The Patron Saint of Nothing Special, Really

St. Joseph Mary Tomasi was very much in the world, but not of it.

St. Joseph Mary Tomasi
St. Joseph Mary Tomasi (photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

St. Giuseppe Maria Tomasi is one of my favorite saints, and every time I read Alban Butler’s opening paragraph on him, I am reminded why:

“By the canonization of Cardinal Joseph Mary Tomasi, the Church may be said to have set the seal upon the principle that neither profound learning nor the critical spirit of accurate scholarship nor independence of judgement, as long as it is kept in check by regard for dogmatic truth, are inconsistent with the highest sanctity. He has been described as ‘The Prince of Liturgists’ for his work on liturgical texts, and has been honored by Anglicans on that ground as much by Catholics. He also deserves praise for his biblical studies, in particular for his critical edition of The Psalter, a work he published under a pseudonym. Yet amid all his labors he practiced heroic virtue, and was faithful to the minutest observances of a strict religious rule.”

Sometimes we can’t explain sanctity in the all-out, no-doubt, no-question-about-it-way — one need only think of the diminutive Mother Teresa, of recent and happy memory, and how during her lifetime, she was without question, a saint.

Or recall the crowds — literally millions of people who descended on Rome in April 2005 just to walk past the body of St. John Paul II while outside in St. Peter’s Square shouts of “Santo Subito!” (Sainthood now!) were the constant cheer — and ultimately an answered prayer.

And of course there’s always the saints that are so memorable, so loveable, so … saintlike, it’s impossible not to view them as anything other than, well, saints: St. Francis of Assisi, God’s Fool; the towering presence of St. Thomas Aquinas, who gave our Church much of its post-12th-century doctrine and dogma; the indefatigable St. Teresa of Ávila, both mystic and reformer, a glory of the Carmelite order. And whenever we are in a hopeless or impossible situation: St. Jude for the former and St. Rita of Cascia for the latter. And of course if you lose something, go directly to St. Anthony of Padua.

So why St. Joseph Mary Tomasi, one of the gems of the Theatine Order? Why should he stir ardor in us, or better, help us to live a life of sanctity?

First, he was very much in the world, but not of it. We often read of the poor not only in spirit but in terms of cash-money who seem to have an easier time of finding the strait and narrow way through the eye of the needle en route to the Kingdom of Heaven rather than the rich and powerful (which is, of course, exactly what Jesus tells us). 

However, St. Joseph Mary was indeed from a fabulously wealthy Sicilian family. On top of being extremely well-off, his father was both the first Prince of Lampedusa and a Duke of Palermo.

And Joseph Mary was, due to the fact that Sicily was technically part of the Crown of Aragon (Spain), destined to become a member of the royal court. The Grandee of Spain was to be his position, and hence St. Joseph Mary’s early education in the Spanish language.

However rich and powerful the Tomasi family was in earthly terms, it also had a backbone of spirituality. St. Joseph Mary had four sisters, all of whom became nuns at the Benedictine monastery at Palma, which had been founded and endowed by their father. His mother, too, once the children were grown, renounced the world and also took the veil. In fact, in ironic twist, St. Joseph Mary’s own father, too, wanted to relinquish all he had and give it to his son to become a monk, but Joseph Mary convinced him that, of the two of them, the father should stay in the world, and Joseph Mary would join The Theatines.

I’ve written elsewhere on the Theatines, or the Clerks Regular here. It was unique in that many, if not most, of its early recruits were men of means, if not nobility. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Joseph Mary chose it over, say, one of the mendicant orders (Carmelites, Dominicans or Franciscans) or monastic ones (Benedictines, Cistercian, Carthusian). Regardless, it was a good fit for the former grandee-to-be and he excelled at his studies. He mastered most of the languages of the East: Greek, Syriac, Aramaic and of course Hebrew — famously converting to Christianity the rabbi who had taught him Hebrew. 

But lest one think Joseph Mary was some cerebral book-worm or directed his energies solely to study, he was remarkable in that “despite his learning he was so absorbed in the love of God that he often walked about hardly knowing what he was doing,” per Butler’s Lives. He was renowned not only for his theological and liturgical acumen, but his largesse in almsgiving and his loving care to any and all who came to him — not even allowing birds to go hungry, as a sort of echo to Franciscan spirituality.

Though he suffered lifelong ill health, his mortifications were such that he had to be reminded by his superiors to be “humble, not abject.”

And his superiors included Cardinal Albani, who also kept Don Tomasi as his personal confessor. In one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments in the history of the Church, Cardinal Albani was chosen pope in 1700. However he did not want the office and looked to avoid it at all costs. But his confessor, Father Tomasi, told him that he must accept the papacy. Thus, Cardinal Albani became Pope Clement XI — and promptly raised Father Tomasi (a man who had eschewed all noble titles and honors) to a prince of the Church by making him a cardinal. He famously quipped: “What Tomasi did to us, we will do to him!” However, St. Joseph Mary fought off the cardinal’s hat with every canonical and reasonable excuse he could come up with. But he finally acquiesced on May 18, 1712, saying, “Well, it will only be for a few months.” And so it was: St. Joseph Mary Tomasi died on New Year’s Day, 1713. 

He had exhausted himself (quietly) as a reformer, not of “What’s new?” but of “What should we renew?” He gave catechetical lessons to the poor, translated the Psalms, converted those around him, advised at least one pope, and never seemed to make a big production of anything, preferring a quiet, restrained spirituality.

San Giuseppe Maria Tomasi was beatified in 1803 and canonized by St. John Paul II in 1986. In 1996 I was wandering lost in the streets of Rome and stumbled into the church of San Andrea: there were all the relics of San Giuseppe Maria Tomasi. After that visit, I was no longer lost and am grateful to St. Joseph Mary for helping me find my way in Rome. And in life.

a young parishioner prays inside St. Thomas Catholic Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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