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Albert the Great: The Forgotten Saint
By Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D.
His top student, Thomas Aquinas, outshone him. And that would have suited this saintly teacher just fine.

Q U I C K S C A N

Albert Who?
Ahead of His Time
Humble, Confident Teacher
Lessons Learned

 

PHOTO BY GENE PLAISTED, O.S.C.

ALBERT THE GREAT (1206-1280) is surely one of the Catholic Church’s most overshadowed saints. Anyone who has been blessed by great teachers should remember Albert whenever a new school year starts. Regardless of our fields or professions, we are nowhere without our best teachers and mentors, whether they are in a kindergarten classroom or a college lecture hall.

Albertus Magnus gets credit for helping to make Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) so influential a figure that, long before Cher and Bono, he was a one-name wonder: Thomas. But when Albert first met him, he wasn’t the Thomas yet.

What were Albert’s initial thoughts upon meeting his student? There are no records to indicate what they were, but there was something in Thomas that Albert saw, something that made him think: Ah, here is raw material, a keen mind, an industrious worker. I can do something with this one.

It takes heart and savvy—not brains—to find something special in a dumpy, quiet, reticent rich kid who won no popularity contests among his classmates. Albert was a teacher with a heart, not just a mind.

Ironically, in their lifetimes, it was Albert who was called “the Great” before he died, not Thomas. And though the student overshadowed the teacher, Albert outlived his pupil by about six years. Of course, being overshadowed by your student is one of a teacher’s greatest achievements.

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Albert Who?

Albert, a knight’s son, was born in Bavaria in the first decade of the 13th century and entered the Dominicans in 1223 in Padua, where he was studying in college. It was a good match: The new order needed bright young men equally dedicated to education and service just when universities were becoming the scene of intellectual action.

The Latin West was rediscovering Greek learning, especially Aristotle’s work, which had been kept and transmitted through Muslim scholars and Arabic translations. Places like Padua, where Albert began his higher education, and Paris, where he achieved the medieval equivalent of a doctorate, were centers of this East-West meeting of the minds—a renaissance several centuries before Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Albert became a Dominican novice in Cologne and, almost as soon as his own studies began, he was tapped to help his fellow students in other German cities. He must have been a natural student and teacher: His superiors sent him to Paris—the Harvard of Europe at the time—to study theology around 1241. In 1245, he became the first Dominican to earn his master’s degree in theology and immediately started teaching there.

Once again, his superiors saw Albert’s potential and, within a few years, chose him to go back to Cologne to set up a school called a studium generale. By 1254, Albert was provincial of the Dominicans in his home territory, a position he filled for three years before resigning so he could get back to his Cologne classroom.

During that time, he and others rewrote the Dominican course of studies. But his work as provincial had taken him to Rome, where he impressed everyone. In 1260, Pope Alexander IV made Albert bishop of Regensburg—a job he resisted at first but accepted in obedience. He resigned two years later because he didn’t feel right for the job.

Albert was first and foremost a teacher, not an administrator, and spent most of the rest of his life teaching and writing in Cologne. Albert never resisted the Church’s call to service, however. He went on a German preaching tour when another pope asked him to promote the crusades in 1263-64.

Albert also attended the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 and perhaps traveled to Paris in 1277 for a theological dispute that ended up condemning some positions held by, among others, his already-deceased student, Thomas Aquinas. (He defended Thomas.)

By the end of Albert’s long life, it seems clear that failing health caught up with him. When he was about 74, he died and was buried in an impressive tomb that still stands in Cologne.

Pope Gregory XV beatified Albert in 1622, but it took more than three centuries for him to be canonized a saint and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1931. A decade later, Pope Pius XII named him the patron saint of scientists.

Albert wasn’t afraid to engage what some thought of as new ideas bubbling around the universities. It took courage to read, to respect and to engage the ideas of pagans like the ancient Greeks and so-called “infidels” like the Muslims who transported Aristotle from the ancient to the medieval world. Albert showed that courage first; Thomas Aquinas just picked up what his mentor was doing.

It was Albert, not Thomas, who was nicknamed “Boots” because of all the walking he did on his way outside the ivory tower to do what his superiors asked him to do, even if he always left his classroom with great reluctance.

Thomas had his head in a book all the time. It was Albert, looking around as he walked to satisfy his curiosity of the natural world, who said, “The whole world is theology for us, because the heavens proclaim the glory of God.” (And that was 700 years before Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes said the same thing!)

Albert would never have thought about pulling faith and reason apart or placing them in tension. Searching for truth is not a matter of pitting faith against reason or human knowledge versus divine revelation. Albert’s search represented humanity thinking about God and praying to God—and doing so together.

Aside from his intellect, Albert was known for his heart, too: He burst into tears when he found out that his prized student, Thomas, had died.

There’s a passage that I heard once at a vespers service honoring Albert on his feast day (November 15) from the Book of Revelation where we are taught that God dwells in human beings. It was not for nothing that Albert called his students his “companions.”

This challenge of reconciling faith and reason is still with us, and may be harder to live than ever before. Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, put it this way:

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

Poor Albert: John Paul II, in that encyclical, refers to Thomas nearly a dozen times, but to Albert only once. Moreover, there’s a reference to a “great triad” of medieval Doctors: Anselm, Bonaventure and Thomas—but no Albert. And what about teacher and student? Thomas came to Paris to study with Albert and then followed him to Cologne, acting as his teaching assistant. It wasn’t long before Albert made the famous comment about Thomas: “We call him a dumb ox, but the time will come when he will make such a bellowing in his teaching that it will sound in the whole world.”

This tells us about Thomas, to be sure, but what does it tell us about Albert? It tells us that he recognized talent, but there’s something more. Albert was not afraid to praise his own student publicly, and to know then that his student’s reputation would surpass his own. That takes a humble teacher, a confident teacher—a real teacher.

What can Albert teach us today? Let’s draw three lessons. First, we should be open to truth wherever it might be found, regardless of the source.

Deferring to non-Christians if they had particular expertise, Albert once wrote, “In things pertaining to faith and morals, Augustine is more to be believed than the philosophers, if they disagree. But if we’re discussing medicine, I would rather believe Galen, or Hippocrates; and if we’re talking about the natures of things, I would rather believe Aristotle or someone else expert in natural science.”

Indeed, Albert wasn’t afraid to think outside the box—regardless of who held the path to truth. He was interested in philosophy and theology, just like everyone else in his world, but he was equally taken by nearly everything else. This is why Albert is not just a Doctor of the Church, but is known as the Universal Doctor.

Like Aristotle long before him, Albert saw all fields of knowledge interacting with each other. His complete writings, filling nearly 40 volumes, cover most of what the modern world calls natural science: zoology, biology, botany, chemistry, metaphysics, geography, astronomy, logic, rhetoric, math, ethics and politics. Albert was so taken by all of these that legends painted him as something of a medieval Merlin.

Second, and indeed more important, was Albert’s insight that earthly knowledge is not heavenly wisdom. A ton of information falls before a speck of truth. That’s an important lesson in a world with the Internet, but Albert knew that lesson when people still had only quill pens and parchment.

There’s something more than what we see around us right here, right now. For all of Albert’s insights, they were nothing compared to Thomas’s heavenly vision—and both of them knew it.

This brings us to a third lesson: Teachers and students are bound to one another in a sacred trust that goes beyond papers and exams. At the end of each course I teach, I thank my students for teaching me and for letting me be their teacher.

Without students, I am not a teacher. When a teacher selects a student and makes that student a protégé, that student must appreciate and honor that gift—and that teacher can never take the sacred role of mentor for granted. Students and teachers must thank God each day for each other, because each pushes the other forward.

The greatest writer of the Middle Ages probably got Albert right. Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, put Thomas in paradise, surrounded by other famous medieval thinkers. He sat Albert at Thomas’s right hand. This is worth repeating: Albert, the teacher, sat at the right hand of Thomas, his student.

Real teachers know that’s the best compliment: to be surpassed by your students, maybe even to be forgotten, but to know that you played a part for the greater glory of God.

 

Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. His latest books are 101 Questions and Answers on Popes and the Papacy (Paulist Press) and Church History 101 (Liguori Publications). He dedicates this article to his mentors, the Revs. Francis J. Corry and Louis B. Pascoe, S.J.


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