I am always struck by the beauty of this altar in the Basilica of St. Augustine here in Rome. Today I learned a bit more about the saint who is depicted on it – St. Thomas of Villanova.
The focal point of the entire altar is the striking figure of the bishop in the center who, with great tenderness, distributes alms to a poor woman holding an infant. The bishop is St. Thomas of Villanova (1488-1555), who had been an Augustinian Friar and was later named Archbishop of Valencia in Spain. He was known as the “Father of the Poor”.
Thomas became a father of the poor in part because of what he witnessed as a child – he came from a family that truly lived out their call to be a “domestic church”. Even though his family was “in the money”, his parents continually set an example for him of helping the poor people in their town. It is said that as a priest, and later, a bishop, he always wore the same habit that he had received when he first entered religious life – which he would mend himself – and that he sold his own straw mattress so that he could give the money to the poor. Countless people came to his door every day and he helped them; he did not, however, believe in a “welfare model”, but rather sought to help the needy to be freed from that which held them in poverty, so to be able to provide for themselves.
During his studies he struggled with absentmindedness and difficulty in remembering what he learned. He persevered, and would go on to become a priest noted for his preaching. Later, as a provincial in the Augustinian Order, he sent the first Augustinian friars from Spain to the New World – to Mexico – to carry on the work of evangelization there. As bishop he visited his entire diocese to determine the needs of its people. He established a special college for converts from Islam. He set up another of other schools and at least one seminary.
St. Thomas of Villanova’s last words were, “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit!”