Those looking for intimate emotional experiences in contact with spirituality, history and nature (and why not even sharing healthy local cuisine) can participate in many events in Lazio or travel the paths of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Lazio with its proximity to Rome is crossed by a dense network of paths and roads that in the past were traveled by saints during their lifetime. As well as the Via Francigena and the Via Francigena South, the Way of St. Benedict and the Way of St. Francis, now groups of walkers are also following the path of St. Thomas Aquinas which runs throughout Ciociaria.
It is not to be confused with the Way of St. Thomas dedicated to the Apostle Thomas, that is a cultural, naturalistic and spiritual itinerary that starts from Rome to reach Ortona through the heart of Abruzzo.
But let us briefly review the history of the saint who became famous and the towns that keep his memory alive with events, feasts and demonstrations on March 7, the day of his death and which the church dedicates to him.
Life of St Thomas Aquinas
Thomas of the counts of Aquino was born in 1225 in the territory of today’s Roccasecca, precisely in the Castle of Roccasecca, which was then part of the County of Aquino in the Kingdom of Sicily. The castle in which he was born dominates the entire valley and next to it stands the first church dedicated to him.
Thomas was the youngest child; at the age of 5 he was sent to the nearby Abbey of Montecassino to receive religious education. His destiny was to become a politician or a cardinal, or Abbot of that Abbey.
But after the frequent wars between the Pope and the Emperor led to the decline of the Abbey, his family moved him to Naples where he could continue his studies. Here he met the friar preachers of the Dominican order and was deeply impressed by their lifestyle so much that in 1244 he became part of the order and was sent to continue his studies in Paris.
His family did not accept his choice to become part of a mendicant order and his mother sent a courier to his other children, who at that time were fighting in the region of Acquapendente, to intercept their brother. The brothers captured him without trouble and led him on a horse to Monte San Giovanni Campano, where he was held in a family castle for two years while the whole family tried to change his mind.
It is said that his brothers here introduced a young Saracen woman into his room to distract him from his religious vocation. But the Saint chased her away with a burning ember and, according to this story, immediately fell into a deep sleep. During his sleep, the angels appeared to him who encircled him with the cord of chastity and freed him from sexual desire. Finally, the family members, after giving up, left Thomas free to return to the convent in Naples.
His superiors decided to send him to Cologne where he became a pupil of Albertus Magnus.
Mild and silent, obese in constitution, contemplative and devoted, respectful of everyone and loved by everyone, Thomas Aquinas was above all an intellectual. Constantly immersed in studies, he often lost the notion of time and place. The fruits of his reflection were translated into a mass of books that are prodigious.
It is said that during a dispute he was dubbed “mute ox”, but Albert the Great exclaimed: “Yes, he is an ox, but one day the bellowings of his doctrine will be heard all over the world”.
In 1256, after being ordained a priest, he began his academic career and became a professor at the University of Paris. In 1259, because after three years the professor had to give the chair to another member of the order, Thomas returned to Naples. Then he was transferred to Anagni and from there to Orvieto, where he received various assignments from Pope Urban IV who had placed his residence here.
In this period of intense activity he began to write the Summa Theologiae, which would become his most famous work. St. Thomas was called by the pope to recognize the Miracle of the Eucharist in Bolsena, that is, the “certification” of the host as part of the Body of Christ.
In Viterbo you can visit the church of Santa Maria Nuova, one of the oldest in Viterbo that dates back to the eleventh century, where you can see an elegant stone pulpit on the left corner of the church where according to tradition St. Thomas preached in 1267.
In 1268 he was recalled to Paris because it was necessary to appease the differences arisen within the university between the supporters and the opponents of the Averroist (Ibn Rushd) interpretation of Aristotelian thought. According to St. Thomas, who did not agree with either of them, Aristotle was valued in the Catholic sense.
After completing his second period of teaching, he returned to Naples and received the post of regent of studies in the “studium generale” of the Dominicans. In this period he began the Tertia Pars of the Summa Theologiae that he brought to good stage, but did not finish. It is said that the cause of this interruption was something that struck him deeply during the celebration of the Mass of December 6, 1273. While he was in adoration of the crucifix in a chapel of the Basilica of San Domenico, during his conversation with Christ he had a mysterious vision .
In 1274 Thomas, despite his state of health, set off for the Council that Gregory X had summoned to Lyon. After a few days of traveling they arrived at the Castle of Maenza, in the diocese of Terracina, where he became ill and completely lost his appetite. Since his health did not improve, he was transferred to the Abbey of Fossanova, where he died on 7 March.
St. Thomas was canonized in 1323 by Pope John XXII who, to those who pointed out that St. Thomas had not performed great miracles, replied: “How many theological propositions he wrote, many miracles he did”.
St. Thomas Aquinas is the greatest thinker of the Middle Ages and is considered a “Doctor of the Church”.
Let’s now see how the Ciociaria towns celebrate him.
St. Thomas was born in Roccasecca and when you arrive in the town you are greeted by a huge statue of St. Thomas, created by the sculptor Vangi, right at the beginning of Tracciolino, the path that connects with the Comino Valley.
Roccasecca dedicates to the saint a series of seminars between March and April called Thomistic Manifestations that begin March 7, the day the church dedicates to St. Thomas.
In the nine days before March 7, at the mother church of the Annunciation, a mass is followed by a novena in which the main events of the saint’s life are recalled. On the evening of 6 March, the municipal territory lights up with bonfires and near the ruins of the castle of the D’Aquino the torch is lit on the tripod the construction of which was inaugurated in 1972.
The day of the feast, then, begins already at 6.30 am, when in the square of Corso S. Tommaso al Castello the musical band gathers that at the characteristic marching sound walks towards the church of the Annunziata, where at 7 am the first mass is celebrated.
The main activity is at 10 am with the liturgical ceremony accompanied by the songs of the Schola Cantorum, officiated by the bishop of the diocese and often by a cardinal, with many Dominican priests who come from everywhere to keep alive the link between this land and the their monastic order.
At the end of the religious ceremony the procession begins that winds along the narrow streets of Borgo Castello and through the main streets of Roccasecca centre. Along the way, the people on either side of the road and on the balconies throw flowers onto the statue as a sign of homage. The statue at almost regular intervals stops at specific altars set up for the occasion, in order to allow the people who carry it on their shoulders to rest.
The morning procession ends in the church of S. Margherita in Roccasecca centre, where Thomas remains until the evening mass. This is followed by a new solemn nocturnal procession with which the statue is returned to its usual residence in the church of the Annunciation.
The return path winds along the panoramic avenue Paul VI, which climbs around Mount Asprano. This procession is very special because it involves the darkness of the night, people having to carry in their hands a lighted torch which, combined with the oil lamps arranged along the path, create a very emotive scenic effect.
With the arrival in the Collegiate, there are fireworks and the final blessing of the parish priest of the relic of the saint, the festivities of the day are concluded. This evening procession was established in the 1960s to allow people who worked in the morning to participate in religious events and today it has become almost the most important and evocative.
The counts of Aquino were owners of a vast area that also included Aquino, where perhaps Thomas lived his first years. Today in Aquino in the Co-cathedral basilica there is an important relic, the rib from over the Saint’s heart.
On the occasion of the feast of 7 March, Aquino dedicates international study conferences and events of a religious and traditional nature to St. Thomas.
After the Novena in the morning for preparing the feast and the Holy Masses, in the afternoon the solemn procession takes place through the streets of the city. The celebrations for St. Thomas are carried out for several days. On 7 March each year the day is commemorated with a solemn Mass in the Cathedral of St Thomas and San Costanzo officiated by a cardinal, in the presence of thousands of faithful.
Then follows a long procession with the wooden statue of St. Thomas donated in 1880 by Pope Leo XIII, also a great admirer of St. Thomas.
On the previous evening of March 6, a large bonfire is lit in a small square in the medieval village, in front of the House of St. Thomas. Many other bonfires are lit in every corner of Aquino and also in the neighbouring villages, according to a centuries-old custom.
Monte San Giovanni Campano
In Monte San Giovanni Campano you can visit the castle where St. Thomas was imprisoned, which is now part of a accommodation complex of rare beauty.
The town dedicates to St. Thomas, in the days before 7 March, cultural and religious meetings such as Holy Masses and Eucharistic Adoration. On the day of the feast, in the morning, Holy Mass is celebrated in the collegiate church and a guided tour of the city area takes place.
Also in the morning, the Procession is accompanied by the band of the town to the Ducal Castle where in the Chapel of St. Thomas, Mass is celebrated with the Canto dei Vespri. Then the procession ends at the Collegiate with the participation of the Confraternities.
In Anagni, in the Church of St. James in San Paolo, on an altar of the left aisle you can admire the “Cross of St. Thomas”, or Mystic Cross, or Croce Angelica donated by Pope Gregory XVI when he visited Anagni and this church
In his “Journey Report” of 1843, by Vittorio Massimo, we read:
“Famous Cross of St. Thomas Aquinas who lived and had a chair in the adjoining convent, and there with his own hands delineated on the wall in gothic letters the devout words + Crux Mihi Certa Salus, + Crux est quam semper ador, + Crux Domini mecum , + Crux mihi refugium, which starting from the centre where each initial ‘C’ is found, and branching from four sides into five lines, form the mystical Cross, which is called Angelica by its title and whose image has a proven protection against the lightning and storms “
In Maenza you can visit the Baronial Castle of Maenza, renovated in 1986 and now open for free. It is used for cultural initiatives and you can visit its 25 rooms on four floors that host a permanent exhibition of the history of the castle, and the medieval and renaissance customs used by the Association of Good Friday during the various performances.
The castle dates back to 1100-1200 and initially was a watchtower, and the most important changes were made thanks to the gifts of the Counts of Ceccano.
On the third floor of the main building was the main floor where you can visit the room where St. Thomas Aquinas stayed in 1274 and which belonged to his niece, Francesca d’Aquino. The room with a cross vault was entirely frescoed.
From Maenza, St. Thomas was transferred to the Abbey of Fossanova, where he died on 7 March.
Fossanova – Priverno
Fossanova, which is part of the municipality of Priverno, was formed around the splendid Cistercian Gothic abbey of 1100. Today you can visit the abbey together with the medieval village that lights up during events with live music and tasting of local products.
The town celebrates St. Thomas in the days before 7 March with the pilgrimage of the last journey of Thomas from Maenza to Fossanova, the welcome in the village with the polenta of the pilgrims and some theatrical performances of the last journey of St. Thomas.
The skull of St. Thomas Aquinas is located in the co-cathedral of Priverno and on March 6, after Holy Mass, the procession takes place with the relic of the head of the saint and on March 7 there is a traditional fair with the craft market.