This weekend the church marks in different ways the feasts of two saints who, on the surface, at least, are as unlike one another as two saints could possibly be.
Angela Merici (d. 1540), the Italian-born foundress of the Ursuline Sisters, the oldest teaching order of women in the Catholic Church, is honored on Jan. 27. The feast of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), one of the greatest theologians in the entire history of the church, if not the greatest, is usually observed on Jan. 28, but it is suppressed this year because it falls on a Sunday.
I have a personal fondness for the Ursulines because they were serving at Our Lady of Victory Parish in West Haven, Conn., where I was assigned immediately after ordination in February 1962. I recall that a sister (Marguerite) of the current New York Yankee manager Joe Torre was a member of the community.
At the time, Joe was playing for the Milwaukee Braves (and later accompanied the team when it moved to Atlanta). His brother Frank also had his major-league debut with the Braves, but when they were still in Boston. Frank was subsequently traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Ursuline sisters at Our Lady of Victory staffed the parish’s religious-education program and provided several other ministerial services there, and when a new parish school was built, the local superior was named its first principal.
From an early age Angela Merici had devoted herself to the education of girls, especially those living in poverty. She and several companions eventually placed themselves under the patronage of St. Ursula, thought to have been a fourth-century British princess who fled to Cologne to preserve her virginity and was later martyred there.
Another version is that she embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome with 11,000 virgins who were massacred by the Huns in Cologne on their way home. The legend was especially popular in Europe during the Middle Ages, when Angela herself lived.
In large part because of growing doubts about her life story, Ursula’s feast, formerly celebrated on Oct. 21, was dropped from the General Roman Calendar in 1969.
The original Ursuline community took no vows, wore lay clothes and, in the beginning, lived at home with their families — all of which represented a departure from contemporary religious life. Their rule, however, did prescribe virginity, poverty and obedience.
Although organized in 1535, the Ursulines were not formally recognized as a congregation until 1544, four years after Angela’s death, because church authorities were initially put off by the fact that members did not live a cloistered life.
It should be noted that not one church official who opposed the approval of the Ursulines is remembered today. Angela Merici, however, was canonized a saint in 1807, and the congregation she founded is still in existence and still doing the work for which she established it almost 500 years ago.
Therein we find Angela’s common ground with Thomas Aquinas. Just as Angela eschewed distinctive religious clothing and cloistered living for her fledgling congregation, so Aquinas reached out to scholars of other religious and non-religious traditions in order to better understand and explain the mysteries of Christian faith. And like Angela, he did so in the teeth of determined opposition.
Aquinas saw no contradiction between nature and grace nor between reason and revelation. For Aquinas, all reality comes from the creative hand of God and is illuminated by God’s mind and word.
In spite of Aquinas’ evident sanctity and extraordinary breadth and depth of learning, his writings did not escape the critical gaze of ecclesiastical authorities. The Bishop of Paris, who also served as chancellor of the University of Paris (an arrangement similar to the one in place today between the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and The Catholic University of America), formed a commission to examine Aquinas’ works.
On the third anniversary of Aquinas’ death, the bishop condemned 21 theses attributed to Aquinas. Even Aquinas’ fellow Dominican, the Archbishop of Canterbury, followed suit. Aquinas’ influence went into eclipse for the next half-century, but, as in the case of Angela Merici, Aquinas’ detractors are little remembered today, while he is a canonized saint and widely regarded as the “angelic doctor.”
His place in the church was magnified in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII, who commended Aquinas’ thought to all students of theology. The following year Aquinas was named patron of Catholic universities. Thus, education serves as yet another link between the two saints.
So broadly gauged was Aquinas’ theology and spirituality that his feast also is celebrated by the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the U.S.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.