Yesterday, the Church celebrated Saint Thomas Aquinas, our great Dominican philosopher and theologian. That led me to some reminiscences of my travels in Paris and his life in that incomparable city. Thomas Aquinas was born and raised in Italy, between Rome and Naples. He entered our Dominican Order, and very soon his remarkable brilliance was recognized. He spent his entire life teaching and writing. He was in Paris for the first time from 1245 until 1248. It was during that time that the great cathedral of Notre Dame was being built on the island in the Seine which was within walking distance of the Dominican priory on the Left Bank where Saint Thomas lived and taught. The cathedral took about 200 years to build. But there is an exquisite little chapel just about 500 yards away from it called “La Sainte Chapelle,” — the Holy Chapel. That was built in great haste, from 1246 to 1248, by order of King Saint Louis IX, the devout king who had obtained some of the relics of Our Lord’s Passion from the Holy Land, including the Crown of Thorns. The king wanted a very special and suitable shrine for the relics of Our Lord’s sufferings and death, so the Sainte Chapelle was erected next door to the royal palace so that the king and the royal family could pray there frequently and easily.
I’m sure that from time to time, the Dominicans on the Left Bank, or in the Latin Quarter as it was called, would take walks over to the river to watch the progress on both the cathedral and the Holy Chapel. Both those buildings still adorn Paris and the world with their beauty; I always imagine Saint Thomas Aquinas standing in awe, watching the medieval workmen raising those splendid buildings to the glory of God. We know that at least once, Saint Thomas and his superior were invited to the royal palace to have dinner with Saint Louis and probably his wife, Queen Marguerite. Later on, an addition to the royal palace was built which is known to us as the Conciergerie, which means the office of the royal tax-collector. That beautiful but austere Gothic building was used as a prison during the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Queen Marie Antoinette spent some nine months there in a grim cell. On her walks in the prison courtyard, she could see the Holy Chapel next door, but could not visit it. After her miserable months imprisoned there, she was taken to be guillotined, as her husband the King had been, nine months before.
So there is sanctity, history, beauty, and horror all contained in that part of Paris and its buildings. And things produced in those days of the 13th century — the two religious buildings and the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, still enrich the Church and the world. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.