Born: 1205 or 1206
Feast: 15 November
I was privileged to be part of a group of pilgrims who attended World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. It was a remarkable experience, primarily because it was the first WYD with the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI who was returning to his homeland for the first time since becoming pope. Before that pilgrimage, I had never in my life visited the burial place of a saint, with the exception of Bl. Brother André in Montréal. However on that trip, it seemed that I discovered the remains of a saint around every corner. One of the most thrilling discoveries for me was the man we honour this month: Albertus Magnus– St. Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church.
After returning home from that pilgrimage, I would continue my studies of philosophy in the seminary. For every Catholic seminarian, his philosophical pursuits are dominated by the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. In fact, I had two, full-year courses exclusively studying one of his works of theology. To my mind, he was the most brilliant man to have ever lived, and if not that, at least the greatest theologian. But theology is not infused knowledge. Surely, to some extent he himself had to learn, so can you imagine what St. Thomas’ professor of theology must have been like? Well, that was the man we rightly call ‘Great’: St. Albert.
Albert was the eldest child born to the Count of Bollstädt in the region which is now modern day Bavaria in southern Germany. His days of primary education were probably conducted entirely at home but in his early adolescence he was sent to study in Padua, Italy. While there, having been exposed to the preaching of the mendicant followers of St. Dominic, Albert joined the Order of Preachers in 1223. He returned to Germany where he taught theology in Freiburg before being sent by the Order to Paris to teach in the Grand University there. It was here that he would meet his brightest pupil, the young Tomaso d’Aquino. Albert was eventually recalled to Germany to resume teaching and the formation of other Dominicans for which he brought along his up and coming understudy. Together, Albert and Thomas would prove an indomitable force in the teaching of theology at the renowned University of Cologne.
It was no surprise, therefore, when Albert was elected as Regional Provincial in 1254 and two years later would travel to Rome to work directly for Pope Alexander IV to help him settle several doctrinal disputes. In 1257, moved by his love of the classroom, Albert resigned his office as superior to resume study and teaching exclusively. This noble desire would be left alone only so long before he was pressed again into ecclesiastical service. In 1260 he was named Bishop of Ratisbon and he governed that diocese faithfully for two years. Again, he attempted to return exclusively to the academic life by resigning his post in Ratisbon in order to take up what he determined was much needed writing. His disputations got him noticed for another time and he was summoned by Pope Gregory X to assist at the Council of Lyons in 1274. It would be a long overdue reunion with his beloved Thomas Aquinas who was supposedly also en route to the council. Sadly, Aquinas would die before ever making it to Lyons.
News of his premature and unexpected passing devastated Albert. It is said that after receiving the fateful word, Albert declared, “The light of the Church has been extinguished.” In fact, it was rare for St. Thomas’ name ever to be mentioned again when it would not incite the heartbroken Albert to tears.
One of Albert’s important legacies was the contribution he made to academia in general. The profound reality of his intellect was that, for him, theology was nothing more than the greatest of all sciences. Therefore, he treated all scientific disciplines with respect as a venerable pursuit of truth by various and specific means. Despite the immensity of his responsibilities in ecclesiastical services ranging from the administration of his order, to representing Pontiffs, to preaching one of the Crusades; within his academic career, he still managed to write a veritable encyclopedia of scientific treatises. This is to say nothing of his indispensable contribution to theology. Although, the single most substantial gift he made in this regard was the teaching and mentorship he gave to the greatest theologian the Church has ever known (and perhaps, will ever know). The biographer of St. Albert the Great for the Catholic Encyclopedia has noted, “He trained and directed a pupil who gave the world a concise, clear, and perfect scientific exposition and defence of Christian Doctrine; under God, therefore, we owe to Albertus Magnus the “Summa Theologica” of St. Thomas.”
Another salient consideration for us to glean from this medieval saint who is relevant to our times is the harmony with which faith and reason coexisted in his mind and heart. Truly, for him, there was never a contradiction between the ends of natural science and the ends of philosophy or theology. Whereas in our post-enlightenment era we are keen on pitting science and religion against each other, St. Albert would have found that laughable. Religion was about the worship of God and science was one demonstration after another of what made Him worshipable. His life’s work as shown through both academic intensity as well as advancement in holiness are the signs of a man of genuine integrity who lived excellence naturally and supernaturally.
For the last two years of his life he suffered the complete deterioration of his mind and his frail constitution gave witness to this after many years of living harsh austerity and self-denial. The towering illuminate of intellectual pursuits would wither into a state of utter helplessness and incompetence. At the peak of his strength, one could suppose that is just the way he would have wanted it; to pass out of this world in the humblest of all imaginable fashions.
Following his death, he was buried in the crypt of a church he partly oversaw to be constructed, Sankt Andreas, in Cologne. He remains entombed there to this day and the following inscription can be read under the stained glass windows which tower over his earthly remains, “This sanctuary was built by Bishop Albert, flower of philosophers and wise men, model of good customs, brilliant and splendorous destroyer of heresies, and scourge of evil men. Place him, O Lord, in the number of Thy Saints.”
In his days, he was called by his contemporaries, Albertus Magnus, Albert the Great. The Church never shied away from attaching this rightful designation to his memory. At the time of his canonization, Pope Pius XI also declared him a doctor of the Church. Indeed, for centuries he had already been known as Doctoris Universalis– Universal Doctor- given the breadth of all which he gave the world and the Church, not the least of which was the example of his sanctity.
Quotes and biographical details found at the following sources: