Is there a doctor in the house?! This frequent cry in movies or TV is a call for help during an emergency. Doctor is also the title that the Church gives to St. Thomas Aquinas. The rarest of titles given to saints, there are only 36 declared Doctors of the Church. These doctors are not, however, physicians. The Latin word doctor means teacher, and it is as teachers that the Church honors these 36 saints. Saint Thomas is often honored as one of the most intelligent saints of the Church: not only was he personally intelligent, he was also able to clearly communicate that knowledge to others.
Saint Thomas studied under St. Albert the Great and eventually became a master at the University of Paris, the premier university at the time. From a worldly perspective, he had reached the summit of his career. His greatest work, however, was yet to come. The Summa Theologiae was not written for his Parisian students.
In 1259, after having attained the degree of master in Paris, St. Thomas was called back to Italy by the Master of the Order of Preachers, Bl. Humbert of Romans. While we have less certain information on the next two years, by 1261 St. Thomas was appointed lector in Orvieto. The lector of a priory at the time provided the continuing education of those friars who were not sent for higher studies, about nine out of ten friars in those days. It was during his four years as lector at Orvieto that St. Thomas learned the educational needs of the average Dominican, as opposed to the needs of the brilliant Dominicans sent on for further studies. He was, therefore, prepared to design a course of studies for the education of his brothers when, in 1265, the Master of the Order assigned him to establish a new General Studium at Santa Sabina in Rome. It was during this time that St. Thomas began his Summa Theologiae, which is famously prefaced as an “instruction for beginners.” Saint Thomas did not write this work for the smartest of the students at Paris, but for the average Dominican.
Saint Thomas’ great ability to teach everyone, even those to whom learning did not come easily, earned him a more specific title than simply Doctor: Doctor communis. Saint Thomas is not called the Common Doctor because he was not extraordinary but because he makes accessible the mysteries of the faith to the common man. Of course, old wisdom tells us, you can’t give what you don’t have. Saint Thomas, therefore, had to have a deep personal understanding of the mysteries of the faith in order to teach those mysteries to others. This truth hasn’t changed since the time of St. Thomas. To this day, his teachings are used to instruct seminarians and other beginning theologians.
Teaching is often given short shrift in American society as we see in the oft-quoted phrase, “those who can’t do, teach.” On the contrary, there is a certain nobility to teaching, as St. Thomas exemplifies: it is his Summa Theologiae, a textbook, for which he is best remembered. The value of a teacher for a society is certainly no less than that of a physician. So as we honor St. Thomas today, let us ask his intercession for all those teachers who have taught us.
Image: Francisco de Zurbaran, Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas