Theology on One's Knees

The four founders of the Aquinas Institute of Ireland – Patricia Mannering, Br. Conor McDonough, O.P., William Newton, and Robert McNamara.

The Aquinas Institute of Ireland inaugural summer school (Knockadoon, Ireland, 25 August to 2 September 2012)

What could possibly inspire a professional journalist, a doctoral student in computer science, a seminarian, an environmentalist, a lawyer, and a housewife to spend ten days together in a small fishing village on the southern coast of Ireland?

The answer is: a thirteenth century monk and scholar by the name of St. Thomas Aquinas. Along with more than thirty other students – that included monks, nuns, other seminarians and lay persons from all walks of life – this diverse group of adults spent ten days in August 2012 meticulously studying the first thirteen questions of the Summa Theologiae at the inaugural summer school of the Aquinas Institute of Ireland.

The Institute was formed in 2012 by a professor of the International Theological Institute - ITI (William Newton, MMF ‘05) and two graduates of the ITI (Robert McNamara, MMF ‘09 and Patricia Mannering, STL ‘12) along with a Dominican brother from Ireland (Conor McDonough). It was founded in order to promote the study of St. Thomas in Ireland among those who, until now, have had little opportunity to engage with the profound and ever fruitful thought of the Universal Doctor of the Church.

In conformity with the pedagogical ethos of the Institute, the format of the school was designed to put the participants in direct contact with the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas. It required every student to read each of the first thirteen questions of the Summa and then enter into a detailed discussion of the texts in small seminar groups guided by experienced professors from Queens University, Belfast, the International Theological Institute, Austria, and the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, as well as from within the Irish Dominican Order.

Participants discussed the first thirteen questions of the Summa Theologiae.

Despite the rigorous academic character of the week, the over-riding goal was to facilitate a deepening of faith. To this end, significant amounts of time were given over to communal prayer (Matins, Vespers, and Compline) as well as to daily Mass and to extended periods of Eucharistic adoration. In a word, the idea was to do “theology on our knees.”

Undoubtedly, the setting for the school added to the overwhelmingly positive experience of the participants. Knockadoon camp – a long established retreat centre owned by the Dominicans – is located at the end of a long country road opening out onto the expansive and breathtakingly beautiful Youghal Bay. Moreover, and not to be taken for granted in that part of the world, the sun shone!

The choice of studying the first thirteen questions of the Summa was a considered one: it fulfilled two important goals. Firstly, in these questions, St. Thomas marshals many of his most important ideas and principles. This gave participants – both those experienced in the philosophy of St. Thomas and those coming to it for the first time – the possibility of discussing and assimilating the key features to the great Master’s thought. Secondly, in these questions, the Angelic Doctor teaches us what can be known about the existence of God and His attributes by the unaided power of human reason. This makes these initial questions of the Summa required reading for anyone interested in engaging an increasingly secular and even militantly atheistic culture; a problem from which modern Ireland is no longer immune.

This then points to the continued importance of directly studying and grappling with the thought of St. Thomas. It sharpens the mind and quickens the heart in such a way that those who undertake this (sometimes) difficult venture with enthusiasm are, with the help of St. Thomas, drawn closer to The Truth and thereby more able to pass Him onto to the people of our age.

As Pope John XXII said of the Genius from Aquino: “a man can derive more profit in a year from [reading] his books than from pondering all his life the teaching of others.” We only had ten days, but it was a good a start.

For more information on the next Aquinas Institute of Ireland summer school, see www.aquinasinstitute.ie