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.
The 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 friar.
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 to bequeath.
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.