The Catechetical Instructions of St. Thomas Aquinas

These instructions were delivered a year before St. Thomas Aquinas died in 1274. They were originally delivered as a series of sermons during Lent at San Domenico in Naples. The sermons were delivered for the laity and their concise, clear language is valuable for us even today. As you will see, his exposition on the faith is saturated in scripture. There is a final exam at the conclusion of the course and will count towards Advanced Certification for SPSE evangelists.

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Front Matter

[accordian] [toggle title=”About St. Thomas Aquinas” open=”no”] St. Thomas Aquinas was born about the year 1225.1 The name Aquinas derived from the territory of his father, Count Landulf of Aquina, in the vicinity of Naples. The mother of Thomas was Theodora, Countess of Teano, and his family was related to the Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II, and to the Kings of France, Aragon, and Castile. “He could have quartered half the kingdoms of Europe in his shield,” wrote Chesterton, “if he had not thrown away the shield. He was Italian and French and German and in every way European.” At the early age of five Thomas was sent to school at the Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino. He showed at once the great gifts of intellect with which he had been endowed. His biographers attest to the piety and inquiring nature of this young pupil, who would surprise his master with the oftrepeated question: “What is God?” The early Benedictine training left Thomas with a life-long devotion to the Liturgy, and prepared him for further studies at the famed University of Naples where he was enrolled in or about the year 1239. While at Naples Thomas met with the members of the Order Or St. Dominic, which had been founded some twenty years earlier. He made known his desire to be a Dominican about 1240, and instantly met with strong opposition from his family, but especially from his mother. At length he received the Dominican habit in April, 1244, and was chosen to continue his studies at the Dominican school of studies at the University of Paris. Countess Theodora completely disapproved of this journey, and sent two of her sons and a detachment of soldiers to intercept Friar Thomas on his way to Paris. In this she was successful, and for nearly two years he was held a virtual prisoner in the family castle. This period was well spent by Thomas in study and meditation. Here he was constantly urged to forsake his vocation, and on one occasion he was tempted by a woman who had been thrust into his chamber by his own brothers. Thomas arose and grasping a burning brand from the fire, forced the temptress from his room. Then with characteristic vigour he burned deep in the door the potent sign of the cross. In 8 later years he confided to his secretary and companion, Reginald of Piperno, that immediately after this event he as granted his urgent prayer for the gift of perpetual chastity, and thereafter had complete freedom from the motions of concupiscence. : seems probable that this gave first basis for his title of Angelic Doctor. In 1245 St. Thomas began to attend the lectures in theology of St. Albert the Great at the University of Paris. He made extraordinary progress in his studies, and three years later he accompanied St. Albert to Cologne there to continue his study. He was engaged n teaching in 1250. This same year marks his ordination to the priesthood. Thomas accompanied his teacher, Albert the Great, back to Paris in 1252, where he continued his lecturing and at the same time prepared for the examinations for the degree of Master n Theology. He was awarded the degree in 1257 from the University of Paris. He continued to lecture at this world-famous institution during these early years in his career, which was marked by developing intellectual power and originality and growing familiarity with the vast field of theological and philosophical learning. St. Thomas was called to Rome in 1259, and for nine busy years was teaching, lecturing, and writing as the theologian of the Papal Court. He continued his study of Aristotle, and was deeply engrossed in the literature of the Fathers of the Church. “He worked with the spirit of a missionary,” says Martian, “in the cause of Truth against error.” His chief writings of this period were a number of philosophical works, commentaries on various Books of the Old and New Testaments, theological disputations; above all, in 1267 or 1268 he completed the First Part of his masterpiece, the “Summa Theologica.” St. Thomas was already widely known as a great theologian and scholar in this century which abounded in great theologians and scholars. Recalled to Paris to replace a stricken Master of Theology at the University, he began the last period of his life. He was to live less than six more years. They were crowded years of writing, teaching, and preaching. His Sermons, which fill a good-sized volume, were begun in the early years of his priestly life, and he continued to preach until his death. He was an authority on the spiritual life, and personally experienced the trials and consolations of the trained ascetic and the true contemplative. His writings on ascetic and mystical theology are original and permanent contributions to the science of the Saints. It is related of him that, after having written the sublime treatise on the Holy Eucharist, he was seen to fall into an ecstasy, and a voice from the crucifix above the altar was heard to say: “Thou hast written well of Me, Thomas. What reward wilt thou have?” To this the Saint replied: “None, Lord, other than Thyself.” Thomas remained in Paris for three years, from 1269 to 1272,4 in the full maturity of his powers and the manifold outpourings of his genius. All of the Second Part of the “Summa Theologica” was written at this time, and the Third Part was begun. In 1272 he was recalled to Naples by order of the king to teach at the University of Naples which he had attended as a boy. He put the finishing touches on his numerous projects, completed the Third Part of the “Summa” up to Question XC, and then laid down his pen already worn out at the early age of 48. “I can do no more,” he said on the morning of December 6, 1273. He had experienced an ecstasy during Mass and said to Reginald, his secretary: “Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears of little value.” During the following Lenten season, Thomas gave to the students and townsfolk of Naples the series of catechetical instructions on the Creed, Commandments, and Prayer which make up part of this volume. They are his last words. He died on March 7, 1274, at Fossanuova in Northern Italy while on his way to attend the Council of Lyons. St. Thomas Aquinas lived in an age of great scholars and great Saints. He is the “prince and Master of all.” St. Thomas was canonised in 1323. St. Pius proclaimed him a Doctor of the Universal Church in 1567. When Pope Leo XIII wrote his famous Encyclical, “Aeterni Patris,” on the restoration of Christian philosophy, he urged his readers with all the force of his apostolic office “to restore the 9 golden wisdom of St. Thomas and to spread it far and wide for the defence and beauty of the Catholic Faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all sciences.” The same Pontiff, in a Brief dated August 4, 1880, designated St. Thomas Patron of all Catholic universities, and his successors, including Pope Pius XI, have ordered Catholic teachers to make the explanations of Christian Doctrine by St. Thomas the basis for all their teaching. [/toggle] [/accordian]

[accordian] [toggle title=”Introduction to the Text” open=”no”]

Some are of the opinion that the teaching of religion requires no preparation and that anything is good enough for the child. Asking catechism questions and listening to the child’s recitation of the memorised answers–exercises which are considered as constituting the whole process of catechisation–are in their estimation, after all, very simple tasks. And if the child stumbles and hesitates, a little prompting will elicit the desired answer. Unfortunately these exercises of verbal memory, instead of inflaming the child with a love of God, leave him as cold as do the drills of the multiplication table. The unassimilated abstract forms, instead of promoting spiritual growth, become non-functional memory loads. Religion, presented by methods such as these, strikes the child as a mere formality and as a hard law, and he applies himself to it more out of necessity than out of love and a joyous enthusiasm.

The teacher must carefully prepare the religion lesson if he wishes to give an accurate and adequate explanation of the catechismal truths. The child’s intellectual powers are not sufficiently developed to grasp correctly a religious truth without appropriate explanations. The adult has by experience acquired many ideas and can interpret the new in terms of the old. But this is not true of the child. For him the bread of divine truth and life must be broken slowly. At the same time his mind is an “unmarked virgin slate” which registers new impressions with the pliability of wax and retains them with the durability of marble. If a child, through a faulty presentation on the part of the teacher, assimilates an erroneous idea in his early years, he may retain it for the rest of his life. The child will be confirmed in his error by the teacher’s authority, which he accepts unquestioningly, and by his own imitative tendency which makes him readily repeat whatever the teacher says. If the instructor is to be a messenger of truth and not of error, he must have access to doctrinal commentaries in which the truths of faith are explained in a simple, accurate and authoritative manner.

The catechist must supply those concrete explanations which the Catechism and religion books are obliged in their brevity to leave out. Theological manuals in use by priests and seminarians usually state a thesis and then prove it from the infallible decrees of the Church, from the Scriptures and Fathers, and finally from reason. The thesis should logically be placed at the end of such a discussion, since it is an abstract conclusion based upon many concrete facts. The doctrinal statements in our Catechisms and religion books are also conclusions–conclusions based upon facts derived from various sources. To expect the child to grasp these abstract formulas without first becoming acquainted with the concrete facts on which they are based, is to expect greater intellectual acumen in the child than in the theologian. Catechists must with the help of appropriate handbooks build up the rich doctrinal background which the Catechism and religion books presuppose.

In his translation entitled “The Catechetical Instructions of St. Thomas Aquinas,” the Rev. Joseph B. Collins, S.S., S.T.D., Professor of Theology and Catechetics at the Catholic University of America, has made available to teachers of religion a theologically accurate explanation of the Catechism. It is Dr. Collins’ latest contribution to the catechetical movement in America. The appearance of this translation of St. Thomas’ catechetical works will be greeted with genuine satisfaction by all. In these days of renewed interest in Thomism, especially on the part of laymen, it will be comforting to know that the vast knowledge of the Church’s greatest theologian is now made accessible–in a condensed and simple form–not only to teachers of religion but to the laity at large.

The work presents several peculiarities. Suggestive of the medieval custom of dividing the contents of catechetical manuals, the work contains an explanation of the Creed, the Sacraments, the Commandments, the Our Father, and the Hail Mary. The principle of doctrinal correlation is frequently in evidence. Thus, a brief explanation of the Sacraments is correlated with the Tenth Article of the Creed–“The Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of Sins”; for it is through the Sacraments that Christ, our Head, communicates graces to the members of His Mystical Body. As in the great theological syntheses of the Middle Ages, the presentation of truth is comparatively cold and abstract. The medieval theologians deemed it inadvisable to appeal to the imagination and to the emotions in the quest of truth. But they were by no means unacquainted with the ethical appeal of the truths they were discussing. In no one’s career, perhaps, was the golden thread of doctrine so closely woven into the tissues of a perfect life as in that of St. Thomas. Of him it may be said that he wished to know in order that he might love; then, because he loved, he wished to scrutinise ever more closely the object of his affections. His sublime hymns on the Eucharist are best proof that lofty speculation does not suppress or warp the affective element in human nature.

Today, as in other ages, “truths are decayed, they are diminished among the children of men.” The environment in which we live and the atmosphere which we breathe are tainted with irreligion and unbelief. May the perusal of this book produce in the readers that strong faith, fond hope, and burning love of God which animated the soul of the great theologian, the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas!


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[accordian] [toggle title=”St. Thomas in the History of Catechetics” open=”no”]

The original and traditional meaning of “catechesis” (from the Greek: teaching by word of mouth) was oral teaching or instruction by word. It is used in this sense in the New Testament (e.g., in Luke i. 4; Acts, xviii. 25). “Catechetical” referred solely to this form of oral explanation of Christian Doctrine. This is the meaning that “catechetical instruction” had in the time of St. Thomas and throughout the Middle Ages. “In this connection,” says one authority, “it must be remembered that the term ‘catechetical’ was very often applied to sermons and instructions for grown people, not for children.” The conception of “catechetical” and “catechism” as referring to the question and answer method of teaching became general only during the Counter-Reformation. Thus, St. Augustine’s classic work on teaching religion, “De rudibus catechizandis” (On Instructing the Ignorant), is straight exposition without question and answers. The famed “Roman Catechism” (Catechism of the Council of Trent) is not in question and answer form. Hence, the catechetical instructions of St. Thomas, which are oral explanations of Christian Doctrine, entitle him to a place in the history of catechetics with St. Augustine, Gerson, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Peter Canisius and others.

The method of explaining Christian Doctrine by giving detailed attention to the Creed, the Commandments, the Our Father and Hail Mary, goes back to the early centuries of the Church. One of the first great works which embody this fourfold division is the “Catechetical Instructions” of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386). This division became general throughout the medieval period, and the “Creed, Code, Sacraments and Prayer” came to be a formula of the faith. Numerous Synods and Councils of the Church at this time decreed that sermons and instructions must be given the faithful according to this fourfold division. The “Roman Catechism” follows this arrangement, as do most of the Catechisms of modern times.

The catechetical instructions of St. Thomas were used generally throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as manuals and text-books for priests and teachers of religion. “The Explanations of St. Thomas,” wrote Spirago, “are remarkable for their conciseness and their simplicity of language; they are especially noteworthy because the main parts of the catechetical course of instruction are brought into connection with one another so that they appear as one harmonious whole.” The influence of these works is especially prominent in the “Roman Catechism” which the Council of Trent ordered written for parish priests and for all teachers of religion. Many of the explanatory passages in both works are almost identical.

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[accordian] [toggle title=”Translator’s Note” open=”no”]

The edition used in this translation is the Parma, edited by P. Mandonnet, O. P., “Opuscula Omnia” (Lethielleux, Paris, 1927). Where the Vives edition is used, the change is noted in the footnotes. The edition of the “Roman Catechism” (Catechism of the Council of Trent) used in the commentary is “Catechismus Concilii Tridentini ad Parochos,” Romae, Ex Typog. Polyglotta, S. Cong. de Prop. Fide, 1891. To Reverend E. A. Connolly, S. S., for reading the manuscript and for many helpful suggestions the Translator is very grateful.


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