No matter how many years have passed, the first warm breezes of June make me feel like a student at the close of the school year. How well I remember our final bell, the teary hugs goodbye, and a breathless run straight home past the train trestle — knowing my mother would be waiting, every bit as elated as I was. One June in particular stands apart as I recall the moment when St. Thomas Aquinas, “Angelic Doctor of the Church,” helped me when I least deserved it.
Ever since the long-forgotten beginning of the term back in September, Father Higuero — one of our parish priests — had been coming now and then as a special catechist for the sixth-grade class. Father was a devout man who spoke in a rich Spanish accent, making him all the more awe-inspiring. He did not grade or test but gave only one simple assignment: Prepare an oral report on the life of a saint and be ready to speak in front of the class whenever called upon. We students knew it would take the entire school year for each one of us to have a turn.
Now if I had been given a girl saint or perhaps a martyr, this would have been right up my alley, but instead of St. Bernadette, Joan of Arc, or valiant St. Laurence, there fell to my lot St. Thomas Aquinas — priest, philosopher, theologian, doctor of the Church. To say that he did not capture my imagination would be putting it mildly.
By the time Father Higuero returned for our next session, I had forgotten about St. Thomas — and the assignment itself for that matter. When Father began scanning the rows of children to choose the first week’s speakers, I ducked my head behind the girl in front of me, praying, “Dear St. Thomas Aquinas, please do not let him call on me.” To my great relief, two other children were chosen, and I resolved to be prepared the next time. Week after week this went on, with me always forgetting and my prayers to St. Thomas growing ever more fervent.
One warm morning, Sister Kathy announced, “Father Higuero is coming for the last time today and will arrive in a few minutes. In the meanwhile, please read these magazines quietly to yourselves.” My heart sank to hear her words, for of course this meant there would be no more postponing the inevitable. Miserable, I said one last prayer, “Dear St. Thomas, I know I should have learned about your life and didn’t, but won’t you please help me?” The girl in front of me passed back the stack of religious magazines Sister had mentioned. Imagine my delight and wonder when I caught sight of the headline on the back cover, “The Life of St. Thomas Aquinas.” “Thank you, St. Thomas, thank you!” I whispered so low that none but the saint himself could hear and began reading with the greatest interest imaginable.
Half an hour later, Father Higuero nodded approvingly upon hearing a young girl’s enthusiastic account of the life of St. Thomas Aquinas. Although Father never would learn the truth about what a spur-of-the-moment effort it had been, my guess is that he would have been forgiving and perhaps even a bit pleased. After all, thanks to his priestly guidance and teaching, I had managed to learn something about the life of a great saint. Far more important than that, I came to believe for the rest of my life that St. Thomas Aquinas was my friend. Now my prayer is that my own children will learn to love the saints, turning to them with confidence in times of need.
Not long ago, my oldest two daughters and I attended the monthly Holy Hour for Vocations at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington. During Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, we knelt as the congregation began the traditional hymn. I fumbled by candlelight for the Latin words in the missal, but my daughters sang from memory, their voices raised in simple devotion: “Tantum ergo Sacramentum, Veneremur cernui” — the words of St. Thomas Aquinas’s most famous hymn. At that moment, I remembered and repeated the prayer uttered in joy and relief so very long ago:
“Thank you, St. Thomas, thank you!”
There are many ways for parents to remind our children that the saints are our friends:
1. Bless yourself as you pass Catholic churches, adding an invocation to the parish’s patron (“St. Paul, pray for us.”)
2. Celebrate your child’s name saint or patron’s feast day with a cake or other treat.
3. Share family stories about the saints. (As a little girl, my mother loved to tell how St. Joseph once interceded for her in an important cause.)
4. Visit the “Avenue of the Saints” at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Island in Manorville.
[Previously published in The Long Island Catholic]
2010 Alice Gunther