When St. Thomas, surnamed Villanova, took possession of his cathedral in 1545, a huge crowd welcomed him. They were cheering the first archbishop to take personal charge of the Valencia archdiocese in 117 years. For the next decade Thomas renewed the Catholic Church in northeastern Spain. While he did not attend the Council of Trent, he urged the Spanish bishops who did to recommend reforming the church as much as opposing Protestantism. And Thomas’s reform program implemented the council’s ideals and decisions.
Thomas had joined the Augustianians in 1516 and immediately rose to leadership. Thomas’s appointment as archbishop did not change his humble friar’s demeanor. The canons complained about his shoddy clothing. They wanted him to dress like an archbishop, but he wouldn’t budge. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I am much obliged to you for the care you take of my person, but really I do not see how my dress as a religious interferes with my dignity as archbishop. You well know that my authority and the duties of my charge are quite independent of my dress, and consist rather in taking care of the souls committed to me.” Later, however, at their urging he traded his old hat for a silk one. He would wave the new hat and say merrily, “Behold my episcopal dignity!”
Thomas received all callers without making them wait. “Never mind whether I am praying or studying,” he told his assistants. “For although it may be unpleasant to be interrupted, still I am not my own. As a bishop I belong to my flock.” Several hundred needy people a day received at his door a meal, a cup of wine, and a coin. Thomas took special care of his priests, many of whom were ill-formed and caught up in sin. On several occasions he brought priests to live with him and gently turned their lives around.
Once a theologian denounced Thomas because he seemed soft on the immorality of both clergy and laity. Thomas responded:
He is a good man, but one of those fervent ones mentioned by St. Paul as having zeal without knowledge. Let him inquire whether Augustine and John Chrysostom used excommunication to stop the drunkenness and blasphemy which were so common among their people. No. For they were too prudent. They did not think it right to exchange a little good for a great evil by inconsiderately using their authority and so exciting the aversion of those whose favor they wanted to gain in order to influence them for good.
After eleven years of such wise governance and generous service, Thomas of Villanova died at Valencia in 1555.
from Voices of the Saints, by Bert Ghezzi
Image credit: Thomas of Vilanueva heals the Sick by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1668. Public Domain via Wikimedia.