Meet Albert the Great: A Scholar and a Saint to the Greater Glory of God

Saint Albert the Great left the Dominicans and the Universal Church a sublime example of the acquisition of knowledge for the purpose of sanctifying oneself and others.

Newsdesk (27/11/2022 18:24, Gaudium Press) It was the year 1223. In the villages of northern Italy, word of mouth was spreading about the arrival of a friar, famous for his words and works, who was travelling through the region to instruct the people in the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven. Captivated by his reputation for holiness, the crowds flocked to churches to hear him.

Indeed, when he spoke from the pulpit, his admonitions captivated the faithful, leaving them with a deep impression, an irresistible call to embrace the practice of virtue. His name was Jordan of Saxony, Master General of the Order of Preachers and immediate successor of Saint Dominic de Guzman.

When he taught, he seemed like a divine ambassador. On his lips the most intricate doctrinal themes became clear, accessible and luminous, to which was added a remarkable gift of attraction capable of moving his listeners to abandon sin forever.

Those were days of rapid expansion for the Order, which was sending out its roots, and “the fascination of Saint Dominic was transferred to his sons, without losing any intensity and ardor”.

To one of those crowded sermons attended, attentive to the exhortations of the priest, a certain young man from Bavaria. He was in the peninsula to study philosophy and liberal arts at the renowned University of Padua. But until then he had never met anyone with the moral qualities of Blessed Jordan, a German like himself.

On hearing him, he felt awaken within him the desire to join the new spiritual militia of which Jordan was the superior, and to embrace the same charism that animated so many religious already present in various countries of Christendom.

Not long before Our Lady had appeared to him, inviting him to leave the world, and now something indicated that this was the next step to be taken. The name of this Bavarian of just over 20 years of age was Albert, who would go down in history by the nickname of ‘Magnus’ — ‘the Great’.

An unconditional “yes” to the Dominican vocation

Born in Lauingen on a date that the parchments of the time have not been able to record, St. Albert the Great was orphaned as a child and entrusted to the care of an uncle. His parents, gentry of Bollstädt, bequeathed to him the qualities of noble lineage: a magnanimous character, a penetrating intelligence, an open-minded outlook, and the willingness to give himself to a higher ideal. These natural inclinations were to be perfected by grace in Albert’s soul and, in the future, he would place them at the service of the Church.

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Little is known of his childhood and adolescence, but it is certain that he made his religious profession around the age of 26, having already completed his secular studies and about to begin ecclesiastical ones. To do so he had to face the open opposition of his uncle, who refused to accept his admission to a mendicant institute.

The plans of Providence, however, prevailed, for this young man with a robust complexion showed that he was cut out to live the spirituality of the preaching friars: he had an amazing aptitude for philosophical and theological questions and the natural sciences, accustomed as a boy to questioning the whys of creation, as he himself confessed: “I had already advanced in science when, obeying the determination of the Blessed Virgin and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I entered the Order”.

To scrutinize the order of the universe in order to find God there

Having completed his theological studies at the University of Bologna, Saint Albert was sent to Cologne in 1228 to teach his brothers in the habit.

Much was said of his aptitude for teaching, but his students were quick to recognize other qualities of the teacher, above all his magnificent understanding of the order established by God in the universe, attentive to the most varied riches of inanimate and animate beings, in which he sought to discern reflections of the Creator’s perfection.

This inclination led him to delve into various fields of scientific knowledge, spending his spare time in the direct observation of the elements of nature. This quest, driven by a religious inclination, gave rise to several of his written works, including interesting treatises dedicated to meteorology, physics, engineering, architecture, chemistry, geology, anthropology, zoology, botany and astronomy, the latter being an area that delighted him. Already in his lifetime the Saint became known as the Universal Doctor.

Exponent of medieval scholasticism

It was in the doctrinal field, however, that St. Albert the Great achieved the fullness of his vocation as a philosopher and theologian dedicated to study, teaching and preaching.

During the fifty years of his life dedicated to teaching, the Universal Doctor worked in this important area, the heart of academics at the time, giving it a mark of holiness that influenced his successors.

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Docile to the commands of his religious superiors, he would set out on journeys to the major European universities, most of the time to carry out large-scale missions. He spent two years in Paris, teaching in the company of an eminent disciple: Saint Thomas Aquinas.

The success of such a duo could not fail to mark the annals of the Sorbonne, whose facilities were insufficient to contain the public eager to hear them.

Placing Aristotle at the centre of philosophical debate

The years of activity in Cologne and Paris also provided the occasion for Saint Albert to leave us his greatest philosophical legacy: the inclusion of Aristotle’s work in the panorama of Western Catholic thought.

It was precisely in those years that important texts by the Greeks, albeit interpreted by Arab philosophers, came to light and drew the saint’s attention to the valuable contribution of Aristotle. He was surprised to find explanations that had the clarity needed to highlight the harmony of Christian dogma with right human reason.

This marked the flowering of medieval Scholasticism. It was the support that was lacking for men of vigorous religious convictions to erect the cathedral of Christian philosophical thought!

This daring goal had, among others, a happy consequence: it prepared the ground for St. Thomas Aquinas, the prince of the Sacra Doctrina.

Master of the Angelic Doctor

The Chapter of the Order of Preachers in 1245 was held at Cologne, where St. Albert the Great taught. The Master General went there not only for the meeting but also to bring to the convent of that city a novice from Naples: Thomas Aquinas, a young member of the nobility who had joined the Dominican family in those days. Saint Albert the Great was among the first to see the future that awaited him and to glorify God for working his miracles on this chosen soul.

Provincial Superior and Bishop of Regensburg

St Albert’s confreres elected him Provincial of Germany for two terms and Pope Alexander IV appointed him Bishop of Regensburg where disciplinary and doctrinal problems required the presence of a soul of the highest order to remedy them.

Faithful to obedience, he embraced all the duties he was given, using his moral authority to root out error, establish order and make virtue flourish.

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However, after two years at the head of the diocese, he asked the Holy Father to return to conventual life, fearing that he would not completely fulfill his religious vocation otherwise.

Last trial and an edifying death

While he was assisted by the gift of knowledge, St. Albert the Great possessed great humility: “Since by ourselves we are incapable of anything, especially of doing good, and since we can offer to God only that which already belongs to Him, we must always pray as He taught us with His blessed lips and by His own example, aware that we are guilty people, poor, infirm, needy, like children and like those who mistrust themselves. […] Then we may rest and trust in Him until the end”.

At the end of his life, the Saint preferred the isolation of the cloister in order to better prepare himself for his encounter with God.

Two years before his death he lost his memory completely, although he retained all the composure proper to someone advanced in virtue.

On one occasion the nuns of a Dominican convent asked him to tell them something edifying, to which he replied: “When one suffers, one often imagines that one’s life is useless in the eyes of God. But when he is incapable of formulating prayers or carrying out good works, his sufferings and desires bring him face to face with the divinity, much more than a thousand other people who enjoy good health.”

This counsel sheds light on his disposition of mind in the face of death, when all the knowledge accumulated over his 80 years had faded away and his gaze set only on eternity had replaced all his former aspirations.

On November 15th, 1280, Saint Albert the Great expired in the Monastery of Cologne, leaving the Dominicans and the Universal Church a sublime example of the acquisition of knowledge for the purpose of sanctifying oneself and others.  As he had taught, “the strength of the soul must be employed with a view to attaining the perfection of love”. In fact, all human wisdom is subject to charity, the queen of virtues, and this is the only one that saves us and leads us to Heaven!

Text taken, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 167. November 2015. Carmela Werner Ferreira, EP

Compiled by Roberta MacEwan

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