St Thomas of Villanova, bishop, Patron of studies in the Order

Murillo, one of Spain’s greatest painters, has left us a valuable portrait of Thomas of Villanova. Not a portrait of a magnificent 16th century Lord Bishop of one of the richest dioceses in Spain during the country’s golden age. But a picture of a bishop clad in his Augustinian habit and surrounded by the expectant faces and outstretched hands of the poor, the crippled and the needy as he hands out the coins that would earn him his titles as the Beggar Bishop and Father of the Poor.

Thomas was born in 1486 in Fuenllana in the province of Ciuidad Real in central Spain. The family surname was Garcia. His parents owned some property in their ancestral home town of Villanueva de los Infantes. Here Thomas grew up and from here he took the surname by which he would always be known. Spain was coming into its golden age, rich in New World gold and silver and in the great works of writers and artists, philosophers and mystics. There were great saints and great sinners. Materialism and absenteeism pervaded the higher levels of the Church too. The Inquisition was active but real reform was needed. St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross were just some of the best known of the reformers.

Thomas’ parents were sufficiently well-off to be able to send him to study at the recently founded university of Alcala. Here he made such an impression as a serious and talented student that he was soon offered a post on the teaching staff. After a few years lecturing in Alcala, in 1516 he was offered a professorship at the even more famous university of Salamanca. He did go to Salamanca but it was to join the Augustinian friars there as a novice.

He made his profession in 1517, the year an Augustinian from the German province, Martin Luther, launched his own reformation. Thomas was a different kind of reformer. Following his ordination in 1518 his intellectual and spiritual talents became evident to all and he was soon to serve as prior of several of the most important Augustinian houses in central Spain. These included Salamanca where he instituted an austere regime that counted among its novices the future St Alonso de Orozco who was attracted in his student days by the inspirational preaching of Thomas. He was twice elected Provincial, first in Andalucia and then in Castile.

In his reforming and crusading spirit he promoted the intellectual life of the Order – he is now patron of studies in the Order – and the missions to the New World where Spain was conscious of its spiritual responsibilities as well as its material opportunities. As Provincial of Castile Thomas sent the first Augustinian missionaries to Mexico where they soon established the Order. In the midst of such activity Thomas always gave priority to living to the full his own religious life in a way that provided example and inspiration to others. He was deeply prayerful and mortified in his personal life, and charitable to all in need to a remarkable degree. The houses for which he was directly responsible, such as Salamanca, were among the most observant of the Order and attracted many novices.

Greatly impressed by Thomas’ life and preaching in the court of Valladolid Charles V wished to make him archbishop of Granada, but Thomas humbly declined the honour. He would have done the same when offered the archbishopric of Valencia in 1544 but was prevailed upon to accept under his vow of obedience. Valencia was one of the largest and richest dioceses in Spain but also one of the most neglected, not having had a resident archbishop for over a hundred years due to the then common malpractice of powerful bishops holding more than one see with more attention given to the revenues than to pastoral needs.

Thomas devoted all his attention and energy to the well-being, spiritual and material, of the people of his archdiocese. He set about visiting all the parishes, preaching and teaching, promoting the renewal and genuine reformation so badly needed. His priests were told that the man who preaches well but acts badly condemns himself by his preaching. They must be distinguished by their virtues, not their possessions.

Above all, he told them, they must give at least two hours daily to prayer and contemplation of divine things. In Church and in society the leaders must lead by example as well as by word. He also used the rich resources of his archdiocese for the relief of poverty and want, earning the title «Father of the Poor». He set up programmes to tackle the huge health and education needs of so many people, turning his palace into a kind of soup kitchen and welfare bureau for the most needy, even providing dowries on occasion to enable poor girls to marry and have a more secure future. Probably it was the state of the archdiocese he had just taken over that prevented his attending the great Council of Trent which opened the very year he arrived in Valencia, but his advice and prayers were sought by other Spanish bishops before they left for Trent.

Thomas died on 8th September, 1555. He had nothing left to give away. He had once said, «One thing alone I can call my own – the obligation to distribute to my brethren the possessions entrusted to me by God». His remains are venerated in the cathedral in Valencia. His inspiration lives on in his sermons, his memory among the people of God – and that Murillo painting now in Seville museum. Thomas of Villanova was beatified in 1618 and canonized in 1658. In the middle of the 20th century, recalling his interest for Letters, the Order chose him as patron of studies.