The Aquinas Public Lecture 2019


On Thursday, 14 March, the Għaqda Studenti tat-Teoloġija organized the annual Aquinas Public Lecture. This year’s lecture, was delivered at the Old Refectory Hall, at the Archbishop’s Curia in Floriana, by Rev. Prof. Joseph Carola SJ, and had as its title: Making Patristics Pertinent: Theological Echoes and Anticipations from John Henry Newman’s 1833 Mediterranean Tour. This theological event kicked off at 19.00.

The programme for this year’s Aquinas Evening Lecture was quite interesting. At 19.00 sharp, the talented harpist Jacob Portelli executed two great musical harp pieces. One of them, named La Source, was composed by the German composer and harp virtuoso, Albert Zabel. Born on February 22 1834 in Berlin, Zabel was a soloist at the Berlin Opera from 1848 to 1851. In 1855 he was appointed as a solo harpist to the Imperial Ballet in Saint Petersburg. When The Conservatory was founded in 1862, he took up his Duties as a Professor of Harp. In 1879 he received the Title of full Professor whilst in 1904 he received the Honorary Title as “Honorary Professor.” Zabel died on February 16 1910 in Saint Petersburg. The second harp soloist piece, played by Jacob Portelli, was Die Moldau, taken from the repertoir of the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. Born on 2 March 1824 and died on May 12 1884, Smetnana pioneered the development of a musical style that became closely identified with his country’s aspirations to independent statehood.

After a brief message by the current President of the Theology Student’s Association Rev. Prof. Joseph Carola SJ took the podium to the deliver his lecture. Prof. Joseph Carola, SJ was born in Houston, Texas, in 1962. Having entered the New Orleans Province of the Society of Jesus in 1980, he was ordained priest in 1993. He studied philosophy and modern foreign languages at Saint Louis University as well as theology at the Weston School of Theology and the Pontifical Gregorian University. In 2001 he obtained his doctorate in theology and patristic sciences from the Patristic Institute Augustinianum in Rome. He is the author of Augustine of Hippo: The Role of the Laity in Ecclesial Reconciliation (2005). He has also contributed to the Augustinus-Lexikon (2008) and published in Augustinian Studies, Gregorianum, and Faith. Since 2002 he has been a professor of patristic theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

As a keen learner I was impelled to jot down some key points which I felt Rev. Dr Carola SJ was duly accentuating during his interesting lecture. The first thing that stuck me was Fr Carola’s emphasis on how travelling changed the brilliant erudite mind of Blessed John Henry Newman. His Mediterranean tour enfleshed his notional knowledge into an experiential one. In some of the places where he stopped Newman was shocked either by the superstition or the grandiosity of the venues. The comments he made about Malta are worth recalling. On the one hand he described Malta as “a strange place” and as “the most dangerous place”. On the other hand, he had also some interesting comments to make on us Maltese, especially when he said that we are “very industrious race”.

Concering Valletta, Newman depicted it as “a very fine place” and our St. John’s Cathedral as the “most magnificent”. Even if he couldn’t interiorise its grandiosity, and thus concluded that “it is the perversion of the best”. However entering our cathedral was essential for his gradual transition from Anglicanism to Catholicsm. For Newman St. John’s Cathedral was the first Catholic Church he set foot in.

Furthermore, the apostolic impact our Island left on Newman can be detected in a poem entitled St Paul at Melita, which he wrote on February 9, 1833. In it Newman speaks about St. Paul’s arrival on our shores.

“And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat”.
Secure in his prophetic strength,
The water peril o’er,
The many-gifted man at length
Stepp’d on the promised shore.
He trod the shore; but not to rest
Nor wait till Angels came;
Lo! Humblest pains the Saint attest,
The firebrands and the flame.
But, when he felt the viper’s smart,
Then instant aid was given;
Christian! Hence learn to do thy part,
And leave the rest to Heaven.

During his sojourn in Malta Newman was touched by a Maltese believer who was praying. His simple faith made him realize more how, amid the elements that creeped in Christianity thoughout the ages, the apostolic tradition was visible in this man. This lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, as bore witness by this Maltese man, made Newman appreciate more what St. Hilary of Poitiers wrote: “Sanctiores aures plebis quam corda sacerdotum”—”the ears of the faithful are holier than the hearts of the priests” (Contra Arianos, vel Auxentium, n. 6, in PL, 10, col. 613). Yes! Through fidelity to Tradition, the Holy Spirit still speaks to the ears of the faithful.

These little snippets that the Holy Spirit helped me get through this lecture made me understand that to make patristics pertinent for today’s culture I need to read the works of the Fathers, visit their places and, most of all, keep being faithful to the Catholic Tradition. After decades of reading deeply the Fathers Newman concluded in his book An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: “Of all existing systems, the present communion of Rome is the nearest approximation in fact to the Church of the Fathers . . . Did St. Athanasius or St. Ambrose come suddenly to life, it cannot be doubted what communion he would take to be his own.”