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Albert, Bishop and Doctor, a truly 'Great' saint

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By Kimberly Bruce

Not many saints in the Catholic Church have "the Great" added to their name. While it's not an official title awarded by the Church, the honorific is popularly bestowed, an acknowledgment by the faithful of the saint's outsized influence upon the Church and in the world. Many will remember, for example, the call to refer to St. John Paul II as "St. John Paul the Great."

One who certainly deserves the title is St. Albert the Great, bishop and Doctor of the Church (feast day: Nov. 15), recognized for his genius in the sciences, philosophy, and theology.

Born in Bavaria in southern Germany around the year 1200 A.D., Albert joined the Dominican order as a friar in 1223 and later became provincial in 1254. He taught at several places, but famously began teaching at the University of Paris in 1241 to a particularly bright group of theologians. His most prominent student was Thomas Aquinas — another future saint and Doctor of the Church from whom we received the great Summa Theologica (a thorough compendium of theology). Albert recognized Thomas' brilliant intellect and foretold his future greatness as a theologian.

Albert was appointed bishop in 1260. In 1274, he was called by Pope Gregory X to attend the Second Council of Lyons, the 14th ecumenical council of the Church. He was an active participant in the council's sessions, seen as a valued mediator amongst factions. This Church council, incidentally, was the first to define the doctrine of Purgatory.

Possessed of a vast knowledge of chemistry, physics, botany, zoology, geography, astronomy, mineralogy, and logic, Albert was called the "teacher of everything there is to know." Hailed in his lifetime as "Albertus Magnus," "Doctor Universalis," and "Doctor Expertus," he was sought out by kings, popes, bishops, and other prominent figures for his unsurpassed expertise. Albert has since earned for himself the designation of patron saint of scientists, philosophers, and students.

Albert was a big believer that science and faith go hand in hand, and recognized the involvement of the Creator (God) in everything — from the smallest of things to the greatest. In his day, math, physics, philosophy, and the like were not studied separately as they are today. Such sciences were considered together so as to have as complete an understanding of things as possible. "The aim of natural science is not simply to accept the statements [narrata] of others," said Albert, "but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature" (De Miner., lib. II, tr. ii, i).

He also declared, "In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power: we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass" (De Coelo et Mundo, I, tr. iv, x). He also studied Plato and Aristotle and diligently worked to purify the latter's works from theological error.

Albert composed an encyclopedia of sorts containing information on nearly every subject in his day. The complete set of St. Albert's writings has been published in two editions. Albert's own theological writings were the reason Thomas decided to compose his Summa Theologica. Thomas wished to expound upon the things Albert had written to have a more concise and clearer defense of Christian doctrine. Albert, to his credit, comprised a work on the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mariale, in praise of her — something even his illustrious successor, St. Thomas, did not do.

Saint Albert took the death of Thomas Aquinas in 1274 very hard, saying of his cherished pupil that "The Light of the Church" had been extinguished. He so respected Thomas' works that, even as an old man living in Cologne, Germany, Albert took up the challenge of defending Aquinas' teachings in Paris after Thomas' death when they were questioned.

Six years later, "Albertus Magnus" died on Nov. 15, 1280. His relics are held in the Dominican Church of St. Andreas in Cologne, Germany. He was beatified in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV and ultimately canonized a saint and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1931.

From Albert the Great we learn the importance of being relentless in our pursuit of the truth and our holy obligation to share that truth with others. We are reminded that the Church is not opposed to the study of nature, and that faith and science go hand in hand. We also learn from this great soul the values of humility, obedience, and of being a peacemaker.

Truly, St. Albert deserves to be called "the Great." Saint Albert the Great, pray for us!


Photo credit: Detail of stained-glass window from St. Dominic's Church in Washington, D.C. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

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