Weekly General Audience March 24, 2010
During his general audience on March 24, Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on the Christian culture of the Middle Ages. He spoke about St. Albert the Great, a great thinker whose interests ranged from the natural sciences to philosophy and theology.
Dear brothers and sisters,
One of the greatest teachers of medieval theology was St. Albert the Great. The title of “great,” with which he has gone down in history, is an indication of the depth and the vast extent of his teachings, which he combined with a life of holiness.
Even his contemporaries did not hesitate to lavish praise on him. One of his disciples, Ulrich of Strasbourg, called him “the wonder and the miracle of our time.”
His Early Life
Born in Germany at the beginning of the 13th century, Albert was still very young when he went to live in Padua in Italy, the site of one of the most famous universities of medieval times. He studied the so-called “liberal arts,” including grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music: in other words, culture in general. He showed particular interest in the natural sciences, which soon became his favorite field of specialization.
During his stay in Padua, he regularly attended the church of the Dominican friars, with whom he eventually made his religious vows. Biographical sources lead us to believe that Albert reached his decision through a gradual process.
His intense relationship with God, the Dominican friars’ example of holiness, and listening to the sermons of Blessed Jordan of Saxony (who succeeded St. Dominic as head of the Order of Preachers) were all decisive factors that helped Albert overcome his doubts and the resistance of his family.
God often speaks to us during our youth in order to show us his plan for our lives.
For Albert, as for each of us, personal prayer, nourished by the Lord’s word, frequent reception of the sacraments, and the spiritual guidance of enlightened men are all ways to discover and follow God’s voice.
Albert received his religious habit from Blessed Jordan of Saxony himself. After his ordination to the priesthood, his superiors assigned him to teach in various centers of theological study connected to Dominican priories.
Because of his brilliant intellectual abilities, he was sent to continue his study of theology in Paris — the most famous university of the time. From that moment on, Albert began his prolific work as a writer, an activity that he would pursue for the rest of his life.
His Academic Life
He was given several prestigious assignments. In 1248, he was asked to open a center for theological studies in Cologne, one of the most important cities in Germany, where he resided on many different occasions and which became his adopted city. He brought with him from Paris to Cologne an exceptional student: Thomas Aquinas.
The mere fact that St. Albert was St. Thomas’ teacher is enough to garner our profound admiration. A relationship of mutual esteem and friendship grew up between these two theologians — attitudes that were very helpful for the development of knowledge.
In 1254, Albert was elected provincial of the Provincia Teutoniae — the German province of the Dominican friars, which took in communities spread over a vast area of central and northern Europe. He distinguished himself by zealously exercising this ministry, visiting the communities, and constantly exhorting his brothers to be faithful to St. Dominic’s teachings and example.
His gifts did not go unnoticed. The pope at that time, Pope Alexander IV, asked Albert to spend time with him in Anagni, where the popes often stayed, as well as in Rome and Viterbo, so he could avail himself of his theological advice.
Pope Alexander IV also named him bishop of Regensburg, a large and famous diocese, which was going through some difficulties at the time. Albert carried out this ministry untiringly from 1260 to 1262 and was successful in restoring peace and harmony in the city, reorganizing parishes and monasteries and giving a new impetus to charitable activities.
From 1263 to 1264, Pope Urban IV asked Albert to preach in Germany and in Bohemia. He then returned to Cologne to resume his ministry as a professor, scholar and writer.
Being a man of prayer, knowledge and charity, he was renowned as an authority whenever he intervened in the affairs of the Church and of the society of the time.
Above all, he was a man of reconciliation and peace in Cologne, where the archbishop was engaged in a bitter dispute with the city’s institutions.
He contributed greatly to the Second Council of Lyon, which Pope Gregory X convened in 1274 to promote the unification of the Latin Church and the Greek Church following their separation during the Great East-West Schism of 1054. St. Albert clarified Thomas Aquinas’ thought, which had been the target of many objections and even condemnations that were totally unjustified.
St. Albert the Great died in his cell in the priory of the Holy Cross in Cologne in 1280 and was soon venerated by his fellow brothers for his holiness.
The Church proposed his beatification in 1622, and his canonization took place in 1931, when Pope Pius XI also proclaimed him a doctor of the Church. This was undoubtedly appropriate recognition for this great man of God and illustrious scholar not only of the truths of the faith, but of many other areas of knowledge.
Faith and Science
Indeed, glancing at the titles of his numerous works, we realize that his knowledge was prodigious and that his encyclopedic interests led him to take an interest not only in philosophy and theology, like his contemporaries, but in every discipline known at that time, from physics to chemistry, from astronomy to mineralogy, from botany to zoology.
For this reason, Pope Pius XII designated him as patron saint of researchers in the natural sciences. He is also referred to as doctor universalis because of the vast extent of his interests and knowledge.
Of course, the scientific methods adopted by St. Albert the Great were not the same as those that would be developed centuries later. His method consisted simply of observation and the description and classification of the phenomena that he studied.
Nonetheless, he opened the door in this way for future scientific work.
St. Albert still has much to teach us. Above all, he shows that there is no opposition between faith and science, despite occasional episodes of a lack of understanding that history records. A man of faith and prayer, as St. Albert the Great was, is able to cultivate the study of natural sciences perfectly well and make progress in his knowledge of both the microcosmos and the macrocosmos, discovering the laws governing matter, since it all contributes to nourishing the thirst for God and a love for God.
The Bible speaks to us about creation as the first language through which God — who is the supreme intelligence — reveals something of himself.
The Book of Wisdom, for example, tells us that the phenomena of nature, endowed with grandeur and beauty, are like the work of an artist, through which, by analogy, we are able to come to know the author of creation (see Wisdom 13:5).
Using a classic metaphor from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the natural world can be compared to a book that God has written, which we read on the basis of the different approaches to science (see Address to the Participants of the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Oct. 31, 2008).
Indeed, how many scientists, following the example of Albert the Great, have carried on their studies inspired by wonder and gratitude for a world that — in their eyes as scholars and as believers — appeared and continues to appear as the good work of a wise and loving Creator!
In this way, scientific study is transformed into a hymn of praise. Enrico Medi, a great astrophysicist of our time, whose cause for beatification has been introduced, understood this well. He once wrote: “Oh, you mysterious galaxies. ... I see you, I calculate you, I understand you, I study you and discover you, I penetrate you and I am immersed in you. From you I take light and do science with it. I take motion and make wisdom of it. I take the sparkle of colors and make poetry of it. I take you, the stars, into my hands, and trembling in the oneness of my being, I raise you far above yourselves; and in prayer I lift you up to the Creator, whom only through me, you, the stars, can adore” (“Hymn to Creation”).
St. Albert the Great reminds us that there is a friendship between science and faith, and that scientists can — thanks to their vocation to study nature — venture forth on an authentic and fascinating journey to holiness.
St. Albert’s extraordinary openness of mind is also revealed in one of his successful undertakings, namely the acceptance and recognition of the value of Aristotle’s thought.
During St. Albert’s time, knowledge of the many works of this great Greek philosopher, who lived in the fourth century before Christ, was beginning to spread, especially as regards ethics and metaphysics. His works demonstrated the power of reason and explained with clarity the meaning and the structure of reality, its intelligibility, its value and the goals of human activity.
St. Albert opened the door to the complete acceptance of Aristotle’s philosophy in medieval philosophy and theology, an acceptance that St. Thomas Aquinas later developed in a more definitive way.
This acceptance of what we may call pagan or pre-Christian philosophy was an authentic cultural revolution at that time. Many Christian thinkers had a fear of Aristotle’s philosophy — a non-Christian philosophy — especially as it had been interpreted by his Arabic commentators in such a way as to appear, at least in some points, entirely irreconcilable with Christian faith. Thus, a dilemma arose: Are faith and reason in opposition to each other or not?
Here is one of St. Albert’s great achievements. He studied Aristotle’s works with scientific rigor, convinced that anything that is truly reasonable is compatible with faith as revealed in sacred Scripture.
In other words, St. Albert the Great contributed in this way to the development of an autonomous philosophy, distinct from theology but united with it through the unity of truth. Thus, during the 13th century, a clear distinction arose between these two disciplines — philosophy and theology — which, in mutual dialogue, cooperate in a harmonious way to reveal the true vocation of man, who is thirsting for truth and happiness.
It is above all that theology, which St. Albert describes as “affective science” that reveals to man his calling to experience eternal joy, a joy that flows from full adherence to the truth.
St. Albert the Great was able to communicate these concepts in a simple and easily understood way. A true son of St. Dominic, he preached enthusiastically to God’s people, whom he won over by his words and by the example of his life.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us pray to the Lord, asking him that his holy Church may never lack learned, pious and wise theologians like St. Albert the Great, and that he may help each one of us to accept the “formula for holiness” that St. Albert followed in his own life: “To want everything that I want for the glory of God, just as God wants everything he wants for his glory.”
In other words, we must always conform ourselves to God’s will so that we may desire and do everything always and only for his glory.