Celebrating the Feast of St. Thomas of Villanova
Saint Thomas of Villanova is a Spanish friar who is celebrated by the Augustinians on his feast day, October 10. He is the patron saint of Villanova University, an Augustinian school named one of the Top 50 of the Nation's Best Colleges and Universities by U.S. News & World Report. So, while we might here the chants of "Go Nova!" and see "Villanova" embroidered on the sweaters of many of our school's students and alumni, let's take today to celebrate the legacy of Saint Thomas of Villanova.
Thomas Garcia Martinez was born in Fuenllana, Ciudad Real, Spain, in the year 1486; he grew up in the town Villanueva (which is where we get the Anglicized name of "Villanova") de los Infantes. Thomas was a gifted student, having enrolled at the University of Alcalá at the age of 15. He quickly earned a degree in theology and was asked to become a professor at multiple universities. He refused these offers and instead sought to become an Augustinian friar.
Around the age of 31, Thomas professed his first religious vows as an Augustinian friar; he was ordained a priest the following year. His fellow friars quickly recognized him as a leader and elected him as their Prior Provincial (the regional Augustinian superior over multiple communities of friars). During these years, he was a vocal advocate of sending missionaries to evangelize the New World of the Americas.
Eventually, Thomas was petitioned to become the Bishop of Granada, Spain. He declined. Why? It is said that he preferred a simple life rather than a life of power and prestige. This was not the first time that an Augustinian had declined an offer to become a bishop. In fact, Saint Augustine himself, the fourth-century theologian upon whose teachings the Augustinians still follow today, originally declined others' pleas for him to become a bishop. They eventually persuaded Augustine to become the Bishop of Hippo (in present-day Algeria). And like Augustine before him, Thomas was later convinced to become the Archbishop of Valencia, Spain in 1545. One can only imagine that he reflected on these words penned by Saint Augustine centuries beforehand:
“For you I am a bishop, but with you I am a Christian. The first is an office accepted; the second is a gift received. One is danger; the other is safety. If I am happier to be redeemed with you than to be placed over you, then I shall, as the Lord commanded, be more fully your servant. — Saint Augustine, Sermon 340
In his ministry as an archbishop of the Church, he set up several programs to provide for the poor. He sought funds from the wealthy to provide food and shelter for the neediest of peoples in his diocese. He established the diocese's first seminary and other schools for the young to have access to quality education. He also helped young women find employment instead of falling into disrepute. For these reasons, he earned the nicknames of "Beggar Bishop" and "Father of the Poor."
“If you want God to hear your prayers, hear the voice of the poor. If you wish God to anticipate your wants, provide those of the needy without waiting for them to ask you. Especially anticipate the needs of those who are ashamed to beg. To make them ask for alms is to make them buy it. — Saint Thomas of Villanova
Archbishop Thomas became ill in 1551. As his illness worsened, he gave away all of his possessions to the poor. He died in Valenica on September 8, 1555 around the age of 69. He was later beatified on October 7, 1618, by Pope Paul V and canonized into sainthood on November 1, 1658 by Pope Alexander VII.
The Augustinians, as well as the greater Catholic Church, now remember Saint Thomas of Villanova annually on October 10. We also recognize him as the patron saint of two Augustinian schools in North America: Villanova College in King City, Ontario and Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania. Like Saint Thomas of Villanova, today's students at these schools share in his pursuit of Truth. They offer themselves of service in programs to benefit the poor. They follow in the footsteps of heroes like Saint Thomas of Villanova, an Augustinian that also emulated Saint Augustine.