. And having commanded all the money then in his possession (which amounted to four thousand ducats) to be distributed among the poor in all the parishes of the city, he then ordered all his goods to be given to the rector of his college, except the bed on which he lay. Being desirous to go naked out of the world, he gave this bed also to the jailer, for the use of prisoners, but borrowed it of him till such time as he should expire. Understanding that some money had been brought in for him, he caused it to be immediately sent to the poor at midnight. On the eighth of September, in the morning, perceiving his strength to decay, he caused the passion of our Lord according to St. John to be read to him, during which he frequently lifted up his eyes bathed in tears towards a crucifix. Then he ordered mass to be said in his presence, and after the consecration, recited the psalm, “In te, Domine, speravi,” &c, streams of tears falling from his eyes. After the priest's communion he said that verse, “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit;” at which words he rendered his soul into the hands of God, in the sixty-seventh year of his age, the eleventh of his episcopal dignity, of our Lord 1555. He was buried according to his desire, in the Church of the Austin Friars, at Valentia: was beatified by Paul V in 1618, and canonized by Alexander VII in 1658…
Nothing can be more vehement or more tender than his exhortation to divine love. “O wonderful beneficence!” he cries out; “God promises us heaven for the recompense of his love. Is not his love itself a great reward? a blessing the most desirable, the most amiable, and the most sweet! Yet a recompense, and so immense a recompense, further waits upon it. O wonderful excess of goodness! Thou givest thy love, and for this thy love thou bestowest upon us paradise. Such and so great a good is thy love, that to obtain it, all torments and fatigues ought joyfully to have been undergone. Yet this thou bestowest on us free cost; and then givest heaven for its reward. O omnipotent Jesus, give me what thou commandest. For though to love Thee be of all things the most sweet; yet it is above the reach and strength of nature. I am, notwithstanding, inexcusable, if I do not love Thee; for thou grantest thy love to all who desire or ask it. I cannot see without light: yet if I shut my eyes in the midst of the noonday light, the fault is in me, not in the sun.”
from: The Liturgical Year - Time after Pentecost, Vol. V, Edition 1910;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume II, 1806.
St. Thomas of Villanova, pray for us.