Saint Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas was born in Italy about 1226. His parents, Landolfo and Donna Theodora, were well-to-do members of the lesser nobility. Thomas’ eldest brother, Aimo, was a crusader. Another brother, Rinaldo, also a soldier, was a poet of some renown. Of another brother, Landolfo, we know little except that Thomas believed he would be spending time in purgatory. Thomas, the youngest son, undertook the greatest adventure of them all and became one of the Church’s greatest saints.
The custom of the time was that the youngest son would enter religious life. To that end, Thomas’ parents sent him to be raised in the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino, where his parents expected he would be made abbot once he came of age. Thomas was described as a large, tall youth. According to an early biographer, “He was a quiet boy with an unusually mature bearing; saying little, but already thinking much; rather silent and serious, and seemingly much given to prayer.” In 1239, when he was about 15 years old, Thomas was sent to complete his education at the university in Naples.
Thomas had been born a few years after the death of St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) — a revolutionary new order, unlike any known up to that time. Its members’ lives revolved around praying, studying, preaching and teaching. Dressed in hooded white habits with handsome black capes, the friars of St. Dominic lived and worked not hidden in rural monasteries, but in medieval cities. Devoted to apostolic poverty like the sons of St. Francis, they begged for their food and lived in simple community houses. In Naples, Thomas encountered these begging and preaching friars on the streets. At the university he knew them as fellow students and was impressed by their dedication to study.
At some point, the young Thomas made a radical decision. Religious life, yes — but a grand abbey, no. At about nineteen years of age, Thomas abandoned the glorious career his parents had planned for him and became a humble begging friar, receiving the habit of St. Dominic around April of 1244. Thomas and the Master of the Order immediately set out north on foot toward Bologna with plans to go on to Paris. The Dominicans had already had experience with disgruntled parents, and they wanted to avoid conflict with Thomas’s family. In Paris, Thomas would be out of the reach of his powerful family.
It is not exactly clear how Donna Theodora heard of all this, but she was definitely not pleased. Rinaldo — and perhaps Landolfo — rode forth with a company of soldiers. Capturing Thomas on the road, they violently separated him from his religious superior. Despite Thomas’ resolute will, his brothers compelled him to return home by brute force. Once there, Thomas was held in a tower of the family castle under house arrest for over a year. His abduction created quite a stir. The Dominicans even appealed to the Pope in an effort to retrieve their brilliant novice. Donna Theodora and Thomas’ brothers tried every inducement to convince him to change his mind. Religious life was fine, but not as a begging friar! One sister, Marietta, argued vigorously with Thomas — until he persuaded her to become a nun. Later in life she would become the abbess of her Benedictine monastery.
After a number of attempts at breaking Thomas’s will, his brothers conceived one last plan. While Thomas was alone, his brothers introduced a scantily clad prostitute into his room. They were certain that physical temptation would drive him to break his vow of chastity, after which he would surely abandon his religious vocation.
The plan did not work as intended. Immediately, Thomas snatched a burning brand from the hearth, drove her from the room with it, and slammed the door behind her. He emblazoned the sign of the cross on the door with the red-hot brand, and fell to his knees in prayer. With tears of thanksgiving in his eyes, he prayed to be preserved in his chastity, purity, and intention to live the religious life.
According to the records of his canonization, Thomas immediately fell into a mystical sleep and had a vision. Two angels came to him from heaven and bound a cord around his waist, saying, “On God’s behalf, we gird you with the girdle of chastity, a girdle which no attack will ever destroy.” The angels’ gift preserved Thomas from sexual temptation and bestowed upon him an enduring purity that ennobled all his thoughts and actions. In the records of his canonization, many witnesses remarked about Thomas’s unusual purity and chastity. Over his lifetime, his conduct revealed that he had indeed received a special grace of chastity and purity – a grace that he now shares with others through the communion of saints.
The Angelic Warfare Confraternity
After the death of St. Thomas Aquinas, some people began to imitate him by wearing a cord blessed in his honor, and praying for his intercession to help them live purely. This devotion proved so helpful to living chastely that word spread about the grace that comes from wearing a blessed cord and praying to St. Thomas. By the sixteenth century, there were so many people practicing this devotion that the Dominican Friars organized them into an official Confraternity. A Confraternity is a supernatural fellowship between people who make a sacred pact to pursue some good together as a team or as a brotherhood. We make this pact because some goods are easier to pursue together rather than alone. The Angelic Warfare Confraternity is group of people bound to one another in love, and dedicated to pursuing chastity together under the powerful patronage and help and St. Thomas Aquinas and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Confraternity officially began in 1649 when Fr. Francis Deurwerders, O.P. drew up Statutes of the Militia Angelica Divi S. Thomas Aquinatis. In 1727, Pope Benedict XIII approved it as an apostolic Confraternity under the direction of the Dominicans, and endowed the Confraternity with many indulgences to encourage people to join. St. Aloysius Gonzaga, Blessed Colomba, Blessed Stephana, and Blessed Pier Georgio Frassati belonged to the Confraternity, and testified to experiencing many graces of purity and chastity from it. In 1923, Pope Pius XI wrote Studiorem Ducem, his encyclical on Thomas Aquinas. Realizing how the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas was urgently necessary for the Church, Pius XI declared St. Thomas as patron of all Catholic schools, colleges, and universities. The Pope also strongly urged membership in the Angelic Warfare Confraternity as a special help in the battle for chastity and purity. Pius XI wrote: “If St. Thomas had not been victorious when his chastity was in peril, it is very probable that the Church would never have had her Angelic Doctor.”
The Confraternity Today
When the Confraternity was first founded, the Church established an official blessing of the cord of St. Thomas and those who wear it. Later, Pius XI decreed that members may instead wear a blessed medal if they wish. This official blessing, or sacramental, is still available to all the faithful. It is a unique sacramental in the Church because it is, in effect, a blessing of one’s human sexuality. The Church entrusted this sacramental to the Dominican Order, and to this day only Dominican priests, or priests with authorization from the Director of the Confraternity, can give this blessing. By receiving the blessing and having one’s name inscribed in the Register, one is perpetually enrolled in the Angelic Warfare Confraternity. Many people who enroll in the Confraternity today testify to experiencing powerful deliverance from sexual temptation, greater strength in the battle to live and grow in chastity, holy renewal of marriages, and healing of wounds from past sexual sin.
Members receive these supernatural gifts for several reasons. As members, they officially have St. Thomas as their personal patron in matters of chastity, they are endowed with a share in St. Thomas’ own special grace of chastity, and they draw upon the merits of the entire Dominican Order down through history. Furthermore, members pray daily for one another to grow in purity and chastity. Such graces are given to all who enroll, but they are not received fully or fruitfully without the intention and effort of each individual to cooperate with these graces. For this reason, the Confraternity regularly issues publications that help members to live out the graces of purity and chastity. Gradually, one learns how to cooperate with these graces unto true chastity, true freedom, and true happiness. There are no magic wands that make all of one’s problems go away. There are no magic wands that make all of one’s problems go away, but there is hope in Christ Jesus for those willing to go to the Cross with him.