Saint Thomas of Villanova: Almsgiver, Father of the Poor, and Model of Bishops
Saint Thomas of Villanova was born to a family of modest means in Fuentellana, Spain in 1488. His father was a miller and his parents were known for their generosity to the poor.
Thomas was educated as a child and at sixteen entered the University of Alcalá. While there, he earned advanced degrees in Theology. By 1514, he received the chair of arts, logic and philosophy. He was offered the chair of natural philosophy at the University of Salamanca, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Europe, but declined it in order to enter the Augustinian order in 1516. He was ordained a priest in 1518. His new duties included teaching scholastic theology at the Salamanca Convent of his order. As the years passed, his duties expanded to include preaching in many areas of Spain. Eventually he was named to the position of court preacher to Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain).
Thomas held many positions of responsibility among the Augustinians, including the position of provincial-prior in Andalusia and Castile. During those years, he sent the first Augustinian missionaries to Mexico (1533). In 1544, he was nominated to serve as Archbishop of Valencia, a post that had been open for nearly one hundred years. He had declined the position of Bishop of Granada previously, but this time he accepted the position as a matter of obedience to his superiors.
Thomas of Villanova was the thirty-second bishop and eighth archbishop of Valencia. He served in this role for eleven years. During his time as archbishop, he began a series of reforms and initiatives in service of the poor, for which he received the titles of “Almsgiver,” “Father of the Poor,” and “Model of Bishops” from Pope Paul V at his beatification in 1618. The reforms included abolition of excessive privileges and unreasonable exemptions for the clergy, visits to parishes in the archdiocese, and abolition of underground prisons. He set up institutions to serve the poor in practical ways, including rebuilding Valencia’s general hospital that had been destroyed by fire, setting up two colleges, including one for the children of the poor, founding a home for orphans and children whose parents could not support them, and having Mass offered early in the morning, so working-class people could attend before going to their jobs.
The palace in which Thomas lived as archbishop was always open to the poor. Anyone who came for help received it, with hundreds of people receiving meals through the years. In every city, he appointed people to seek out those “respectable” people who were in need but hesitated or did not think to ask for help. To these he provided clothing, food, or money to help them get back on their feet. To workmen, farmers, and mechanics, he provided tools, seeds, livestock and other items they needed to be able to earn their livings again.
Thomas himself lived simply, mending his own clothing and repairing things as needed. He spent much time in prayer and study. He was known for his supernatural gifts, including healing the sick, resolving conflicts, and bringing people closer to God. He was a mystic and his writings and sermons include practical rules and reflections regarding mystic theology.
Despite his education and commitment to reform in the Church, Thomas did not participated in the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Many reasons have been given for his absence, including illness, the difficulty of travel, and the press of his duties to his people and as advisor to the emperor.
Thomas of Villanova died of angina pectoris at the age of 67, at the end of his daily Mass. He was buried in the cathedral of Valencia. Pope Alexander VII canonized him on November 1, 1658.
Descriptions of the life and works of Thomas of Villanova, while impressive, may not have as dramatic a ring of heroic sanctity today as they did in his day. Bishops who lord it over the people, live lives of conspicuous consumption, and spend most of their time living and acting as princes are not the norm today, as they were in his lifetime. The ideal of bishops has come to be one that more closely resembles the life of Thomas of Villanova. The title, “Model of Bishops,” was well bestowed. The example he gave has borne fruit into our days. When we intercede for our bishops, we would do well to ask his intercession for them too.