TEXT: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, January 28, 2024
4th Sunday Ordinary Time
January 28, 2024
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
In today’s first reading, God tells Moses and all of Israel,
“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin,
and will put my words into his mouth;
he shall tell them all that I command him.”
Here, God is promising to send other prophets
to teach the people God’s own words,
and that He will eventually send a prophet even greater than Moses.
This promise is fulfilled completely and perfectly in Jesus.
So we read in today’s gospel,
“The people were astonished at His teaching,
for He taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”
Now, this isn’t really a criticism of the scribes,
but simply means that the scribes just told the people
what the Old Testament prophets had said.
But Jesus gives His own prophesy;
He is a prophet in His own right “having authority.”
So they say, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.”
In the first reading, God also warns Israel,
“But if a prophet presumes to speak in My name
an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak,
or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.'”
Here, He warns that false prophets will come claiming to speak for God,
but they will be lying and they will pay for it with eternal death.
So, there are genuine prophets, most perfectly Jesus, who must be obeyed, and there are false prophets, who must be scorned.
Now, some say, “Jesus wasn’t a prophet, He was God.”
But that misunderstands the meaning of what it means to be a prophet.
A prophet, strictly speaking,
is anyone who directly receives a message from God
and then tells others what God has said.
That describes Jesus perfectly.
He’s not only a prophet, but He is a prophet.
A broader meaning of the word “prophet,”
as understood in the Catholic Tradition,
also includes those who hear the word of God,
not necessarily directly from God (in a vision, dream, or other mystical experience),
but simply very clearly in the teaching of Scripture
and guided by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Very few of us are prophets in the strict sense
of having God speak directly to us in some mystical way,
but all of us, as baptized Christians,
are called to be prophets in the broader meaning:
to hear the word of God and, with grace, to proclaim it to others.
In the history of the Church there are some
who have done this in outstanding manner.
So, in explaining the mysteries of the faith, you often hear priests
refer to great theologians and saints from the past
who are revered by centuries of the Church
essentially as this second kind of prophet:
as wise, orthodox, and profound teachers of the Catholic faith.
In particular, we often refer to “the Fathers of the Church,”
about two hundred men, almost always priests and bishops
from the first five or so centuries, who are revered as learned sources
of our understanding of the true teaching of Christ
handed down to the apostles.
Among these, stand out the ones we call the Apostolic Fathers,
who lived in the first century
and were taught directly by the Apostles themselves.
The most revered of these include Saints Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp.
After that, there are eight in particular who are revered:
the four great fathers of the Eastern Church,
Saints Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and John Chrysostom;
and the four great fathers of the Western Church,
Saints Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory the Great,
Besides the Fathers of the Church,
you also hear us mention the great “Doctors” of the Church,
twenty-eight men and nine women, for a total of thirty-seven,
all of whom were bishops, priests, deacons, or nuns.
These Doctors, or “teachers,” are recognized as being
particularly clear and insightful in teaching the doctrine of the faith.
Among these, seven are also Fathers,
but the rest come from after the 7th century and include such great saints as Bernard, Bonaventure, Theresa of Avila, Francis de Sales,
Catherine of Siena, and Albert the Great.
These, then, are clearly prophets, in at least the second more general meaning. Remember that the word of God comes to us through two fonts:
“Sacred Scripture,” the books of the Bible,
and “Sacred Tradition,” the authentic teachings of Christ and the Apostles handed down to us from the beginning by the Church.
When we wonder, “What does Sacred Tradition teach?”
going to the Ecclesial prophets we call Fathers and Doctors,
assures us of finding the answer.
That being said, it seems to me there are two super-Doctors of the Church:
two saints who were the greatest, most clear, and lucid filters and synthesizers
of Tradition passed down to us today.
They are known for their incredible grasp of doctrine on multiple levels
and their ability to use logic and reason
to organize, explain, and understand it.
Human reason being enlightened by faith, and faith being explained by reason.
The first is St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the Fathers, who died in the year 430; the second is St. Thomas Aquinas, who died in the year 1274.
Today is normally the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, but it’s Sunday, so it’s suppressed.
But I think we should take some time to consider who Aquinas was
and his effect on the life of the Church.
Other than the Apostles and St. Augustine,
probably no one has had the effect on the Church that St. Thomas Aquinas has.
St. Thomas was born in 1225 in his family castle in Roccasecca, Italy,
the last of eight children born to the wealthy Count and Countess of Aquino.
As a boy he was educated by the monks at Monte Cassino and Naples,
and when he was about fourteen, he entered the University of Naples.
It was there, in 1243, that he decided to join the relatively new Order of Preachers, or the Dominicans—the same order as our own St. Raymond.
He knew his family would disapprove, so he didn’t tell them at first.
You see, like the Franciscans, the Dominicans were mendicants—or beggars.
They could own no property personally,
and as an order, they could own no income producing property
—only their convents and schools.
When his family found out they went ballistic and basically kidnapped him
and imprisoned him in the family castle.
And there, they tried all sorts of things to convince him to give up his vocation, including promising to arrange for him to be an abbot of a wealthy
Benedictine monastery—maybe even the great Monte Cassino.
Just not the Dominican beggars.
Eventually his two older brothers were so desperate,
they hired a prostitute to seduce him,
and they locked them in a room together to tempt Thomas from celibacy.
The record shows he wielded a torch to keep her at bay,
and after making a cross on the wall with the fire,
fell into mystical ecstatic prayer.
Then two angels appeared to him and announced a divine gift
of perpetual and perfect chastity, which Thomas possessed until his death.
Finally, his favorite sister helped him to escape,
and the Dominicans sent him to study at University of Paris
and then the University of Cologne
—the Harvard and Yale of Europe.
There he came under the tutelage of St. Albert the Great
—the most renowned academic of his time.
Now, Thomas was a very quiet and humble student,
given more to thinking than to talking.
That, along with his great height and bulk,
well over 6 foot tall and 300 pounds,
led his fellow students to think he was somewhat of a dullard, or stupid, so they gave him the nickname “the dumb ox.”
But the story is told that one kindly student,
pitying Thomas’ supposed lack of intelligence,
decided to help Thomas by tutoring him in logic.
As G.K. Chesterton relates the story, Thomas politely thanked the boy,
and things went well until the helpful student
came to a passage he didn’t understand.
But Thomas did, and “with every appearance of embarrassment and disturbance”
suggested the right answer.
The kind student was left dumbfounded,
and word quickly spread around the university.
When St. Albert heard the story, knowing the truth about his quiet genius student, he famously responded,
“You call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day
produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.”
Under St. Albert, Thomas was ordained and earned his doctorate,
then went on to teach at the Universities of Paris and Cologne.
Through his teaching, preaching, writing, and public debates,
he quickly earned the reputation of surpassing even his teachers
as the greatest mind of his time.
His intellect and scope of thinking were so wide and deep,
it’s said he would often dictate different texts
to three or four secretaries at the same time
—in effect writing three or four books, letters, or sermons at once.
His writings on the Eucharist led Pope Urban IV to commission him
to write the prayer for the new Feast of Corpus Christi,
leaving us with the beautiful hymns
“Panis Angelicus”, “Pange Lingua”, “Tantum Ergo”, and “O Salutaris”.
And through the encouragement of St. Raymond of Penafort,
he wrote his Summa Contra Gentiles, his great refutation of the errors
of the Muslim influenced philosophers of his time,
In 1265 Pope Clement named him Archbishop of Naples,
but the humble Thomas begged to be excused.
So instead, Clement called him to Rome to serve as the Papal Theologian.
There he began his five volume Summa Theologiae, his magnum opus,
the masterpiece of Catholic philosophy and theology
which is still recognized as the touchstone of all Catholic thinking.
But this greatest of his works was actually left unfinished.
On December 6, 1273, while Thomas was celebrating Mass,
he fell into a long and profound prayer of ecstasy,
experiencing some sort of heavenly revelation.
And from that day forward, he stopped writing the Summa.
When his assistant Reginald begged him to get back to work,
Thomas replied, referring to what he had seen in the vision,
“I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.”
These kind of miraculous visions and revelations
that make him a prophet in the strict sense as well,
happened rather frequently.
Many of his brother Dominicans attested to numerous occasions,
especially at Mass, where they saw him fall into this ecstatic prayer
and levitate at the altar—lifted up into the air.
On one of these occasions, also in 1273,
the sacristan of chapel of St Nicholas in Naples,
caught Thomas praying before the Icon of the Crucifixion,
levitating and weeping.
But more than that, he overheard a conversation.
Thomas anxiously asked if what he had written of the Christian faith was correct,
and the Christ Crucified answered him,
“You have spoken well of me, Thomas. What is your reward to be?”
All Thomas asked for was, “Nothing but Yourself, Lord!”
Sadly, Thomas’ time on earth was too short.
Just months after his vision that caused him to set aside the Summa,
while travelling on a donkey
to assist Pope Gregory X at the Second Council of Lyon,
he struck his head on a lowing hanging tree branch
and died a few days later, on March 7, 1274, at the age of forty-nine.
In 1323 Pope John XXII proclaimed Thomas a Saint.
In 1567 Pope Pius V proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church
and ranked his feast with those of the four great Western Fathers.
Then, at the Council of Trent, the same Pope honored Thomas
by having his Summa Theologiae placed on the altar alongside the Bible.
He is called the “Angelic Doctor,” because of his virtues,
in particular the loftiness of his thought and purity of life.
He is also called the “Universal Doctor,”
recalling how his instruction in theology and philosophy
serves the whole Church and all her disciplines.
And he is called “Doctor of Humanity,” because, as Pope John Paul II explained,
he instructs us about how to discover “the truth about the good of man.”
He is the patron saint of all sorts of people and things:
academics, apologists, Catholic schools, philosophers, theologians,
scholars, students, and publishers;
and against storms and for chastity.
The Second Vatican Council required that the theological formation of priests be done with Thomas Aquinas as teacher.
Pope John Paul II described Aquinas as “a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology”.
Pope Benedict XVI seconded this description and noted,
“It is not surprising that, after St. Augustine,
among the writers mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
St. Thomas is quoted more than any other — some sixty-one times!”
Today we are faced with many false prophets, in the world and in the Church.
But there is only one who is the perfect prophet: Jesus.
And His word is proclaimed throughout 2000 years of Catholic Tradition
by the truly prophetic voices of the Fathers, Doctors,
and other great saints of the Church.
Let us continue to turn to them, most especially St. Thomas Aquinas,
to hear the voice of Christ “as one having authority,”
that we may distinguish the true prophets from the false prophets.
because, as God warns us,
“If a prophet presumes to speak in My name
an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak,
or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.”