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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

The Reluctant Archbishop

Fr. Scott A. Haynes



Thomas Garcia Martinez was born in 1486 in Fuentellana, Castile, Spain. Because his family had lived in Villanueva de los Infantes for generations, Thomas took the surname and became known as Thomas of Villanova. He had barely turned sixteen when he enrolled at the University of Alcalá.


Thomas, who was obviously brilliant, completed his theological degree in record time and was quickly requested to join the faculty at his alma mater. After Thomas's reputation for intellectual prowess spread across Spain, the chancellor of the illustrious University of Salamanca offered him a position in 1516. Thomas, to everyone's surprise, declined and instead announced his intention to join the Augustinians.


After becoming a member of the Augustinian friars in Salamanca and receiving his ordination in 1518, St. Thomas went right back to work as a teacher. This professor's brilliance shone through despite his chronic forgetfulness and weak recall. He was well-known in Salamanca for his inspiring sermons.



His Sermon on the "Love of God" is among the most moving . Emperor Charles V was so impressed by his preaching that he declared,

"This monsignor can move even the stones!"

When he was prior and provincial of the Augustinians, he dispatched the Augustinians to be pioneers to the New World to spread Christianity.


St. Thomas of Villanova was selected as the new Archbishop of Valencia in 1544. Until his religious superiors forced him to accept the duty, he refused to do so. He had no desire for a powerful position but only wanted to serve God's people. This reluctant Archbishop began his episcopacy by visiting each parish in his Archdiocese to get a sense of the people's needs. After a century of negligence by his predecessors, he reestablished direct pastoral leadership of his archdiocese. St. Thomas of Villanova, with the assistance of his Auxiliary Bishop, the Most Rev. Juan Segriá, founded a unique institution for Moorish converts.



He also successfully implemented a plan to improve social support systems and gifts of charity. Money intended for the decor of the Archbishop's mansion, provided to him by the Cathedral's chapter, was thereby designated for use at a local hospital. He told 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 thought he was letting himself be taken advantage of when he was so generous with the poor and needy. He retorted: 

“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.” 


He rewarded his staff each time they arrived with another stray orphan in need of care. He took in these abandoned children and challenged wealthy individuals to emulate his example of putting love and generosity ahead of their own material gain. Some people criticized him for his gentle manner in the correction of these children, but he responded:

“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 Villanova, as he lay dying, ordered the Augustinians to distribute all of his possessions to the poor. As a result of his selfless acts toward the destitute, he was revered as "The Almsgiver" and "The Father of the Poor." His priestly items he donated to the priest who was the college's rector. As he offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Lord called him heavenward just after he received the Most Holy Eucharist in Holy Communion. He died while saying,

"Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit."

 

Throughout his years as archbishop, St. Thomas of Villanova wore the habit he received at the novitiate. He always patched it himself. This earned him a reputation for extreme personal austerity. Hundreds of homeless people would come to St. Thomas' door every morning to be given food and other essentials.


For the benefit of the poor, he even gave away the straw mattress he slept on. The clergy of the Archdiocese were ashamed of him, but they were helpless to convince him to change.



St. Thomas of Villanova, on the other hand, spent lavishly on anything he could do to build up the Church starting with the poorest around him. His friends were put off by his personal state of destitution while being so generous to others. They voiced their noisy disapproval. Seeing his daily sacrifice of self, they did not rise up to imitate his charity, but instead they criticized him, because his manner of living made them uncomfortable. St. Thomas of Villanova challenges us to reevaluate our priorities in light of how we appear to Christ rather than how we appear to others.


On the Feast of Our Lady's Nativity, September 8, 1555, St. Thomas died in Valencia of angina at the age of 67. His body was laid to rest in the Cathedral of Valencia. He was declared a saint by Pope Alexander VII on November 1st, All Saints Day, in the year 1658. With the Augustinian Order, we observe his feast day annually on September 22nd.



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