A child was born in 1486 in Fuenllana in the province of Toledo, Spain,
at a time marked by great changes and fresh challenges when Spain was at
the brink of her Golden Age.
Golden Age of Spain dawned late in the fifteenth century. It was a time
of growth into prominence and power. Under the leadership of the “Catholic
Kings,” Ferdinand and Isabella, the Reconquista—the defeat and
expulsion from Spain of the Moors—became a reality in 1492. That same
year, Christopher Columbus, sailing under the Spanish flag, opened the doors
to the New World. A new age of discovery had begun, and Spain benefited
greatly. Through her new lands and subjects and her military prowess, Spain
firmly established itself as a world power. Charles V became king of Spain
in 1516, and under his rule Spain continued to prosper. The new sources
of trade gave her great riches, and the gold that poured into the country
literally made it a Golden Age. For the next century, Spain would be both
blessed and cursed; hers was one of the richest, most extensive, and most
powerful empires in the world.
Wealth and new found energy combined to produce an outburst of cultural
activities. Writers, dramatists, and artists flourished. El Greco, for example,
captured in his paintings the flamboyant intensity of mysticism. Spain was
riding high, and this comes through in the literature of the time: the chivalric
romances that were so popular in the sixteenth century reflected Spain’s
feeling of bold, boundless confidence.
The high spirit and materialism of the times pervaded the Church, despite
the attempts of the Catholic kings and Charles V to foster a universal Christian
spirit. Many of the higher positions of the Church were obtained through
power rather than through holiness; the men who occupied these positions
were used to luxury and did little to enhance religion. More respect was
given to the king than to the pope. And the Holy Office, better known as
the Inquisition, was in full swing. Still, despite the ambivalent state
of the Church, or perhaps because of it, a number of holy men and women
appeared such as Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Teresa of Jesus of Avila,
and Saint John of the Cross.
It was into this world and at this time (1486) that Thomas García
Martínez was born. Thomas’ family came from the city of Villanueva
de los Infantes, from which, according to the custom of his time, he later
derived his surname Thomas of Villanova. He was only sixteen years of age
when he enrolled at the University of Alcalá. The brilliant Thomas
obtained his degree in theology in an exceptionally short period of time
and was immediately invited to become part of the teaching faculty of his
alma mater. Eventually, his reputation for intellectual prowess spread across
Spain to the halls of the renowned University of Salamanca, whose chancellor
offered Thomas a professorship in 1516. To everyone’s surprise, Thomas
declined the offer, announcing instead his intention to become an Augustinian
Thomas was in his late twenties when he decided to follow his call to
the religious life and the priesthood. He did not document, as Augustine
did, just how God had touched his soul. Perhaps his decision stemmed from
his work; lecturing for over a decade on philosophy and theology had no
doubt impressed upon him the richness and depth of the spiritual world.
In any case, despite the many material attractions and career advantages
available to him in sixteenth century Spain, Thomas readily surrendered
all that he was and all that he had to God. He took the vows of poverty,
chastity, and obedience on 25 November 1517. The following year, at the
age of thirty-two, he was ordained to the priesthood.
Thomas was a man of the mind who was used to operating by reason, one
who was comfortable with the power of his intellect. He was also gifted
in the governance of men. His fellow Augustinians, recognizing both his
gifts and his holiness of life, soon chose him to be local superior or prior,
and, later, regional superior or provincial. His usual work he did well,
keeping careful watch over the spiritual and material affairs of the Augustinians
in Spain. But he was also an innovator: concerned about the spiritual state
of the people in the far reaches of the Spanish empire, he promoted the
organization of a missionary group of Augustinian friars to minister to
the people in the New World.
This farseeing, practical man was also deeply spiritual. He continually
sought to follow the example that Christ had set for the world. He therefore
lived frugally, eating little and giving away the personal fortune that
he inherited from his parents. He made himself available at all times to
all people, and spent hours in meditation despite his many responsibilities.
Understandably, he was disturbed when the King of Spain and Holy Roman
Emperor, Charles V, asked him to become the bishop of Gra-nada. Because
he wanted to maintain his simple life, devoted entirely to God and free
from matters of money and power, Thomas declined the honor. Regretfully,
the king accepted his refusal.
Several years later, however, the king again offered Thomas an episcopal
see, this time that of the wealthy archdiocese of Valencia. Again Thomas
refused. But the king pressured Thomas’ religious superior to force
him to accept the position. In accordance with his vow of obedience, Thomas
reluctantly accepted. On 1 January 1545, at the age of fifty-nine, he became
archbishop of Valencia. Although he now wore a bishop’s ring and carried
a jeweled cross he still remained at heart a friar whose way of life centered
around the three vows.
In that era throughout all of Europe, many bishops and other prelates
were accustomed to luxury—a sign of the times. Some were known to
engage in dueling, and an astonishing number attended masquerade balls.
These misguided men were more concerned with royal prerogatives than with
the needs of their people. Not so with Thomas. He sought to give all of
his people—especially the young ones—a chance to create for
themselves the opportunity for self-advancement. Therefore, he first visited
each of his parishes to see for himself what the needs of his people were.
Then he used the income of his affluent archdiocese to set up social programs
on behalf of the poor and the rejected. He established boarding schools
and high schools. For young girls he provided dowries, enabling them to
be married in dignity. For the hungry, he turned his bishop’s palace
into a kind of soup kitchen. For the homeless he provided a place to sleep,
offering them the shelter of his own home. It is thus for good reason that
the common folk called him the Beggar Bishop and Father of the Poor.
In 1545, the year that Thomas was appointed archbishop, he was summoned
as were all the bishops at the time to attend the council scheduled to meet
at Trent, in Italy. This was the council which would reform the Church and
renew its sense of the spiritual. Thomas was not able to be present because
the needs of his newly acquired diocese, which had been without a shepherd
for many years, were urgent. Six years later, he was again asked to be present
at the council; again he was unable to attend, for now he was too ill. In
fact, he was so ill that he had already asked the king to allow him to resign
from his responsibilities as archbishop. The king denied his request. God,
however, revealed to Thomas during prayer that he would not have to worry
much longer about earthly matters, for his life was soon to come to an end.
On 28 August 1555, the holy feast of Saint Augustine, Thomas celebrated
Mass for the last time. Over the next twelve days he gradually grew weaker.
As he was nearing death, he distributed to the needy what few personal belongings
he still possessed; he even gave away the straw mattress on which he slept,
asking only that he be allowed to borrow it until his death. Peacefully,
on 8 September 1555, Thomas died. He left no will, for he had nothing left
Today, centuries later, a score of churches, schools, and universities
bear his name. A congregation of sisters is also named after him. Thomas
is still remembered, still honored not so much for his acute intellect,
nor for his strong administrative skills, nor even for his elaborate and
inspiring sermons about the mystical life and the love of God. Instead,
Thomas is known primarily for his simple sharing. He once said, “One
thing alone I can call my own—the obligation to distribute to my brethren
the possessions with which God has entrusted me.” And Thomas lived
this belief as fully as he could.
The Augustinian Family celebrates his feast on 10 October.