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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.