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An Example of Generosity: St. Thomas of Villanova

Fr. Scott A. Haynes


Thomas Garcia Martinez was born in 1486 in Fuentellana, Castile, Spain. Thomas' ancestors were from Villanueva de los Infantes, and as was customary in his day, he eventually adopted the moniker Thomas of Villanova. When he entered at the University of Alcalá, he was just sixteen years old.

The gifted Thomas earned his theology degree in an incredibly short amount of time and was then asked to join his alma mater's teaching staff right away. A position was eventually awarded to Thomas by the chancellor of the renowned University of Salamanca in 1516 after his reputation for intellectual brilliance had eventually extended throughout Spain. To everyone's amazement, Thomas turned down the invitation and declared that he would rather become an Augustinian.

St. Thomas would be ordained in 1518 and then returned to teaching after he joined the Augustinian friars at Salamanca. Despite his continued forgetfulness and poor memory, this absent-minded professor proved his brilliance. In Salamanca, he was known for his powerful preaching. Among his beautiful sermons, which we have preserved to this day, his Sermon on the Love of God stands out. When Charles V, listened to him preach, the Emperor exclaimed,
“This monsignor can move even the stones!”
When he served as prior and provincial of the Augustinians, he sent the first Augustinians to help evangelize the people of the New World.

In 1544, St. Thomas of Villanova would be nominated as Archbishop of Valencia. He refused the position until ordered to accept by his religious superior. To ascertain the needs of the populace of his Archdiocese, he started his episcopacy by traveling to every parish. He provided direct pastoral oversight which had been neglected for a century.

With the help of his Auxiliary Bishop, Juan Segriá, St. Thomas of Villanova established a special institution for Moorish converts. He also executed an effective plan for social aid, welfare, and charitable giving. His cathedral chapter gave him money to decorate the Archbishop’s residence, but he donated it to a hospital in its place. He explained to them:
“Our Lord will be better served by your money being spent on the poor in the hospital. What does a poor friar like myself want with furniture?”


People criticized him and said he was permitting himself to be taken advantage. In response, he said:
“If there are people who refuse to work, that is for the governor and the police to deal with. My duty is to assist and relieve those who come to my door.”
For each abandoned child his employees brought to him, he rewarded them. He also took in orphans. He urged the wealthy to follow his lead and strive to outweigh their material wealth with kindness and generosity. When people critiqued him for not being harsh with the children in his manner of correction, the said:
“Let him (the complainer) inquire whether St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom used anathemas and excommunication to stop the drunkenness and blasphemy which were so common among the people under their care.”
St. Thomas gave the Augustinians the command to give away all of his money to the needy as he lay dying. Because of his constant example of generosity to the poor, the people called him “The Almsgiver” and “The Father of the Poor.” His personal possessions were to be donated to the college rector. He passed away during the celebration of Mass [1] while saying these words after receiving Communion:
“Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”
He was well renowned for his extreme personal austerity and wore the same habit he had learned in the novitiate, patching it himself. He even sold the straw mattress on which he slept to donate money to the impoverished. Although the domestics and canons were embarrassed of him, they were unable to persuade him to change. Each morning, hundreds of the destitute knocked on St. Thomas' door and were given daily necessities.

While St. Thomas of Villanova strived to please the Lord and cared extravagantly not on himself but on the poor. His manner of poverty and charity challenged his peers, who expressed their displeasure and embarrassment at how he lived and how he exercised his ministry. We are frequently tempted to focus on how we appear to others rather than how we appear to Christ, but St. Thomas of Villanova continues to exhort us to reconsider our priorities.

Notes:
[1] St. Thomas passed away from angina at the age of 67 in Valencia on September 8, 1555. His tomb is located in the Cathedral of Valencia. On November 1, 1658, Pope Alexander VII canonized him. His feast day is annually celebrated on September 22.