St. Thomas of Villanova, Archbishop
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
Feast Day: September 22nd
Among the many Saints, celebrated on account of their virtues and miracles, who adorned the Catholic Church at a period when a great number of heretics revolted against her, one of the most famous was St. Thomas of Villanova. He was born 1488, in Castile, and received his surname from the city where he was educated. His parents were very pious, and besides possessing other virtues, they distinguished themselves by their liberality to the poor. Thomas followed closely in their footsteps, and even in his childhood gave all he could to the poor. The bread given him for his breakfast he laid by and gave it to the needy. More than once he took off his own coat and gave it to some poor man whom he met, and when reproved for it he said: "He to whom I gave it, needed it more than I." The same he did with his shoes and other garments. His devotion to the Blessed Virgin was so great and so constant, that he was called the child of Mary. But notwithstanding his piety and devotion he applied himself so earnestly to his studies at Alcala, that he had hardly reached the age of twenty-six years, when he was appointed to teach philosophy and theology. He kept his purity and innocence unspotted in numberless dangers, making use of the same means that preserved other Saints in similar circumstances. While he was engaged in his studies, he lost his father, and inherited from him, among other property, a large house, which he changed into a hospital.
He left the world in 1518, and took the habit of the Order of the Hermits of St. Augustine, the same order of which the unhappy Martin Luther was a member in Germany, when he began to attack the Catholic religion. It seemed to be the intention of the Almighty to compensate the Order with St. Thomas for the infamous apostacy of Luther, which took place about that time. Having practiced fasting, self-abnegation and mortification from his tenth year, Thomas found no difficulty in fulfilling all the duties of his novitiate. Already at that period he was looked upon as a perfect example of all virtues. Soon after he had made his vows, he was raised to the highest functions of his order, as he possessed unusual wisdom and knowledge, and he administered them to the greatest benefit and satisfaction of all the members. He was gifted with an especial talent for preaching, and did indescribable good by his sermons. The Emperor Charles V. delighted in listening to him as often as he had the opportunity, and appointed him his spiritual counsellor and preacher at the court. The King of Portugal called him to his court, and with all his nobles paid him the greatest attention. One day, when he was asked where he obtained such deep thoughts, such wonderful perception, and how he had learned such penetrating eloquence, he replied: "The crucifix is the best instructor for preachers; and prayer is the best lesson they can learn."
After the Saint had, for many years, discharged the functions of an apostolic preacher, to the salvation of thousands of souls, the emperor appointed him Archbishop of Grenada; but the humble servant of God had so much to object, that the emperor was obliged to relinquish the idea. When, however, the see of Valencia became vacant, the holy man could not again refuse obedience to his superiors; and the wish of the emperor, with the unanimous desire of the clergy and the people, forced him to accept it. The space allowed to us is too limited to relate, even partially, the labors performed by St. Thomas as Archbishop for the honor of the Church and the welfare of his flock. He united all the virtues which became his high dignity. He began by visiting his whole diocese, and afterwards charged men gifted with virtue and wisdom to do the same. He endeavored, by preaching and admonition, to uproot vice, to implant virtue, and to abolish abuses. His blameless and holy life gave to his words the greatest force; hence it was that so many conversions of the most hardened sinners, and a general reformation of morals crowned the endeavors of this apostolic shepherd.
He fared no better than the simplest brother of his Order, nor did he wear other garments; for he was wont to say: "Virtues and good works must distinguish a bishop from his flock, but not his house, garments, domestics, or costly table." No other than earthenware dishes were used at his table, and he not only observed all the fasts ordained by the Church, but also those of his Order. His bed was a straw mattress, or some vine branches covered with a woolen blanket. He allowed himself no recreation, but constantly endeavored to mortify his body. But severe as he was to himself, he was charitable and liberal to others, especially the poor. He declared frequently, that he rejoiced to be bishop, only because it gave him more opportunities to work for the salvation of souls, and to do good to the poor, than he had in the cloister. When he entered upon his Episcopal functions, the canons perceived his poverty, and presented him with four thousand ducats. The Saint received them gratefully, but directly sent the whole sum to the hospitals and poorhouses, saying: "As the poverty which I vowed to maintain accords well with the dignity of Archbishop, I intend to live in accordance with my vow." This holy resolution he preserved until his death, and also continued his charity to the poor.
Seldom a day passed on which he did not provide four or five hundred poor with food and money; besides the charity he bestowed upon the bashful poor, prisoners, and orphans. He inquired diligently for the really needy, and sent them, unasked, what he thought they required. The same charity he bestowed upon the poor artisans, day-laborers, and needy virgins. The latter he enabled, by the dower he gave them, either to enter a convent or to marry. Not many are the saints who possessed the virtue of charity in a more eminent degree than St. Thomas, and God bountifully rewarded it; for, it is well known that the grain in the barns, the money in his purse, the flour and other articles destined for the poor were miraculously multiplied. Notwithstanding these and many other virtues, constantly practiced by the holy bishop, he yet feared that he was not doing enough, and that he would be unable to justify himself before his God. Hence, he prayed to the Almighty to take so unworthy a superior from his Church. God at last heard his prayer, not to deprive His church of an unworthy superior, but to reward a faithful and unwearied servant.
One day, when St. Thomas repeated his prayer before a crucifix, his heart filled with an intense desire to see God, he heard these words proceed from the mouth of the image: "Be comforted, Thomas; thou shalt receive the reward of thy labors on the day of the Nativity of my beloved Mother." From that moment the mind of the Saint was full of holy joy. He evinced more zeal than ever in the functions of his exalted station, and in the exercise of other good works, especially in deeds of charity. On the 29th of August, he became sick, and his first care was to receive the Holy Sacraments. After making a general confession, the Blessed Eucharist was brought to him in procession, and he received it with such devotion that the eyes of all who beheld him filled with tears. He then admonished them to love and fear God and be charitable to the poor. Three days before his death, he distributed among the poor of the city all that remained of his revenues. When on the eve of his death he heard that a small sum of money was still at his disposal, he said to those around him: "I entreat you, in the name of Jesus Christ, that you give it without delay to the poor: for, you can do nothing that will give me greater pleasure." The same was done with the little furniture his residence contained.
When it was announced to him, on the following day that his order had been executed, he turned towards the crucifix and said: "I give Thee thanks, O my Saviour, for the grace Thou bestowest on me in permitting me to die in poverty. Thou hast given me the administration of Thy property; I have distributed it in accordance with Thy holy will." Soon after, he recollected that the bed on which he was lying, was his own, and that he was not yet entirely poor. Immediately calling one of those in the room to his side, he said to him: "My friend, I give this bed to you; but I beg you, for God's sake, to lend it me until I am gone." Not an eye was dry at this example of entire renunciation of everything temporal. St. Thomas alone was cheerful, and desired that they would slowly read to him the passion of Christ, during which he kept his eyes fixed on the crucifix, whilst his ardent sighs showed his longing to be united with the Lord.
After this, he requested to have Mass said in his room, at which he assisted with great devotion. Tears were streaming from the eyes of the holy bishop, when the priest, after the consecration, raised the sacred Host. At the elevation of the chalice, he began slowly to repeat the psalm: "In thee, O Lord, have I hoped." After each verse he paused; and at the communion of the priest, he said the last words of the psalm: " In thee, O Lord, have I hoped, let me never be confounded." Then he closed his eyes, and the soul of this great and holy bishop went to the Almighty, in the sixty-eighth year of his life, in the year of our Lord, 1555, on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. Before and after his death, God honored him with many great miracles which were wrought by his intercession.