I had my third baby in the spring, during the first phase of our area’s government-mandated shutdowns. As with my previous two children, I often found myself tiredly scrolling through social media during countless midnight nursing sessions. And everywhere I looked, I saw discord. Strangers on the internet “crushed” each other with one-liners, ignored or belittled those with whom they disagreed, and twisted the meaning of words to suit their argument’s ends. But I also saw members of local church communities getting into heated arguments that were exacerbated by the email writers’ inability to see each other and hash out their ideological disagreements in person. “Is civil discourse completely dead?” I wondered to myself.
It’s easy to think that if we just say the right thing at the right time our interlocutor will see the error of their thinking and agree with our side of the argument, or that if we pummel our interlocutor with the harsh and unadulterated truth that they will be overwhelmed and converted like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. The ability for everyone to have a voice in the public square via social media and to be able to interact with virtually anyone, at virtually any time, on virtually any topic, has warped our society’s self-control about when, and how, and about what to offer an opinion.
Appropriately for this topic of charitable dialogue, today is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian and one of the greatest minds the Catholic Church has ever known. He was exemplary in his efforts to understand and articulate opposing viewpoints and to be thorough and charitable in his defense of faith through reason. Each broad topic he addresses in the Summa Theologiae, his magnum opus, is broken into more specific questions, which are broken into even more specific questions called articles, and for each of these articles Aquinas offers well-thought-out objections before he states his own thesis and then replies to each individual objection. What a difference from our modern culture that is steeped in out-of-context sound bites, Twitter smackdowns, unnecessary generalizations, and logical fallacies!
If our calling as followers of Christ is to reflect Christ for others and to evangelize, we ought to be intentional about how we may be the face of God for someone else. If I am the only Christian someone is going to encounter that day—be it in line at the grocery store or on a Facebook comment section—how would I want that experience to be? Sometimes I need to remind myself that no matter how willfully defiant my child is being, no matter how obtuse my acquaintance’s social media post is, that they are unconditionally loved by God, and I am called to love them too.
Personally, I have learned not to engage at all in a potential argument on social media. And when I do have disagreements with others, like St. Thomas Aquinas, I try to make sure that I understand the scope of my opponent’s reasoning and what he or she is actually trying to argue before I respond. It is possible to be charitable toward and understanding of others without abandoning the Truth or condemning everyone around us.
Perhaps most importantly, I have learned that the virtual world of the internet and social media is best when used to support our lives and relationships in the real world, not as a replacement for them. As we continue into this new year of 2021, I encourage you to think about how you can charitably engage with those you may not agree with. May we look to the model of St. Thomas Aquinas as we seek to evangelize today’s culture with love.
During my fifth year with D.C. United, the team brought in a nutrition specialist. The specialist gave his presentation and then looked toward a table in the middle of the locker room that held about 40 pill bottles of vitamins, supplements, mild pain relievers, gels, powders, and who knows what else. The nutritionist then walked over to the table, looked back to us, and said, “you know, if you just eat well you can throw all of these out. In fact, you’d be better off doing that.” He left the locker room five minutes later and never came back.
For my first five years at DCU, I had been taking those vitamins and supplements at the recommendation of our strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers. Now a certified nutritionist deemed the whole thing a waste of time and had even said they could hinder our performance—I wondered what exactly to do. Who should I listen to?
This memory has stayed with me because it matters a lot for an athlete what you do with your body. It matters how you train, eat, sleep, relax, and recover. You need to know what is helpful for your athletic development and what is unhelpful. I wanted to know if the pills and supplements helped me or hindered me.
This all applies to athletic prudence in the natural realm. Prudence is the ability to judge rightly and act according to that knowledge. It is being able to think through things correctly and then make the right choice. Thus, athletic prudence is the ability to choose and act rightly in the realm of an athletic pursuit.
We make decisions and then act based upon what we have concluded is actually helpful or unhelpful in relation to our goal.
I would like to apply this same line of thinking to the virtue of prudence in the supernatural realm. We should be asking what is helpful or unhelpful in terms of our spiritual lives. Just like the nutritionist condemning our pill vault and making me wonder what was actually helpful for my soccer career, we should ask what in our lives helps or hinders us from going to God. In order for us to do this, of course, we must acknowledge that God is both our goal and a worthy (the most worthy!) goal at that.
When I got to the height of my playing career I was devastatingly depressed for a very concentrated span of time (only several days). For months I pondered why I hit such a low point amidst more success than I had ever expected. Eventually, through the help of the Holy Spirit, I realized that God allowed me to feel the weight of my success without Him. It was an incredible grace—but also one that was difficult to really learn. Over time the truth that my soul was more important than my sport sunk in. I realized that much of what I had made my life about was, in the end, unhelpful for reaching the ultimate Goal who is God.
I started applying my athletic thinking to my spiritual life. I started asking the right questions—is this helpful or unhelpful for my spiritual life? Should I be hanging out with this group of friends so much? Are my weekend habits really bringing joy to my life? Am I living as the person I want to be? Do I know who I want to be?
These questions led—and continue to lead—me to Jesus, and I find myself needing to ask them again and again. Do the decisions I make help me become who I want to be? Or are my decisions hindering me from being that person?
Athletic prudence helps athletes maximize their potential and use their God-given gifts to the best of their ability. This same principle can—and should—be applied to our spiritual lives. Are the decisions, actions, and principles that guide my life helpful? Are they leading me in a good direction?
Prudence, says St. Thomas Aquinas, is the mother of the virtues. You cannot possess any virtue without the virtue of prudence because prudence is what enables us to recognize what is truly good (helpful) and then act according to that good. No athlete can become great apart from athletic prudence because athletic prudence enables the athlete to recognize and act upon what helps him or her become a good athlete. Far more important, however, is the realization that no person can become who they were created to be apart from supernatural prudence. It is not possible to follow Christ without first asking yourself what exactly it is you’re already following—what is it that shapes your decisions? It may be a desire for comfort, power, status, honor, wealth, success, popularity, or any number of things. But they all fall short. To be prudent you must know the end goal. You cannot attain the virtue of prudence in the whole of life without knowing that “it is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness.”
Taylor Kemp is an instructor for the Denver Catholic Biblical School as part of the St. John Vianney Seminary Lay Division in the Archdiocese of Denver. He is a former professional soccer player, amassing over 100 appearances over six-years in Major League Soccer (MLS) for D.C. United, and playing for both the youth and full United States Men’s National Team. Taylor holds an MA in Theology from the Augustine Institute and BS in Business Management from the University of Maryland, College Park.
After nearly three months of what reminded me of the first Holy Saturday—that is, the experience of the apostles not knowing what was in store for them after the apparent loss of their teacher—I was able to participate in the celebration of the Mass offered at my parish. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the faithful have had to rely on the remote broadcasting of the Mass in order to remain connected to their local churches. This, of course, is no substitute for the Real Presence, but in the absence of being able to be spiritually nourished as usual, we have been blessed that the pastors of the Church could reach out and minister to us as safely as possible. I witnessed the Church creatively address the problem of being unable to gather together to worship by utilizing the tools of digital social media to share scriptural reflections, homilies, group prayers, and simply to check in and care for various needs of neighbors. The doors of the churches may have been closed, but the people of God charitably opened their hearts.
After being apart for so long, I welcome the news of a return to the public celebration of the sacraments. Nothing could be better than receiving the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the Lord in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. Can a bride be apart from her groom? Are we not in ecstasy to return to Holy Communion when we are cleansed of sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation? So much more fervently have I longed for He Who dwells most intimately in our hearts and reigns over us. As Padre Pio shared, “My thirst and hunger do not diminish after I have received Him in the Blessed Sacrament, but rather, increase steadily.” There is no better joy on this earth than to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The experience is beyond mere mortal words, but St. Thomas Aquinas aptly selected a few for the Church to sing at the Feast of Corpus Christi:
At this great feast of love
let joyful praise resound,
let heartfelt homage now ascend
to heaven’s height:
ring out the reign of sin;
ring in the reign of grace;
a world renewed acclaims its King,
through veiled in sight.
I look forward to rejoicing with the Psalmist, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” The widespread return to the sacraments will be a most welcome act of devotion, if not a critical one, for our spiritual lives. Until then, we can participate in other devotions, such as spending time before the Blessed Sacrament (perhaps from the parking lot or via livestream) and simply gazing at our Lord. We can continue our prayer life and even adopt new prayer methods, such as Lectio Divina or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, into our routines. We can say a daily act of Spiritual Communion or set apart five minutes a day for reflection and contemplation.
Christ always accompanies us. His grace continues to abound for us; peace and comfort are always offered; and He never abandons us in our sufferings, however they may have been manifested in recent days. This time of staying at home has given me an insatiable thirst to receive the Lord physically in the Eucharist upon my tongue and into the core of my being! Thomas Aquinas, also called the Angelic Doctor, continues:
When we eat the bread of gladness,
there is here no cause for sadness:
Christ can suffer pain no more.
One or many, each is given
whole, entire, the bread of heaven:
mortal minds can but adore.
Jesus, whom for the present veiled I see,
what I so thirst for, oh, vouchsafe to me:
that I may see thy countenance unfolding,
and may be blest thy glory in beholding. Amen.
If we allow our Lord to reign in us, even the least of us can be instruments of His Love and accomplish great deeds “for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.” As we have observed from our time apart, we are still able to recognize the Lord in the dignity and service of others, as well as in our day to day routines and lives of prayer. The graces never cease being poured out for His Church and our mission of evangelization never ends. He always accompanies us and that is enough! With a spirit of divine love and faithful accompaniment, we can “open wide the doors for Christ” for others in our homes, workplaces, and centers of care as much as in our intimate chapels, simple parishes, and breathtaking basilicas.
 Sacris solemniis, St. Thomas Aquinas
 cf. Psalm 42:1
 Adoro Te Devote, ibid.
Throughout my studies at The Catholic University of America, I had the opportunity to witness and participate in the sacred traditions and rites of various religious orders I would never have encountered back at home. A great blessing of my place of study was the constant flux of various clergy, seminarians, and religious throughout campus who were undertaking a degree program or simply passing through campus in their respective ministries. God bless the Franciscans, Little Sisters of the Poor, Marians, Sisters of Life, Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, Pallottines, and the Missionaries of Charity, to name a few, who joyfully lived out their vocations—inspiring observers to get to know them and their spiritualties and facilitating an encounter with the Lord.
In God’s providence, I frequently found myself at the Dominican House of Studies at the far side of campus and was able to join the community of brothers and priests in their night prayers and certain liturgical celebrations which were open to the public. Personally, I found the house to be a commanding presence and a bit daunting on the inside: the intellectual prowess of the Order of Preachers and its faithful carrying out of its mandate to preach conveyed a certain spiritual seriousness which drew me in all the more. How striking were the resonating, unified, and almost haunting tones of the sacred chants of prayer, together with the corresponding gestures and postures and the dimmed lights! And yet, in wonderful moments of levity, the very same Dominicans could be found performing excellent bluegrass music as “The Hillbilly Thomists”!
Before Dominic’s mother conceived him, she dreamt a dog leapt from her womb and set the world on fire. Dominic went on to become a priest and ultimately founded the Order of Preachers—the Dominicans. The Dominicans rose to the forefront of the intellectual life of the Middle Ages as they announced the Gospel, combatted heresy, gave quality spiritual and scholastic instructions, and contributed unmatched gifts to schools of theology and philosophy. They are lovingly nicknamed “the hounds of the Lord.” The Order has raised up many saints and conferees who ministered to every corner of the world, advocating for the rights of Native Americans, standardizing the liturgy of the Mass, compiling the Church’s canonical laws, composing timeless sacred hymns, caring for the poor, advancing the correlation of faith and science, and promoting the holy Rosary. Western civilization owes a debt of gratitude for the contributions of Dominicans such as Saints Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, Pope Pius V, Catherine of Siena, Rose of Lima, Louis de Montfort, and Martin de Porres.
Participating from time to time in the life of that religious community gave me a lovely insight into the incredible mysticism of the Order and of the Church Universal. Such a powerful instrument of personal and theological devotion is not the closely held property of one religious order or vocation, but a gift available to anyone who seeks to enhance their personal spirituality with deeply historic and touching methods. This involves realizing the soul as something more sacred than just consciousness; the soul is able to love which helps to better relate to God, who is Love incarnate, emotionally and ecstatically rather than merely intellectually. And you don’t need the philosophical and theological background of a Dominican to similarly enhance your own prayer life! You can begin by quietly placing yourself in the holy presence of God and focusing on the love He offers and the ways He is being loved (or not) in return. Going deeper, it could be beneficial to read the thoughts and reflections of various Dominican saints who embraced a similar spirituality.
How good God is to have called upon Saint Dominic hundreds of years ago to begin such an incredible religious order committed to promoting Truth and the mandate to praise, to bless, and to preach (In fact, that is one motto of the Order!).The work of the Dominicans is especially needed today in our society of moral relativism and secularism. Let us pray that many more answer God’s ongoing call for holy religious and priestly vocations. And may we, as lay people, continuously support the Church which offers so many varied spiritual treasures for our sanctification.
Contemporary Western culture seems to promote nothing but pride these days; it insists that only those who are proud, selfish, and disobedient can effect change or succeed in life. But salvation history and the lives of the saints tell us a different story—namely, that pride is the downfall of mankind, and that humility is what ultimately exalts us.
Humility is a difficult virtue to embrace because it is such a quiet one and is often mistaken for what it is not. In his Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas Aquinas describes humility thus: “Truly, the virtue of humility consists in this, that one keep himself within his own limits; he does not stretch himself to what is above him, but he subjects himself to his superior.” Being humble does not mean debasing yourself and refusing to acknowledge that you have any gifts or talents whatsoever—and some would argue that in fact, such an attitude is actually hidden pride! The truly humble man understands that he is not the greatest at anything, and that while he is better at something than others might be, his gift ultimately comes from God and is to be used for the glory of God, not for personal accolades. The prime example of this is the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was a young woman without wealth or powerful connections, and yet her submission to the will of God altered the course of human history and opened the door for the divine Messiah to enter the world He would one day redeem. She did not attempt to argue that she was utterly unworthy of the grace bestowed on her, but rather submitted with her humble fiat, “May it be done unto me according to your word.”
The truly humble man knows his own limitations—he submits to the authority not only of God and of the Church, but also to the legitimate authority of the government and the workplace. A humble man does not go looking for opportunities to gain power and prestige. He dies to himself for the sake of others—he harbors no resentment when others’ work is extolled while his goes unnoticed, and he uses those moments of humiliation to draw closer to Christ. The humble man continues to use his gifts even if no one but God is going to see or acknowledge them. And when his gifts and accomplishments are acknowledged by the world, the humble man turns that praise back to God instead of focusing it on himself. The humble man does not need to project an Instagram-perfect image of his life to the rest of the world: he accepts that he is a work in progress, can admit when he is wrong, and can accept criticism with grace.
Sometimes true humility seems impossible to achieve. Because we are fallen creatures wrapped up in ourselves, we have to constantly work toward selflessness. One method of doing this is by praying The Litany of Humility. This prayer asks Jesus to deliver us from desires and fears fueled by pride—from the desire of praise, to the fear of being wronged. But the beauty of this litany is that it not only asks that we be freed from our pride, but it also asks for the grace to desire that others may be better than we are, loved more than we are, holier than we are. True humility is not downplaying our own roles, but is setting aside our own desires so that others can rise higher and do more for Christ than we ever could. It’s being the Andrew to someone else’s Peter and the Barnabas to someone else’s Paul—calling forth someone to the good or encouraging their potential, even if means that person becomes greater than ourselves.
Matt Maher has his own take on the Litany of Humility in his song “Every Little Prison.” What I like about Maher’s version is that he adapts the prayer to be more recognizable for the modern Christian. Pride takes many forms in this era of Instagram followers, Facebook “likes,” and the 24-hour news cycle—we spend time “wondering if I am relevant and liked” and “wanting to be seen.” Ultimately, humility requires us to turn to God instead of other things and to trust in him, in his mercy and his wisdom, rather than becoming slaves to our fears of being judged, or of not being loved, or of having to let go. By praying for freedom from the prisons created by pride, may we live more confidently in the love of God and in doing his will.
March 19th marks the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Patron of the Universal Church. These are rather lofty titles. He has many others. I first came to know St. Joseph, not only through the Nativity story, but because he was the patron of my parish church in Hammonton, New Jersey. As a child, I would look at the statue of St. Joseph to the right of the main altar and saw a wise looking, older person holding the child Jesus. His face was kind and tender, yet strong. Only later did I admire the work of the artist who was able to capture the essence of St. Joseph.
Pope Francis, whose sixth anniversary of the inauguration of his ministry as pope is also on March 19th, reflected on these and other aspects of St. Joseph and what they mean for us:
“In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!” (Pope Francis, Homily, March 19, 2013)
Charity or love, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us is “to will the good of the other.” (CCC, 1766). Goodness is not simply about being polite. It is much more than that. It is an opportunity to live love of neighbor in a way that is strong and bold at times. It is a way of showing love of God. Consider what St. Joseph did for Mary in taking her into his home (Mt. 1:24) or in moving the family to Egypt at a moment’s notice (Mt. 2:14). These were in response to God’s invitation to do so – an invitation that came in dreams.
We are called to live bold and tender charity that especially serves the poor and the vulnerable, one that witnesses Christ. This is at the heart of the Lenten practice of almsgiving. It is this type of charity that “urges us on” as St. Paul tell us (2 Cor. 5:14). Pope Francis witnesses it, St. Vincent Pallotti lived it, and we are all called to do the same.
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
As a nation, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 21st. Does this mean anything special for the Church—for Catholics, even? Catholics have much to learn and celebrate about the Baptist pastor, preacher, and prophet. The more we consider how far we have come as a nation and as a human race since Dr. King met his tragic end on April 4, 1968, the more we sense, I think, just how far we have to go to realize his Dream.
When I think of Dr. King, I think of justice. Biblical justice. To recall a famous quote (King’s paraphrase from Theodore Parker), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As our nation honors Dr. King in a few days, I think it might be wise to contemplate for a moment the role of justice in our discipleship, which is an integral aspect of our baptismal identity as priest, prophet, and king.
As a pastor and preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr. understood deep in his bones the kerygmatic nature (from “kerygma”) of true justice. Justice is a gift of Jesus. Like all gifts and graces from God, it is meant to be multiplied and shared. Even in the most difficult times of persecution, Dr. King proclaimed the gift of justice. In his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote the words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Dr. King (who earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston University) quotes St. Thomas Aquinas in defining an unjust law as “a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law,” and then adds a simple explanation: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1774), the great theologian of the Middle Ages and among the greatest in the history of the Church, defined justice as giving the other what is their due. Thomas Aquinas even defines “religion,” which is a virtue, as a form of justice, because it gives God the worship and adoration that is owed to him.
First, can we ask ourselves where justice is still lacking in our world and in our own Church insofar as it is, alongside its spiritual identity, an institution composed of fallible, sinful human beings? Any lack of justice is a sure sign that we, the Church, have become adept in talking about the Gospel but have yet to take living it just as seriously. In her ongoing task of renewal, the Church must recover a robustly biblical, prophetic vision and conviction that justice is not accessory to the Gospel. Fortunately, in my own observations and ministry, I have seen that many young Christians are mending the gap that seems to have developed between “social justice Christians” and “liturgy and doctrine Christians.” This distinction is foreign to Aquinas and King, and the extent to which we buy into this split is the sign that we have allowed our faith to be compromised by the politics of the day. To offer one way of restoring this divide, in his letter Dr. King writes, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” What if we thought about our baptismal garment, symbolic of putting on the life of Christ, as also the Church’s “garment of destiny”? Salvation and justice are the garment that clothes the body of Christ, the Church.
One way of looking at Dr. King’s quote about the moral arc is to see it as a challenge that is not “way out there” in the universe, but as an invitation to bend and mend our personal lives toward justice. What might it imply to bend our lives? A change of habit or lifestyle, resisting our initial unkind or selfish response or natural inclination, and going out of our way to change the trajectory of our relationship with other people, our nation, and even creation. This is the message of “integral ecology” Pope Francis teaches in his encyclical letter Laudato Si. Dr. King saw God’s providential hand at work on a cosmic level, and as Catholics, we recognize the need as disciples to participate in God’s grace, and that includes justice. Authentic justice takes work, effort, struggle, and at times—as many true prophets in Scripture and history have experienced—persecution. Not all of us are called to create justice in the same way, yet we are all called to create justice in some way.
Question for Reflection: What is one concrete step you can take to help create a more just situation in your family, school, workplace, or other sphere of influence today?
To learn more about Catholic Social Teaching, please click here.
Besides receiving and visiting Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament at Mass and Adoration, I find that the most nourishing aspect of my spiritual life is friendship with the saints. The Church holds celebrating the saints and asking for their intercession in high regard, as the Solemnity of All Saints, which falls on November 1st each year, is a holy day of obligation. The Vigil of All Saints, then, falls on October 31st each year.
One goal of the Christian is to engage in prayer with God, and prayer, simply put, is conversing with God. Each day, we can offer our work to God and talk to Him frequently. This is not always easy, though, and I have found that friendship with the saints helps immensely.
A friendship, which is the mutual willing of the good between people, is cultivated with communication and time spent together. Aristotle and Shakespeare, in their genius commentaries on friendship, always return to the simplicity of authentic friendship. Developing a friendship with the saints does not need to be overly-complex. It can also be founded upon communication and time spent together, ultimately bringing us closer to God and strengthening our communication with Him.
Communicating daily with the saints further orients our minds to the supernatural, to the existence of the “things…invisible” that we recite in the Creed, and it also strengthens us in the fight for our souls.
By communicating with the saints, we will become more like the saints, who in their devotion to Christ became like Christ. Thus, the saints will help us to become more Christ-like. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins gets at this point in one of his poems:
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
The “just man” is the saint, and the saint’s Christ-like actions help him to become like Christ.
As I mentioned in my last blog, stories of the saints are dramas of the highest caliber. Each saint had a unique personality and found their way to heaven in their own special, grace-filled way. There are so many saints that everyone can find someone they relate to or want to emulate. Below, I have listed just a few of my friends, and I pray that they will intercede for you!
Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Edmund Campion, St. Ignatius, St. John the Beloved Disciple, St. Luke, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. John Paul II, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, Bl. John Henry Newman, Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, St. Robert Southwell, St. Henry Walpole, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. John Berchmans, St. Francis Xavier, St. Leo the Great, St. Augustine, St. Vincent Pallotti, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Josemaria Escriva, St. John Vianney, St. Joseph, Guardian Angels, Our Lady…
Ora pro nobis!
At some point during my time as a college student, I encountered the great saint and medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and began to realize just how truly important and vast was his intellectual impact in history. As a witness to the profound and enduring quality of Thomas’ theological insight and teaching, the Catholic Church honors him with the title “Doctor of the Church.” Thomas certainly spent much of his life in a classroom teaching and debating on the most relevant questions of his day. But when it came to his primary vocation as a Christian, the soft-spoken saint would be quick to point out that he was first and foremost a student.
The word disciple literally means “learner” or “student.” In the Bible, a disciple is,
“A student or follower who emulates the example set by a master and seeks to identify with the master’s teachings.” (Catholic Bible Dictionary, ed. Scott Hahn)
For Thomas, discipleship meant being an entirely devoted student of Jesus Christ. One of Thomas’ theological principles was that everything Jesus said and did was meant for our imitation and instruction. In the time of Jesus, a disciple did not just learn from, but learned to be like their teacher. We see this, for example, at the Sermon on the Mount, which is an extended lesson about a radically new vision for life received at the feet of their teacher (“Rabbi”), Jesus. Today, the Church’s emphasis on the New Evangelization to make and grow as disciples also means we are to become in every way students of Jesus. Here are three important ways Aquinas modeled being a student of Jesus, a disciple, worthy of our imitation.
A Student of Scripture
For Thomas, Sacred Scripture makes known “that heart of Christ” (see CCC 112), and we acquire that heart gradually by reading and studying the Bible. In addition to composing many commentaries on individual books of the Bible, all of Thomas’ writings demonstrate a life soaked in a love and knowledge of Holy Scripture. Thomas realized the impossibility of growing as disciples of Jesus apart from familiarity with the living Word of God.
A Student of Prayer
Even with a multitude of followers and demands, Jesus was frequently found in personal prayer with the Father. Similarly, as prolific a writer as Thomas was, Thomas never sacrificed his time of prayer and contemplation for the sake of work or greater productivity. As a result, aside from his dense technical writings in theology, Thomas composed captivating prayers that the Church uses in liturgy and devotions even today. Thomas loved to pray through song, and among his most well known prayers include the famous Eucharistic hymns “O Salutaris,” “Tantum Ergo,” and “Adoro Te Devote.”
A Student of Truth
Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6). In a culture saturated with opinion and often biased news, we can learn from Thomas’ unceasing search for truth. A love of the truth compelled Thomas to devote himself to understanding the world around him (even where he disagreed), to be slow to judge, quick to learn, but steadfast in his convictions and trust in Jesus.
Whether you are in school or beyond, Thomas models what it means for a disciple to seek the truth. That could mean doing more research about our opinions, being more willing to have our perspective challenged, or just trying to learn something new every day. Thomas even has a great Prayer for Students that we can all apply to whatever situation Jesus is calling us to keep learning about.
To learn more about prayer, please click here.
Miraculously, the end of the school year has arrived. Certainly there’s been many a trial and challenge to endure and power-through, especially as dreaded final exams approached, but the close of a semester affords a unique phenomenon in the spiritual lives of students, beginning with attendance. The regulars, for example, at the late-night on-campus Mass will often be joined by those either taking a break from or just beginning their academic cramming. Of course, new faces are always welcome and, as the presiding on-campus priests would point out, are a particularly beautiful expression of faith.
Recognizing the limits of our gifts and talents, let us petition the One Who perfectly graced each of us individually with these gifts in order to properly apply them towards our endeavors! Rather than only calling upon God when we want His help, our prayers can be made in faith and hope and, no matter the results, comprise of praise and thanksgiving for all God has done for us. However, we cannot pray as if demanding results while doing no work on our own part. In theological terms, grace cooperates with nature. In other words, we do not live as Christians by sheer grace nor by nature unassisted, but in a mysterious way grace— the supernatural gift of God— works unseen and often unknown in our lives. This requires that we prepare ourselves to receive and be moved by grace and that we make sure to then act in such a way as to not squander such a gift.
Something that’s been helpful for me during difficulty or surmounting work is turning to the saints. In such times lies the opportunity for fostering a new devotion, especially to a saint who has faced similar challenges during his or her life. While I would continue to pray for the intercession of St. Joseph Cupertino, patron of students, and St. Thomas Aquinas, patron of the University, shortly before finals week, I was especially blessed this academic year to be able to visit the St. Jude Shrine in Baltimore, the Pallottine-conducted nationwide center of St. Jude devotions, to petition the patron of desperate and hopeless cases. After a welcome, lunch, and tour those I was on pilgrimage with and I had the opportunity for private prayer. I was extremely grateful for the opportunity and humbly added my intentions to the baskets full of written prayers that had arrived from devotees across the country. I immediately remembered what was shared with us earlier that day: though the Pallottines could have abandoned the site and moved into a suburban neighborhood, they recognized the need for and pledged to remain and continue to minister from this place of refuge and solace in the inner city. The sheer volume of prayer petitions I saw showed me how important their decision to remain was. I was in awe to see the amount of faith people had to send in all those intentions each day to the shrine and recognized that many of them were actually in dire situations that were being placed at the feet of St. Jude.
As I got up to leave, I recalled the words of the “Memorare” prayer and perpetual promise of maternal love of the Blessed Mother. How surely, I reminded myself, would the Mother of God continue to intercede for me and grant me the strength to endure the closing of the academic year with open arms! Whenever we are weak, our Mother at once flies to our aid when we faithfully call upon her name!
Whenever you find yourself in a difficult or busy time, I invite you to call upon the help of the saints or ask for Mary’s intercession by praying the Memorare below:
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known
that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help,
or sought thine intercession was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother;
to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful.
O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions,
but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.
Many hope to journey through Lent having experienced a true transformation in their spiritual life. But sometimes, innocently enough, we don’t take full advantage of our time when we give up something that we have every intention of picking right back up (or indulging in on Sundays). Don’t get me wrong—it can be spiritually edifying and purifying in a lasting way to give up normally enjoyable things (e.g., chocolate, Netflix, alcohol) for just a period.
A few years ago though, inspired by centuries-old Catholic theology I learned from some introductory college classes, I tried a different approach to Lent. I found the saints were all talking about Lent as a time to grow in virtue. In the Catholic tradition, a virtue is “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (CCC 1803). You might think of virtues as character traits that describe a holy and happy life. Here are some of the “human virtues” that play a prominent role in the Catholic life:
The Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude.
The Cardinal virtues have a special role in the Catholic tradition, and make possible other important virtues like…
The Capital Virtues: Humility, Generosity, Chastity, Meekness, Temperance, Kindness, and Diligence.
The seven Capital virtues are meant to counteract the Seven Capital Vices, or ‘Deadly Sins.’
One of the best teachers about virtue is the famous Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225-1274. Growing in virtue helps us grow more like Christ, so we can, in St. Thomas’ words “recover the completeness and distinction of mind” that gets lost through sin and vice (Meditations for Lent, 22).
Lent is also a great time to focus on developing a virtue that has become weak in your life. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that we grow in virtue by forming good habits and receiving grace.
Habits are important because they tend to shape our overall character and moral decision-making process, and therefore have a role in our relationship with God, others, and our self. Lent is an excellent opportunity to form new habits that we can then carry forward into Easter and beyond. In order to grow in virtue, we need to develop good habits, and we develop habits through repeated actions (See also CCC 1810).
Repeated good action --> Good habits --> Virtue
It’s a little simplistic here, of course. And although it’s a simple concept, admittedly, it’s not always easy in practice. Building good habits can be difficult because we often find ourselves already stuck in bad habits (vices) that may be tough to break. That’s why giving something up isn’t always enough; we need to replace it with a good action.
It also takes focus and developing discipline, which is exactly what we see in the desert experiences found in Scripture as well as the Early Church (CCC 1434).
Interestingly, contemporary psychology reinforces to some degree what theologians have understood about habits. Scientists report that it generally takes between 21 and 66 days to turn a new behavior into a habit. So over the forty days, why not consider choosing a Lenten practice that’s not just temporary, but one you hope will stick?
Take some time in prayer before Lent begins to identity one specific virtue that will help you draw closer to God. Then, consider some actions can you take toward growing in this virtue.
Think in terms of the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. For example, fasting can help transform habits associated with our appetite for things, the virtue of temperance. An appetite doesn’t necessarily mean food or drink, though it may. It really covers anything we use to fill our mind and body, like TV and the Internet. Lent is a desert experience where we learn to pursue and subsist on the Word of God rather than our perceived needs.
Or maybe you want to grow in the virtue of kindness. Commit to going out of your way to doing one kind action each day by giving of your time, talent, or treasure. Or you might pray for someone you don’t get along with.
At its heart, Lent is not a course in self-improvement; it is a disciplined journey toward deeper communion with our crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Ultimately, the help we need to grow in virtue comes from God’s gratuitous gift of grace. We say yes to this journey as we respond by developing habits of holiness.
For more resources to help you develop your Lenten habits, please click here.
Children have a way of shedding light on a question or topic we hadn’t thought of or paid much attention to. Suddenly, a topic they might casually bring up becomes extremely important and sends us into a research frenzy in search of the correct answer. A few weeks ago, a coworker shared stories about her young children with me, some of which included teaching them lessons about God. Her son asked why we pray for others if God knows the outcome.
While discussing prayer and God’s omniscience with my coworker, I dug deep down in my memory to recall catechism lessons from Catholic grade school. I shared some answers with my coworker, but felt the need to consult my parish priest for further insight.
Ultimately, I understood that prayer deepens our relationship with God. My parish priest proposed the alternative: “If we never needed to pray, we would never think of God. We would forget him and our relationship with him would atrophy, if not entirely disappear.” Jesus tells us to pray as he prayed. James 4:3 says, “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” And in somewhat of a response, John 16:24 says, “Until now you have not asked anything in my name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” As we pray, our desires can become purified. Perhaps we begin praying for “x” outcome, and as we pray, we come to realize “x” is not the best option and instead we are called to “y”. Prayer serves to change us.
While God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, he has also provided us with free will. We must pray and discern which choices lead us to follow God’s plan. As St. Thomas Aquinas says in his work Summa Theologica, “We pray, not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers...” (Pg. 3492)
Praying for others is a way of loving them. Prayer for others allows us to grow in compassion and keeps us from focusing on selfish concerns. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that even since Abraham’s time, people have interceded (asking on behalf of another) in prayer for one another. It is a “characteristic of the heart attuned to God’s mercy.” (CCC 2635) Intercession for our fellow man is an act of selflessness, even to the point of praying for our enemies. “The intercession of Christians recognizes no boundaries, ‘for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions,’ for persecutors, for the salvation of those who reject the Gospel.” (CCC 2636) Sometimes we can be God’s instrument by providing comfort or assistance to a community member in need when we learn of or are asked to pray for someone. We can become God’s answer to a prayer.
While we do not know why God may grant one prayer and not another, it’s important to know God loves us and desires what is best for us. And being in a close relationship with God is best for us. As my parish priest said: “the ‘stuff’ God grants is secondary.”
For more resources on prayer, please visit the Catholic Apostolate Center Prayer and Catechesis Resource page.