Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

The Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

Around the year 1225, in the little town of Roccasecca, Italy, about 65 miles southeast of Rome, Count Landulf of Aquino and his Neapolitan wife, Theodora, Countess of Teano, were expecting a baby. One day, an old hermit known for his holiness told Theodora, "Rejoice, my lady, for the son you are bearing shall be called Thomas, and he shall be famous throughout the world for learning and sanctity, and a member of the Order of Preachers."

That was the first of many hints that the child, whom his parents named Thomas (Tomasso in Italian), was very, very special. Another hint is found in this sweet, little story that comes down to us: while he was still unweaned, his nurse went to give him a bath. As she was removing his clothes, he put out his little hand and grabbed a piece of paper lying nearby. She tried to take it from him, and each time she did, he would wail. She got him all clean, dried him off, and put clothes back on him, and all the while, he had in his hand the little piece of paper. He just wouldn't let go of it. After many futile attempts, his mother finally wrested it from him, and saw that on it was written the greeting of St. Gabriel the Archangel to Our Lady: Ave Maria, gratia plena.

When Thomas turned 5, his parents sent him 12 miles southeast to Cassino, to be educated in St. Benedict's great Abbey of Monte Cassino. There, he showed himself to be quiet, prayerful, very mature for his age, and extremely bookish. The abbot of Monte Cassino was so impressed with him that he urged his parents to send him 45 miles away to the University of Naples so he could study the Liberal Arts. They complied, and it was while he was in Naples that Thomas decided to enter the order of St. Dominic.

Theodora heard the news that Thomas had become a Domican as the old hermit had prophesied, and she ran off to Naples to be with him. The friars there, though, thought that she meant to dissuade Thomas, so they sent him off to make his way to Paris. This angered Theodora, and she hardened her heart against the idea of Thomas being a Domican. So, she sent her other sons after him. They found him with four other friars resting beside a spring in Acquapendente, about 90 miles north of Rome, and they seized him and took him back to Monte San Giovanni Campano, about 15 miles northwest of Roccasecca, locking him up in the ducal castle there.

A big to-do followed, with the friars appealing to Rome for help, and Pope Innocent IV asking Emperor Frederick II to handle things, but Frederick -- whom the Pope considered to be a predecssor of the antichrist and later excommunicated1 -- did nothing. So Thomas was literally imprisoned by his brothers for two years. During that time, they did everything in their power to dissuade him from fulfilling his vocation. They tore up his habit, and once, they even sent a prostitute to seduce him, but Thomas chased her out of his room with a burning log he grabbed from the fireplace. Because he was, like most men would be, momentarily tempted, he then made a big Cross on the wall of his room, using the charred wood at the tip of the log, and prayed that God would make him forever chaste. He fell asleep and two angels came to him, binding up his loins and telling him, "‘In God’s name we bind you, as you have asked to be bound, with a bond of chastity that never shall be loosened." This binding was painful, and he woke up loudly, in agony, but he told no one about this dream vision until his later years.

He spent his time in captivity studying, of course -- and teaching his sisters, one of whom started out trying to discourage him from remaining a friar, but who ended up herself being converted and becoming a Benedictine nun (later, an Abbess in Capua, about 25 miles north of Naples).

Finally, his mother relented, realizing that the old hermit's prophecy was true, that she had to let things be. So she relaxed the guard around Thomas, allowing him to escape. He did so, and returned to Naples. From there, he went to Rome, then to Paris and, finally, to Cologne, where he was taught by St. Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus). It was in Cologne that he earned the nickname "the Dumb Ox" because of how very quiet he was. But one day, a fellow student tried to be helpful by explaining a lecture to Thomas. He faltered, and Thomas humbly took over, explaining things even better than St. Albert the Great had. His fellow students were suddenly very impressed by him.

Another time, Thomas dropped the notes he'd taken on one of St. Albert's disputations. The notes were found by students and given to Albert, who was so amazed at the brilliance of what he saw that he told Thomas to defend a very difficult thesis at the next class. Thomas did, and after hearing how he spoke, St. Albert said,  "We call this young man a dumb ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world."

St. Albert took Thomas under his wing, and the two went back and forth from Cologne to Paris a number of times over the next few years, during which time St. Thomas was ordained a priest. Then he earned his doctorate in theology in Paris (alongside the Franciscan St. Bonaventure), after which he travelled to teach all over Europe -- in London, Ovieto, Bologna, Naples, and Perugia among other great cities.

And he wrote. Over the 50 years of his life, he became the author 60 works, including some of our most beloved hymns: Panis Angelicus, O Salutaris Hostia, Adore Te Devote, Lauda Sion, Pange Lingua, Sacris Solemniis, and Verbum Supernum. More importantly, he wrote great texts such as Summe Contra Gentiles, the Catena Aurea, and, the work that he spent 9 years writring and which immortalized him: The Summa Theologica,2 the unfinished work which the Catholic Encyclopedia nonetheless describes as "a complete scientifically arranged exposition of theology and at the same time a summary of Christian philosophy." About "the Summa," Pope Leo XIII writes in his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris (On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy):

...[M]ost learned men, in former ages especially, of the highest repute in theology and philosophy, after mastering with infinite pains the immortal works of Thomas, gave themselves up not so much to be instructed in his angelic wisdom as to be nourished upon it. It is known that nearly all the founders and lawgivers of the religious orders commanded their members to study and religiously adhere to the teachings of St. Thomas, fearful least any of them should swerve even in the slightest degree from the footsteps of so great a man...

...Our predecessors in the Roman pontificate have celebrated the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas by exceptional tributes of praise and the most ample testimonials. Clement VI in the bull In Ordine; Nicholas V in his brief to the friars of the Order of Preachers, 1451; Benedict XIII in the bull Pretiosus, and others bear witness that the universal Church borrows lustre from his admirable teaching; while St. Pius V declares in the bull Mirabilis that heresies, confounded and convicted by the same teaching, were dissipated, and the whole world daily freed from fatal errors; others, such as Clement XII in the bull Verbo Dei, affirm that most fruitful blessings have spread abroad from his writings over the whole Church, and that he is worthy of the honor which is bestowed on the greatest Doctors of the Church, on Gregory and Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome; while others have not hesitated to propose St. Thomas for the exemplar and master of the universities and great centers of learning whom they may follow with unfaltering feet. On which point the words of Blessed Urban V to the University of Toulouse are worthy of recall: "It is our will, which We hereby enjoin upon you, that ye follow the teaching of Blessed Thomas as the true and Catholic doctrine and that ye labor with all your force to profit by the same." Innocent XII, followed the example of Urban in the case of the University of Louvain, in the letter in the form of a brief addressed to that university on February 6, 1694, and Benedict XIV in the letter in the form of a brief addressed on August 26, 1752, to the Dionysian College in Granada; while to these judgments of great Pontiffs on Thomas Aquinas comes the crowning testimony of Innocent VI: "His teaching above that of others, the canonical writings alone excepted, enjoys such a precision of language, an order of matters, a truth of conclusions, that those who hold to it are never found swerving from the path of truth, and he who dare assail it will always be suspected of error."

The ecumenical councils, also, where blossoms the flower of all earthly wisdom, have always been careful to hold Thomas Aquinas in singular honor. In the Councils of Lyons, Vienna, Florence, and the Vatican one might almost say that Thomas took part and presided over the deliberations and decrees of the Fathers, contending against the errors of the Greeks, of heretics and rationalists, with invincible force and with the happiest results. But the chief and special glory of Thomas, one which he has shared with none of the Catholic Doctors, is that the Fathers of Trent made it part of the order of conclave to lay upon the altar, together with sacred Scripture and the decrees of the supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason, and inspiration.

But St. Thomas was more than a man with a brilliant mind; he was also a man with a brilliant heart, a mystic prone to visions and to deep religious ecstasies, especially while offering Mass, which he often did in tears. Once, he was puzzling over a text from Isaias, praying over it, fasting until the solution would come to him. A colleague in a different room heard him late at night, talking to other people. He couldn't make out what was being said, or who the other voices belonged to, but finally heard Thomas call his name. He went to him and was asked to act as secretary. He did as he was told, writing down what Thomas told him. Then he asked Thomas whom he was talking to. Thomas didn't want to answer, but the secretary asked him in God's name. So Thomas told him,

My son, you have seen the distress I have suffered lately because of that text which I have only now finished explaining. I could not understand it, and I begged our Lord to help me, and tonight He sent His blessed Apostles to me, Peter and Paul, whose intercession I had also begged for; and they have spoken with me and told me all I desired to know. But now, in God’s name, never tell anyone else of this as long as I live. I have told you only because you adjured me so strongly.

His sister appeared to him in Paris after her death, begging his prayers because she was in Purgatory. He complied, and she appeared once more, in Rome, telling him that his prayers worked. He also had a vision of the Blessed Virgin, who reassured him by telling him he would never have to be a Bishop.

Once, in the chapel of St Nicholas in Naples, the sacristan found him in ecstasy, levitating two feet above the ground, and heard a voice coming from the direction of the Crucifix on the altar: "Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?" Thomas replied, "None other than Thyself, Lord"

His ecstasies were such that even his incredible mind couldn't keep up with them. On December 6, 1273, he stopped writing altogether, leaving his Summa Theologica unfinished. When urged to continue, he spoke words that hinted at the great Mysteries that even his dazzling expositions could barely touch:  "The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me." What great Mysteries there are! What great Mysteries await us!

The next year, in 1274, Pope Gregory X convened the Second Council of Lyon to combat the errors of the Greeks and try to end the East-West schism, and he invited SS. Thomas and Bonaventure to attend. St. Thomas was riding a donkey on the Appian Way, on his way to the Council, when he hit his head very hard on a tree branch in Terracina. He was badly hurt, so was taken north to his niece's castle in Maenza to convalesce. From there, he was taken south to the Abbey in Fossanova, where he died on March 7 (likely from a subdural hematoma). Just 50 years later, he was pronounced a Saint, and in 1567, he was declared one of the Doctors of the Church -- "the Angelic Doctor."

St. Thomas is the patron of students, schools, universities, booksellers, apologists, theologians, philosophers, and chastity. His relics can be venerated in Toulouse, France, at the Couvent des Jacobins.

Find the places relevant to St. Thomas's life on this map. Clicking on most of the sites will bring up pictures:


To prepare for this day, some Catholics pray a Novena to St. Thomas Aquinas beginning on February 26 (27 in leap years) and ending on March 6, the eve of his feast. For the feast itself, there is the Litany of St. Thomas Aquinas, and this simple prayer:

O Angelic Doctor St. Thomas, prince of theologians and model of philosophers, bright ornament of the Christian world and light of the Church; O heavenly patron of all Catholic schools, who didst learn wisdom without guile and dost communicate it without envy, intercede for us with the Son of God, Wisdom itself, that the spirit of wisdom may descend upon us, and enable us to understand clearly that which thou hast taught, and fulfill it by imitating thy deeds; to become partakers of that doctrine and virtue which caused thee to shine like the sun on earth; and at last to rejoice with thee forever in their most sweet fruits in heaven, together praising the Divine Wisdom for all eternity. Amen.

Some of the cities relevant to his life -- Roccasecca, Aquino, etc. -- make a big day of St. Thomas's feast, with Masses and the usual celebrations following (processions, fireworks, etc.) But as to celebrating this feast at home, there are no specific customs I know of. It'd be a good day, though, to start looking into Scholasticism ("Thomism"). You could begin with learning about St. Thomas's "Five Ways" of proving God's existence. The Dominicans' Thomistic Institute Youtube channel can help you with this: And this little ditty will act as a mnemonic device to help you remember each of those proofs in the order St. Thomas presents them:

The Unmoved Mover
The Uncaused Cause
The Necessary Being
The Measure of All
The Designer Who ordered all that we see
The Doctor's Five Ways prove all of these

Note that his feast is on the date of his death -- March 7 -- but is celebrated on January 28 on the 1969 liturgical calendar.

You can read many of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas in pdf format at this site's Catholic Library.


From "The Liturgical Year"
by Dom Prosper Gueranger

The Saint we are to honour today, is one of the sublimest and most lucid interpreters of Divine Truth. He rose up in the Church many centuries after the Apostolic Age, nay, long after the four great Latin Doctors, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory. The Church, the ever young and joyful Mother, is justly proud of her Thomas, and has honoured him with the splendid title of The Angelical Doctor, on account of the extraordinary gift of understanding wherewith God had blessed him; just as his co-temporary and friend, St. Bonaventure, has been called the Seraphic Doctor, on account of the wonderful unction which abounds in the writings of this worthy disciple of St. Francis.

Thomas of Aquin is an honour to mankind, for perhaps there never existed a man whose intellect surpassed his. He is one of the brightest ornaments of the Church, for not one of her Doctors has equalled him in the clearness and precision wherewith he has explained her doctrines. He received the thanks of Christ himself, for having well written of him and his mysteries. How welcome ought not this Feast of such a Saint to be to us during this Season of the Year, when our main study is our return and conversion to God?

What greater blessing could we have than the coming to know this God? Has not our ignorance of God, and his claims, and his perfections, been the greatest misery of our past lives? Here we have a Saint whose prayers are most efficacious in procuring for us that knowledge, which is unspotted, and converteth souls, and giveth wisdom to little ones, and gladdeneth the heart, and enlighteneth the eyes (1 Ps. xviii. 8, 9.). Happy we if this spiritual wisdom be granted us! We shall then see the vanity of everything that is not eternal, the righteousness of the divine commandments, the malice of sin, and the infinite goodness wherewith God treats us when we repent.

Let us learn from the Church the claims of the Angelical Doctor to our admiration and confidence.

Thomas was born of noble parents, his father being Lanclulph, Count of Aquino, and his mother a rich Neapolitan lady, by name Theodora. When he was five years old, he was sent to Monte Cassino, that he might receive from the Benedictine Monks his first training. Thence he was sent to Naples, where he went through a course of studies, and, young as he was, joined the Order of Friars Preachers.

This step caused great displeasure to his mother and brothers, and it was therefore deemed advisable to send him to Paris. He was waylaid by his brothers, who seized him, and imprisoned him in the castle of Saint John. After having made several unsuccessful attempts to induce him to abandon the holy life he had chosen, they assailed his purity, by sending to him a wicked woman; but he drove her from his chamber with a fire-brand. The young saint then threw himself on his knees before a crucifix. Having prayed some time, he fell asleep, and it seemed to him that two angels approached to him, and tightly girded his loins. From that time forward, he never suffered the slightest feeling against purity. His sisters, also, had come to the castle, and tried to make him change his mind; but he, on the contrary, persuaded them to despise the world, and devote themselves to the exercise of a holy life.

It was contrived that he should escape through a window of the castle, and return to Naples. He was thence taken by John the Teutonic, the general of the Dominican Order, first to Rome, and then to Paris, in which latter city he was taught philosophy ana theology by Albert the Great. At the age of twenty-five, he received the title of Doctor, and explained in the public schools, and in a manner that made him the object of universal admiration, the writings of philosophers and theologians. He always applied himself to prayer, before reading or writing anything. When he met with any difficult passage in the Sacred Scriptures, he both fasted and prayed. He used often to say to his companion, Brother Eeginald, that if he knew anything, it was more a gift from God, than the fruit of his own study and labour.

One day, when at Naples, as he was praying, with more than his usual fervour, before a crucifix, he heard these words: "Well hast thou written of Me, Thomas! What reward wouldst thou have me give thee?" He answered: "None other, Lord, but Thyself."

There was not a book which he had not most carefully read. His favourite spiritual book was the Conferences of the Fathers. He was most zealous in preaching the Word of God. On one occasion, during Easter Week, as he was preaching in the Church of St. Peter, a woman touched the hem of his habit, and was cured of an issue of blood. His writings are so extraordinary, not only for their number and their variety, but also for their clearness in explainiug difficult points of doctrine, that he has received the title of Angelical Doclor. He was invited to Rome by Pope Urban the Fourth, but nothing could induce him to accept the honours which were offered him. He refused the Archbishopric of Naples, which Pope Clement the Fourth begged him to accept. He was sent by Gregory the Tenth to the Council of Lyons; but having got as far as Fossa Nova, he fell sick, and was received as a guest in the Monastery of that place, and wrote a commentary on the Canticle of Canticles. There he died, in the fiftieth year of his age, in the year of our Lord 1274, on the Nones of March (March 7th). His sanctity was made manifest by miracles, both before and after his death. He was canonized by John the Twenty- second, in the year 1323. His body was translated to Toulouse, during the Pontificate of Urban the Fifth.

The Dominican Order, of which St. Thomas is one of the grandest ornaments, has inserted the three following Hymns in its Liturgy of his Feast.

Hymn I

Let the assembly of the Faithful exult in spiritual joy, and give praise to God, who has made a new sun to shine in our world, and disperse the clouds of error.

It was in the evening of the world that Thomas shed his treasures of heavenly light. Heaven had enriched him with gifts of virtue and wisdom:

From this fountain of light we have derived a brighter knowledge of the Word, the understanding of the Divine Scriptures, and the rules of truth.

The effulgent rays of his wisdom, the light of his spotless life, and the splendour of his miracles, have filled the universe with joy.

Praise, then, be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.

Hymn II

Noble by birth and parentage, Thomas, whilst ln the bloom of youth, embraced the Order of Preachers.

Like to the star of morn, brightly does he shine amidst the luminaries of earth, and, more than any Doctor of the Church, refutes the doctrines of the Gentiles.

He explores the depth of mysteries, and brings to light the hidden gems of truth, for he teaches us what the mind of man had else never understood.

God gives him to the Church as a Fountain of wisdom, like to that four-branched river of Paradise. He made him to be her Gedeon's sword, her Trumpet, her Vase, her Torch.

Praise, then, be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. And may our God, by the intercession and merits of his Saint, admit us into the choir of the blessed in heaven. Amen.

Hymn III

Dear Church our Mother! The happy death of thy Thomas deserves a hymn of praise. By the merits of Him that is the Word of Life, he is now in endless joy.

It was at Fossa Nova that the rich treasury of grace was welcomed as a guest. It was there that he received from Christ the inheritance of eternal glory.

He has left us the fruits of truth; he has left us his glorious relics, which breathe forth a heavenly fragrance, and work cures for the suffering sick.

Right well, then, is honour his due; earth, and sea, and heaven, all may give him praise. May his prayers and merits intercede for us with God.

Praise, then, be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. And may our God, by the intercession and merits of his Saint, admit us into the choir of the blessed in heaven. Amen.


How shall we worthily praise thee, most holy Doctor! How shall we thank thee for what thou hast taught us? The rays of the Divine Sun of Justice beamed strongly upon thee, and thou hast reflected them upon us. When we picture thee contemplating Truth, we think of those words of our Lord: Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God. Thy victory over the concupiscence of the flesh merited for thee the highest spiritual delights; and our Redeemer chose thee, because of the purity of thy angelic soul, to compose for His Church the Office whereby she should celebrate the Divine Sacrament of His Love. Learning did not impair thy humility. Prayer was ever thy guide in thy search after Truth; and there was but one reward, for which, after all thy labours, thou wast ambitious, the possession of God.

Thy life, alas! was short. The very masterpiece of thy angelical writings was left unfinished. But thou hast not lost thy power of working for the Church. Aid her in her combats against error. She holds thy teachings in the highest estimation, because she feels that none of her Saints has ever known so well as thou, the secrets and Mysteries of her Divine Spouse. Now, perhaps more than in any other age, truths are decayed, they are diminished among the children of men; (1 Ps. xi. 2.) strengthen us in our Faith, get us Light. Check the conceit of those shallow self-constituted philosophers, who dare to sit in judgment over the actions and decisions of the Church, and force their contemptible theories upon a generation that is too ill-instructed to detect their fallacies. The atmosphere around us is gloomy with ignorance; loose principles, and truths spoilt by cowardly compromise, are the fashion of our times; pray for us, bring us back to that bold and simple acceptance of truth, which gives life to the intellect and joy to the heart.

Pray, too, for the grand Order, which loves thee so devoutly, and honours thee as one of the most illustrious of its many glorious children. Draw down upon the family of thy Patriarch Saint Dominic the choicest blessings, for it is one of the most powerful auxiliaries of God's Church.

We are in the holy season of Lent, preparing for the great work of earnest conversion of our lives. Thy prayers must gain for us the knowledge both of the God we have offended by our sins, and of the wretched state of a soul that is at enmity with its Maker. Knowing this, we shall hate our sins; we shall desire to purify our souls in the Blood of the spotless Lamb; we shall generously atone for our faults by works of penance.


1 Frederick II was the Holy Roman Emperor, son of Emperor Henry VI (Hohenstaufen dynasty) and Queen Constance of Sicily, and the grandson of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. He was a vicious man, and the medieval chronicler, Salimbene -- a Franciscan friar -- recorded a few of his more interesting cruelties, which you can find in "From St. Francis to Dante: Translations from the Chronicle of the Franciscan Salimbene, 1221-1288" by G. G. Coulton. Among them:
  • "Frederick cut off a notary's thumb who had spelt his name Fredericus instead of Fridericiis."

  • "Like Psammetichus in Herodotus, he made linguistic experiments on the vile bodies of hapless infants, 'bidding foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no wise to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first ), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.'"

  • "[He] oft-times sent one Nicholas against his will to the bottom of the Faro [i.e., the sea at the northeastern tip of Sicily, at the  Strait of Messina, home of the mythical Scylla and Charybdis], and oft-times he returned thence; and, wishing to know in sooth whether he had indeed gone down to the bottom and returned thence, he threw in his golden cup where he thought the depth was greatest. So Nicholas plunged and found it and brought it back, whereat the Emperor marvelled. But when he would have sent him again, he said: 'Send me not thither, I pray you; for the sea is so troubled in the depth that, if ye send me, I shall never return.' Nevertheless the Emperor sent him; so there he perished and never returned: for in those sea-depths are great fishes at times of tempests, and rocks and many wrecks of ships, as he himself reported."

  • "Moreover, Frederick had likewise other excesses and curiosities and cursed ways and incredulities, whereof I have written some in another chronicle: as of the man whom he shut up alive in a cask until he died therein, wishing thereby to show that the soul perished utterly, as if he might say the word of Isaiah 'Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.'  For he was an Epicurean; wherefore, partly of himself and partly through his wise men, he sought out all that he could find in Holy Scripture which might make for the proof that there was no other life after death..."

  • "[H]e fed two men most excellently at dinner, one of whom he sent forth with to sleep, and the other to hunt; and that same evening he caused them to be disembowelled in his presence, wishing to know which had digested the better: and it was judged by the physicians in favour of him who had slept."
Dante puts Frederick II in the sixth circle of Hell in his "Inferno." To Frederick's credit, though, he did fund the building of the University of Naples, one of the ten oldest continually operating universities in the world (the oldest is the University of Bologna, which was granted a charter by Frederick's grandfather, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa).

2 The work is referred to both as the "Summa Theologica" and the "Summa Theologiae." The words mean "Summary of Theology."

Back to Seasonal Customs
Back to Being Catholic