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St. Thomas of Villanova: The Model Bishop

· Religious Saint,Bishop,Spanish Saint

The saints provide us examples of how something can be done. The Church presents to us these holy men and women in part to show us that whatever circumstances and state in life to which we might be called, there are saints who have been able to become saints by living out a similar existence.

For most of us, the men who have received the sacrament of holy orders that we witness are the priests. Of course, the highest form of the sacrament is a bishop. Each of our bishops has been called to this office in order to teach and administer the sacraments. And with such responsibility for the souls of those in his diocese, we can imagine what a challenge it would be to fulfill the duties of bishop, let alone to be a saint.
However, the Church has presented us with a number of holy bishops who did just that. They fulfilled their duties and lived lives of heroic virtue. One of these is St. Thomas of Villanova (1488 - 1555) who has even been given the nickname "Model Bishop." Here is a bit about this holy bishop.

Early Life and an Academic Career

Thomas was the son of Alonso Tomas Garcia, a miller, and Lucia Martinez Castellanos. He family came from the city of Villanova which provided his surname. However, he was born and raised in Fuenllana.
When he was sixteen years of age, he entered the University of Alcala where he received a degree in theology. The faculty were so impressed with Thomas' scholarship in obtaining his degree that upon his graduation, they offered him a teaching position which he accepted. Thus, at the age of twenty-six, he began an academic career.
However, for Thomas, the university faculty role would not last long. While still teaching at Alcala, the University of Salamanaca offered him a professorship. He politely declined and then also proceeded to resign from his teaching position at his alma mater.

The Order of St. Augustine Calls

The young Thomas had discerned a call to the religious life and professed his first vows in the Order of St. Augustine in 1517 at the age of thirty-one. Just over a year later, he was ordained a priest.
Not only was Thomas gifted in the realm of academics, he had great skills in working with others and was already being noted for the holiness of his life. Accordingly, the Augustinians placed him in positions of service to his brothers as the prior of several monasteries and later the provincial heading up the provinces of the Augustinians first in Andalusia and then in Castile.
As provincial for his order in Castile, Thomas sent missionaries to the New World to minister to the needs of the Spanish explorers and settlers as well as the indigenous people.

The Emperor is Determined to make Thomas a Bishop

Today, for the most part, bishops are named solely by the Holy Father. However, throughout history there have been different arrangements for naming bishops. In Thomas' time, the King of Spain who also happened to be the Holy Roman Emperor was able to name men to become bishops of the various dioceses that were within his realm. The choice would then be approved by the pope.
Thus, Charles V asked Thomas to become the bishop of Granada. True to his nature, Thomas declined being very much convinced that he was unworthy of such a position and that someone else better suited should be selected. In addition, he took the role of shepherd of a diocese very seriously and was concerned for the account that he would have to give having been the bishop of all of the people of his diocese.
Two years later, in 1544, Charles V had another diocese that needed a bishop. Given Thomas' earlier refusal, the emperor had no intentions of asking him again. However, when speaking with one of his ministers about the matter, the minister was convinced that the emperor indeed wanted to ask Thomas. And to their surprise when they reviewed the documents that had been drawn up, Thomas name was on it. The emperor seeing this as providential proceeded to ask Thomas about becoming the bishop of Valencia.
Thomas again politely declined. However, this time, the emperor would not be denied, and he wrote a letter to Thomas' superior in the Augustinians about the matter. The superior wrote a letter to Thomas telling him to agree to become bishop under pain of obedience. Naturally, Thomas obeyed his superior and was soon ordained bishop of Valencia.

Not Your Average Bishop

Thomas was not like most bishops. He had no interest in the fanfare associated with becoming a bishop. For instance, after he was ordained bishop, he slipped out of town with only a fellow Augustinian priest and a servant in order to avoid any festivities. The three of them walked the 300 mile trek from the city of his ordination in Valladolid to his new see in Valencia.
He ran his household in a very simple way. When he first arrived in Valencia, he was given 4,000 gold pieces as a gift in order to furnish his residence. Although very appreciative of the gift and the thought for him, he, instead, took the money and donated it to the poor noting that he would not need much in terms of furniture.
The poor were always welcome to come to the bishop's residence for assistance. He daily provided for the needs of hundreds by insuring that they received a meal, a cup of wine, and a coin.
For his own person, he cared very little. Thomas would wear the same habit and vestments having them patched as necessary. For many around him, this was a bit of an embarrassment. Nonetheless, Thomas stuck to his principles that his exercise of the office of bishop was not much dependent upon the state of his patched-up clothes.
Although he would spend as much time in prayer as he could, Thomas had made it clear to others, that they should always interrupt him when his presence was requested. Thomas explained that his time did not belong to him, it belonged to his flock.
As he had expressed before, he took the accountability in his office very seriously. Consequently, Thomas worked very hard to help form his clergy into faithful priests who would served their flocks rather than serve themselves. He also expressed his concern for the many Moors in his diocese who maintained the Muslim faith. This was a source of deep concern for him because he maintained that he would be held responsible for their evangelization although he did not see much in the way of fruitful results.

The Emperor, the Bishop, and a Loan

Through his humility, Thomas was not a respecter of persons and he was keen to do what is just and right according to God. Although his diocese was considered to be wealthy, he always considered the money to be for the poor and not for other uses.
Once when the island of Ibiza off the coast of Valencia was being threatened by the Turks, the people sent a delegation to the emperor for his assistance. The emperor agreed to help by building a citadel for their protection. However, the emperor needed financial help to move the project forward and he did not have any in that region.
The advice was given to the emperor to ask the bishop of Valencia to provide the necessary 20,000 crowns. Thomas responded to the request of the emperor that he had nothing at his disposal because his money was for the poor of his diocese. (The island did not belong to his diocese, as well.) He felt very strongly that the money should not be used in this way.
When Thomas was told that the emperor would be upset about this response, he replied that it would it sadden him to upset the emperor, but he was more concerned about offending God. And then he added, that if the emperor were upset, Thomas still had the key to his monastic cell, and he would prefer to return to the life of monk rather than serve as a bishop.
In his reply, Thomas continued to say that he did feel concern for the safety of the people of the country under threat of attack and that he would willingly shed his own blood in the defense of their country.
Thus, he agreed to provide a loan for half of the amount--10,000 crowns--provided that the full amount would be repaid by the emperor by a certain time period.

During his life, Thomas received 6,000 crowns in return, and, after his death, the remaining 4,000 crowns were returned to the diocese and distributed to the poor according to Thomas' wishes.

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Feast Day: September 8 (Memorial) and October 10 (Memorial - Augustinians)

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