Villanova University in Pennsylvania, U.S.A., is probably the best-known example; it was founded in 1842 and currently instructs over 10,000 undergraduate, graduate, and law students in a wide variety of degree programs throughout the University's five colleges – the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the College of Nursing, and the Villanova School of Law. Its website is www.villanova.edu
Thomas was born in the year 1486 in Fuenllana, a village near Villanova de los Infantes, Castile, Spain. Spain was then at the dawn of a golden age of prominence, wealth and power in Europe. When Thomas was six years old, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella financed the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World.
The seemingly endless wealth that poured into Spain from conquest and trade produced a cultural explosion in literature and art. It also produced an excessive desire for wealth, some of which pervaded the Church in Spain. High positions in the Church could be bought for the right price. At times were occupied by men more interested in power than in spiritual goals. And, of course, the infamous Inquisition, which also was open to being used for financial gain, was at its peak. Thomas grew up in the middle of all this.Painting at right: The Charity of Saint Thomas of Villanova by Bartolmé Esteban Murillo, Wallace Collection, London. Originally painted for the Capuchin monastery of Genoa, Italy
Thomas was brilliant. At the age of 16, he enrolled in the University of Alcala, rapidly obtained his degrees in theology and immediately joined the teaching faculty. As his reputation grew, so did his fame, and soon he was asked to be a professor at the very famous University of Salamanca.
To the amazement of everyone, Thomas declined and announced his intention to become a member of the Order of Saint Augustine. He was less than thirty years old when he turned his back on the Golden Age. On 25th November 1517 he took vows of community life: poverty, chastity and obedience. In the following year, he became a priest at the age of thirty two years.
Thomas possessed a great talent for leadership, and rapidly rose in the Order of Saint Augustine to become a regional provincial. He was among the first in the Order to think about the spiritual state of the colonies of the Spanish Empire. He promoted the organisation of a missionary band to minister to the peoples of the New World. He also looked out for the poor people and those without hope who lived near the Augustinian community.
The reputation of Thomas reached the court of Emperor Charles V, who invited him to become Bishop of Granada. Thomas declined. He had no interest in this position, its power or its politics. But several years later, Charles again offered him an episcopal see - this time Valencia. Once again, Thomas declined.
However, the emperor would not be refused this time. He told the Augustinian superior of Thomas to order him to accept. Thomas then did so, but still with reluctance. On 1st January 1545, at the age of 59 years, he became Archbishop of Valencia.Images above: At left - St Thomas of Villanova giving alms. At the Order's Church of St Augustine in central Rome, Italy. At right - Four-metre sandstone statue of St Thomas of Villanova at Villanova College, Coorparoo by sculptor Len Shillam in 1959.
Archbishop Thomas was like few other bishops in Europe at that time. While the other leaders of the church gained money and power, Thomas quietly went about his diocese. He visited the people and discovered their needs. He spent the income of his wealthy diocese not on himself or on great buildings, but rather on creating social programs for the poor people and those without a home. He also established schools.
He turned his official residence into a soup kitchen and shelter. He even provided dowries (money for marriage) for poor young women, so they could be married with some dignity. In the year 1545, Thomas was summoned to the opening of the Council of Trent, which was called to address much needed reforms and renew the Church spiritually. Thomas did not attend; he explained that he was too busy seeing to the needs of his people in Valencia.
When the members of the Council called him again to a later session, he was too ill by that time to travel. As he neared death in August of 1555, Thomas gave his few possessions to the poor people of the area. He even gave up his mattress, asking only if he might borrow it until he died.
When he died on 8th September 1555, it was discovered that Thomas had left no last will and testament. But there had been no need to do so, because he owned absolutely nothing. His homilies are said to have inflamed the hearts of those who heard them. During his lifetime, manuscript copies of his sermons multiplied.
Within years of his death, two editions of his sermons were printed in Alcalá (Spain), two in Salamanca, five in Cologne, and at least one each in Antwerp, Brussles, Augsburg, Brescia, Milan, Rome and Manila.
St Augustine would have been proud of this spiritual son who, like him, was brilliant in so many ways and who, unlike Augustine himself, appears never to have been tempted by absorption with oneself, and with intellectual pride.
Thomas of Villanova was an Augustinian in the very best tradition of his order. He was a splendid combination of a great intellect and an even greater heart. Who better to watch over the formation of the hearts and minds of young men and women!